Having languished somewhere in her publisher's offices, the manuscript of Dayal Kaur Khalsa's Green Cat appears more than a decade after her death. Khalsa has retold a famous folktale, known best in its Jewish version, "It Could Always Be Worse". Khalsa makes her telling uniquely her own by setting it in the context of a modern family story.
A brother and sister complain about sharing a room. Despite the minimal furnishings they feel a lack of personal space; there's only room enough for one of them in this bedroom. The drafty hall lies beyond the bedroom, emphasized by the curtains billowing in the wind. "One night as they got set to fight,/A tall green cat stopped by." And then the adventure begins.
In rhyming verse Khalsa unfolds the antics of Green Cat as he commences to fill up the bedroom with one incongruous object after another¨a kitchen table and chairs, a bale of hay and "a pig (though it wasn't very big)", "six silly geese in party hats" and, in one glorious page, a burst of confetti. Green Cat is a benign Cat in the Hat, creating controlled chaos and leaving behind peaceful order.
The mayhem continues until a giraffe plants itself in the middle of the room. Green Cat knows that his work is done and strikes a self-assured pose, lounging in a rowboat. In the far corner, the children have reached their limit. The fun is over¨it's too crowded. With the same nonchalance as Green Cat filled up the room, he now begins to empty it. Brother and sister are united in the task of clearing things away. But now the room seems too empty. Sneaking downstairs, they bring back the four kitchen chairs. The right balance is achieved; sleep comes.
As always, Khalsa is smart, wise, funny and poignant. Although her telling isn't as brilliant as the Margot Zemach version is, there is still much to enjoy in Khalsa's rendition. The real strength of the book lies not in the text but in the folk-art style illustrations. This is a book that is meant to be held by a child who will pour over the pictures and revel in Khalsa's delightful sense of playfulness. There is great fun in turning the page to see what will appear next. Khalsa has a tremendous sense of composition as she constructs, like a set of playing cards placed precariously on top of one another, an elaborate balance of this shifting, ever-increasing jumble of things.
Many of Khalsa's themes are found here: balance, family, an exploration of her own childhood in Queens in the fifties, and of what creates a home. In this story the four kitchen chairs, right out of a 1950s kitchen, symbolize comfort, security and harmony. I was however puzzled when I first read this book. Despite its charm, it isn't as strong as f Khalsa's Tales of a Gambling Grandmother, How Pizza Came to our Town or I Want a Dog. These books have a stronger voice, a specificity of locale, and bolder illustrations that create a rich texture. Is Green Cat an earlier effort? Here are the brother and sister who later appear in My Family Vacation. Here is the struggle to find peace with roommates as explored in Julian. Here is the hint of the 1950s interiors yet to be flushed out. Here we see her first homage to art history with the appearance of the Mona Lisa. Here is the F.A.O. Schwartz giraffe from Cowboy Dreams. And then there are the kitchen chairs, which we first encounter beneath the Cossacks eating borscht in Tales of a Gambling Grandmother and then with May sitting at the kitchen table cleaning her roller skate in I Want a Dog.
At one point in this story Green Cat brings in a poster that says, "the best is yet to come." With hindsight it seems a prophetic sign. Who is she addressing? Khalsa is once again gently teasing us. The sign has meaning within the context of the story but it's also a note to the reader, a little Khalsa graffiti. Green Cat stands on its own but any Khalsa fan (and if you've read her books you can be nothing less) will stop and reflect where this one fits in.
Children will giggle reading this book and marvel over the illustrations. Read it to them and enjoy. Then go back and reread all the other Khalsa classics.
Joanne Schwartz loves Dayal Kaur Khalsa and shares her love as a children's librarian in Toronto.