No one does it better than Lloyd Alexander. One of his early children’s chapter books, The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man contains all of his trademark wit, wisdom and warmth, as well as a valuable lesson and plenty of delightful characters.
After giving his cat the gift of speech, the magician Stephanus is now harangued by requests to turn him into a man. Lionel is desperately curious about the world of mankind, despite his master’s low opinion of the folk who live in the nearby town of Brightford — according to him he once built a bridge for the whole townsfolk to share, only for the Mayor to seize control of it and place a toll over it. Stephanus left in disgust after that, and hasn’t returned since.
But Lionel won’t be deterred, and Stephanus grudgingly grants him his wish. Soon enough a tawny-haired, green-eyed young man is setting out from Dunstan Forest, in possession of only a single wishbone that, when broken, will return him to his home once more.
Brighton is full of colourful characters, from the wandering physician Doctor Tudbelly to the spirited inn-keeper Gillian. But there are also villains out to make life difficult for the citizens of Brighton — namely the greedy Mayor Pursewig and the ruffian Master Swaggart, both of whom cross paths with the cat-turned-man and prove themselves eager to take advantage of his naivety.
Lionel experiences a wide range of human traits, from the base (greed, tyranny, corruption) to the pure (love, unselfishness, generosity); facing plenty of dangers and hardships until finally it’s time to return to Stephanus and his true cat body. But does he really want to?
There are plenty of Lloyd Alexander’s characteristic elements here, from Doctor Tudbelly’s unusual speech patterns (he often lapses into faux-Latin, using phrases such as “illusionis wishbonis” or “nosce tempus”), to a bevy of Dickensian-esque names that fit each character perfectly (from Pursewig to Owlbert to Swaggart — everyone acts exactly as their name would imply) to a sacrifice that is highly reminiscent of the fate of Fflewddur Fflam’s harp in THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN. Permeating it all is Alexander’s great love of cats — their curiosity, cleverness and affection, even when in human form.
This is a lovely little story, one that fits neatly alongside old folktales (Puss in Boots springs to mind), though it has a human touch that is all down to Lloyd Alexander’s incredible ability to slip in life-lessons and honest truths without coming across as preachy. I guarantee the final denouement will make you smile, just as the short but sweet lead-up will engage any young reader.