This is a rare admission from me because it’s about a book whose main characters are animals. I’ve stated before in this column that animal books have never been a favorite of mine, even as a child. Surely there are others of you out there who are too shy to admit the same thing?
In my determination to read older children’s books that I haven’t read before, I’ve just finished a book that has shown me I can adore books about animals: The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill, a Jenny’s Cat Club book. First published in 1969, this is the penultimate book in Averill’s 13-book series that begins with The Cat Club, published in 1944.
I liked this one so well that I’m going to track down all of the other books that come before it and some of Averill’s other books as well.
Her cats are always cats. Even though they speak cat talk, and at least in The Hotel Cat they can talk with a human who understands cat talk, their thoughts and dialogue and actions always seem cat-like.
Tom, the stray who wanders into the Royal Hotel, an older but genteel 300-room hotel in Greenwich Village, is welcomed by Fred, the janitor, and given a place to stay. Tom eventually explores the hotel, staying out of sight of the humans, until kind and thoughtful Mrs. Wilkins, a long-term resident of the hotel, discovers him in the ballroom. The two become tender-hearted friends because Mrs. Wilkins is that character who understands cat talk. She meets Tom late each night for a conversation, always remembering to bring Tom a treat.
It’s the winter of the Big Freeze, and neighboring residents are moving to the hotel with their cats because their boilers are bursting. Tom is very protective of his hotel until Mrs. Wilkins encourages him to be friendly, an accommodating and compassionate host. Three of the new hotel guests are Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers.
It’s a book about making friends and sharing and learning how to talk in a kind and thoughtful way. Tom worries about losing his new friends when all the boilers are fixed. He learns about the Cat Club and tries hard not to feel left out. These are all feelings every child knows well.
Because Averill’s writing is so spare, with words appropriately evocative, this book (and presumably the others) would make a great read-aloud for classrooms and families. What fun it is to read the cat talk out loud!
And now that I’ve fallen in love with her writing, I had to know more about the author and illustrator. I’ll keep looking for more information about Esther Averill but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve found.
She graduated from Vassar College, wrote for Women’s Wear Daily, then moved to Paris. There, she founded Domino Press to publish children’s books with European illustrators. She paid as much attention to book design and production as she did to content and illustration — the books were topnotch. When Nazis threatened to overtake Paris, Averill returned to the United States and once again published books through Domino Press. She went to work at the New York Public Library and then began writing and illustrating her own books. Don’t you want to invite her to lunch?
Here’s an article that Ms. Averill wrote for The Horn Book in 1957. If you wonder about the distinction between picture books, illustrated books, and picture storybooks, this article will enlighten you. In it, she critically reviewed the Caldecott winners from 1938 to 1957.
I enjoyed this article by Anita Silvey about Jenny and the Cat Club for Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac.
You can research Esther Averill’s work, including The Hotel Cat, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and at the DeGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The Hotel Cat
written and illustrated by Esther Averill
The New York Review of Books, 2005
originally published in 1969