The Boy Who Drew Cats
Children's book review by P.J. Rooks
Ah, hello -- and welcome to my virtual campfire. May I offer you a marshmallow? Hot cocoa, maybe? Here's a flashlight if you'd like to make some scary faces. No?
Okay, then. Sit right back for a moment and let me share with you with you this spine-tingling spook-fest, care of the Japanese. (Listen closely -- you'll want to remember this one for your next camping trip, too.)
Once upon a time there was a wimpy young boy named Kenji. Kenji was too weak to be of much use. The only thing he could do well was paint. He painted animals, to be precise, and cats were his favorite.
But his mother had too many mouths to feed, so she sadly took Kenji to a monastery where she hoped he could earn his bread as he trained to be an acolyte. There, Kenji spent his days copying scrolls, working in the garden and (oh no!) drawing cats.
Finally, the eldest monk grew weary of Kenji's obsession, accused him of being lazy and sent him away.
An older friend of Kenji's gave him a box of paints as a parting gift and warned him to stay away from large spaces at night. "Stick to small," his friend advised as he bade young Kenji farewell.
Going home was sure to be embarrassing and Kenji was certain that he could do better, so instead of heading back to his mother's house, he went toward another monastery. Strangely, though, the villagers he asked for directions were reluctant to do much more than point and hide their heads. Kenji pressed on.
At last he reached the monastery one late afternoon. High on a hill, its huge wooden door was closed and scrawled upon it were a crude painting of a goblin rat and the words "Avoid large places at night. Keep to sm..." The warning went unfinished.
Kenji shivered and knocked anyway.
When there was no answer, he let himself in. This new monastery seemed abandoned, but he assumed that the monks would return soon. There in the main room were several blank shoji screens. Kenji would paint them to surprise the monks.
What was that noise? Kenji kept hearing it while he painted, but could not place it.
Finally, the sun was beginning to set and the screens were filled with images of strong, sleek cats. Still the monks had not returned. Kenji remembered the warning about staying out of large places at night, so he left the main hall and found a small cabinet where he closed the door and curled up to sleep.
In the middle of the night, a scream ripped through the halls of the abandoned monastery. (In his cabinet, Kenji awoke with a start.) Screeching, crashing, growling, howling, it sounded like the very roof would come down.
Kenji did not look out. He kept to his cabinet as the horrible noises raged on until nearly dawn.
And then there was silence.
When the sun peeked through a crack in Kenji's cabinet, he dared to open the door and come out. What he found there confused and startled him.
The place was trashed, yet a pleasant breeze freshened the previously dank air. As for his cats, well, they were gone. Absent from their places on the screens, they left behind only scraps of torn paper.
Save for one.
One large cat remained and at its feet, the sword of the horrible Goblin Rat.
The villagers raced into the monastery and heralded Kenji as a hero for having slain the dreaded Goblin Rat. He stayed at the monastery then, and spent the rest of his days peacefully drawing his amazing animals.
When we think of Japanese art, horror isn't really the first thing that comes to mind.
Tea ceremonies, sure, haikus, of course, landscape paintings, calligraphy, martial arts -- all this and more, but it seems to me that the Japanese are masters of the horror story too.
Like one of our favorite American urban legends, a story now known as "The Hook," we never really see anything happen, but the suggestion sends shivers right down our backs -- and we love it!
Another cool thing about The Boy Who Drew Cats, speaking of Japanese art, is that because the pages are filled with calligraphy and beautiful paintings in the style of the Japanese landscape artists, the book shares much more Japanese culture with us than just the re-telling of a classic folk tale.
Though it's a horror story, there's an inspiring message that's sure to stick (after all, the story is so ominous that it isn't likely to be quickly forgotten). The message is that you never know where your special talent will take you.
For Kenji, what seemed to be a path to isolation, homelessness and poverty turned out to be the road to heroism and a gratifying life spent enjoying the work he loved. We learn from Kenji that sometimes it is hard to follow your passion, sometimes you may even become an outcast for it, but you must follow it because ultimately, it will save you.
Finally, just a quick note. Amazon.com lists The Boy Who Drew Cats as being suitable for children ages five and up, however, while older kids are sure to love the ghoul factor, this story might be really frightening to someone as young as five.
Older kids and teens may also enjoy Rafe Martin's Mysterious Tales of Japan.
From the webmaster: Please note what a gift P.J. has provided you here. The Boy Who Drew Cats is a great and complete story (for older kids) that can be told verbally.
Great for car rides! Embellish and make it your own. In fact, make storytelling a part of your parenting repertoire!
Read more of P.J.'s children's book reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.