It’s hard not to love My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes. It’s the literary equivalent of that bit in The Twelve Days of Christmas where people get far to excited and dash in from other rooms to sing FIIIIIIIVE GOOOOOOLLLLD RIIIIIINGS. It’s a warm, snuggly blanket of a picture book, familiar and comforting, ready to remind us that in the bustle and transience of life some things are constant.
Written by Eve Sutton and illustrated by Lynley Dodd (probably more famous for her Hairy McLairy series) My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes was first published in New Zealand in 1973. It takes the form of a cumulative rhyme – much like the festive ditty I previously mentioned – which compares the goings on of feline’s from around the world with the reader-narrator’s cat who, as you probably have guessed, likes to hide in boxes.
There is, or course, a universal truth at the centre of the book; cats do like to hide in boxes. Beginning with this recognisable premise, we soon see cats take on a number of human behaviours, growing more outlandish as the book progresses. This sort of frivolity and silliness is great fun for adults and children alike. At the core of the text, though, is a message of love and acceptance.
Cumulative verses often show up in nursery rhymes (like ‘This is the House that Jack Built’) and as word or memory games. Generally, though not always, items are listed, each with a distinguishing feature, and recited in order. A new item is added each time the rhyme is recited until a conclusion is reached. Such is the case with My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes. The words on the page are lyrical and chanting, affording plenty of opportunities for joining in and meaning that the book is ideal for reading aloud to groups.
Unlike some other picture books from decades-gone-by (Flat Stanley, for example), new issues of My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes retain Dodd’s original artwork. A palette of strong primary and secondary block colours make for a bold, graphic set of images which sit opposite small chunks of text in plain white space. The uniform layout and uncluttered pages provide an engaging experience.
Highly stylised yet incredibly simple, the illustrations seem at first glance like they may not offer much information supplementary to the rhyming verse, but this is far from the case. Most blatantly, the book teaches the names of a handful of countries – along with a crude caricature of the national dress – in a format that makes them easily memorable. Less obviously, and perhaps more valuably, the book teaches a lesson in the value of difference and the universal lack of a standardised measure of love.
The final double page spread of the book gathers together each cat along with their character marker – the Japanese cat with its fan, the Norwegian cat with his surprising girth – and reminds us why they are special:
Look at all these clever cats,
Cats from Spain, Brazil and France,
Cats form Greece, Japan and Norway
Cats who sing and fly and dance…
the ellipsis urges us to turn the page, where we find the narrator’s cat curled sleeping up in a box marked TOY BOX.
The implication is clear. No matter what talents we may or may not possess we are all special. From those with extraordinary talents to those who are quietly just like everyone else, we’re all pretty great. That the narrator’s cat is nestled among their toys, their own prized possessions, indicates a deep attachment. This cat may not be able to fly a plane or dance but he is loved. It’s a message most of us would do well to remember.