I’ve Been Enchanted

The Hotel CatThis 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.

Esther Averill
illus­tra­tion copy­right Esther Averill

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!

Esther AverillAnd 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

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Cathy Ballou Mealey
5 years ago

I enjoyed the Horn Book arti­cle! And now feel com­pelled to re-read at “A Tree Is Nice” to try and dis­cern what she meant re: “a new school of writ­ing for children.”

Marsha Qualey
Marsha Qualey
5 years ago

Thanks for the intro to the books. Just pounced on the only copy of Hotel Cat in my sys­tem (west­ern Wisconsin).

David LaRochelle
5 years ago

I remem­ber sev­er­al of these cat books in my pri­ma­ry grade class­rooms grow­ing up (includ­ing the book with the fire­man cat). It was very fun to see Jen­ny again, with her long red scarf, on the cov­er of the Hotel Cat!