From its charming dustcover to the muted two-page illustration at the end, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a beautiful book that I would love to read with, or to, a child. Charles de Lint and artist Charles Vess form a perfect collaboration here, with a wonderful, magical story for middle readers.
This novel is an expansion of de Lint’s novella, The Circle of Cats. De Lint uses as inspiration many of the Appalachian folk-tales, most prominently the strange old story about the King of the Cats, but stays close to his own roots, yarning about the old magic and new magic that imbues the American continent. Lillian is a little girl, an orphan, who lives with her aunt on a farm at the edge of the Tanglewood. Lillian plays in the woods; she scatters scratch for the wild birds after she’s fed the chickens, leaves saucers of milk for the feral cats and puts out a biscuit at the base of the gnarled old apple tree, for the “apple tree man.” The wild cats in the woods like her for this, and when Lillian is fatally bitten by a snake, they decide to save her, using magic. The Father of Cats has warned them about using magic, but they do it anyway, saving Lillian by transforming her into a kitten.
After the initial shock, Lillian finds that it’s not so bad being a kitten, but when she returns home, Aunt doesn’t recognize her. Aunt’s increasing desperation as she searches for Lillian makes Lillian worry, so she sets out to find a way to undo the spell. This quest introduces her to forest creatures, folk creatures and magic, and she discovers the law of unintended consequences. Lillian has to figure out who she can trust; the fox who tells her his name is “Handsome and Truthful?” Mother Possum, the witch? Aunt Nancy, the shaman of the Creek tribe, or Mother Manan of the Bear People? She must also decide not only to do the right thing, but just what is the right thing in her situation.
De Lint writes beautifully using the simple language of folk ballads and fireside tales, and that simplicity is one strength of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. When resourceful, clever Lillian talks to a crow about her options, we are reminded that, human or feline, she is still a child.
“… Old Mother Possum’s got herself a den down there, under a big dead pine. You can’t miss that tree.”
“Is — is she nice?” Lillian wanted to know.
The crow laughed. “She’s a possum that’s part witch — what do you think?”
Lillian didn’t know what to think, except she wished that mean snake hadn’t bitten her in the first place.”
Vess’s artwork is a seamless complement to the story and the folksy tone. His work is uncluttered, simple-looking at first glance. Then you realize how much he is doing with abstract designs in the reflections of water and the clouds in the sky. A simple illustration on page 222 shows what he can do with line and shadow. Lillian is climbing a tree, and the extension of her leg mirrors the sweep of Handsome and Truthful’s tail, while the stippling on the tree branch brings it out from the vague, shadowy background, and re-creates the dappling of sunlight through foliage. The reddish border repeats Handsome and Truthful’s color, Lillian’s hair and a small pouch she carries; just enough red to accent. If the book has a color scheme, it’s green, and the sheer green-ness alone of the book was a treat. On page 69, the drawing of Mother Possum is another treat, plausibly bringing in an Asian influence. Vess’s artwork is available for purchase.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is clearly a children’s book, but consequences aren’t sugar-coated, and real choices have to be made. De Lint maintains the folk-tale tone of the book. The cover, with its embossed copper-metallic title is just one more tiny joy (and a good argument for reading this in hardcover rather than on an e-reader). Adults will enjoy reading it themselves, but I think reading to someone would be even better. The book opens the door to discussions about folk tales like Johnny Appleseed and the King of the Cats. A bonus for grownups or children is the artists’ notes at the back, where Vess talks about events that inspired the book. I’m a hard grader, but The Cats of Tanglewood Forest gets five stars from me.