In “BIG CAT, little cat,” author/illustrator Elisha Cooper addresses two very emotional and touching subjects: sibling rivalry and the circle of life. The book celebrates companionship but also reflects the reality that all good things must come to an end. Yet the possibility of finding joy in life might very well appear at any time.
At the beginning of the story, there is a cat. He (or she) is never named, just called “big cat.” The new cat, the kitten, the “little cat,” learns about life, love, litter boxes, and leisure from his (or her) new “big brother.” Or sister.
The gender of the cats doesn’t matter. While Cooper manages to brilliantly and concisely describe how cats exist — how they eat, play, snuggle — he is showing so much more about life than just what cats do. He makes a moving statement about sibling rivalry.
The point, whether intentional or not, is that there doesn’t have to be sibling rivalry. While that problem may be a reality, it doesn’t have to be that way. An older sibling can view the arrival of a baby as an important and joyful function of his life, just as the big cat takes it on himself to train the baby and show him new things to learn and do.
Instead of sibling rivalry, we see sibling love. Sibling care instead of sibling rivalry. Sibling showing the new one how to live instead of how to fight.
Cooper also shares a profound observation about the circle of life. When the baby black cat gets bigger than the white older cat, their life together continues for year after happy year of companionship and togetherness. But the day comes when…
“…the older cat got older and one day he had to go… and he didn’t come back.”
The illustrations on the next page tell what happened (and what happens). The next page has no illustration, only the words, “And that was hard.” The opposite page shows the back of the black cat in a grey circle. The next double page illustration, unlike all the other pages, has a grey background. People are shown for the first time, black silhouettes with their heads lowered, looking and holding out their hands to the cat, who is looking at them from the far edge of the opposite page.
So Cooper illustrates that in every life, there must be a period of mourning that’s necessary and entirely healthy, but there must be a time when the mourning is over and life resumes, and that’s healthy, too. On the next page, a new cat arrives. A white kitten. And the circle is complete, with the black cat showing the white cat what to do, how to live, how to play, and how to love.
The book is beautifully thought out with sparse text and simple line illustrations. There is the strong visual impact of a black cat and a white cat — loving each other and being best friends. Is Cooper making a statement here — about black and white? At the start, the white cat shows the black cat what’s important in life, but at the end, the roles are reversed, and it’s the black cat who is the teacher.
The book touchingly illustrates both sadness and happiness, just as in real life, there is sorrow but there is also joy. This is a beautiful choice for any child or classroom.
Cooper said that he has two cats. He grew up around animals and there were always lots of barn cats, goats and dogs. He has been very aware of life cycles from personal experience — even with a kitten that died after only a year.
(Jack Kramer contributed to this review)
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Roaring Book Press, for review purposes.