My Cat Looks Like My Dad is the latest picture book from the inventive collage artist Thao Lam, author of Wallpaper and Skunk on a String. In this book, Lam tells the story of a family in which a big, fluffy, orange cat and a big, fluffy, orange-haired Dad share likes and dislikes as well as looks. Both of them enjoy milk, sardines, singing, and yoga, and both are afraid of heights and skunks.
The mother and the yet-to-be-revealed narrator also have similarities: their eyes are the same colour, their hair is wild, and they love to dance. Spoiler alert: at the end of the book, the narrator turns out to be the little bird that has been on the periphery of the pictures. The portrait of the whole family is presented – Mom, Dad, cat, and bird. The book closes with the assertion, “Families are what you make them.”
Lam’s stated intention is to present a portrait of a non-traditional family, encouraging children to develop acceptance of diversity in the world around them. While charming, the story doesn’t quite work. Part of the issue is technical: midway through the book, Mom is sitting curled up in a chair covering her ears, trying to block out the painful singing of the happy cat-Dad duo. She looks like a little girl – not a grown-up – so at this point the reader assumes she is the narrator. The other difficulty is conceptual: by leaving children out of this book, the author is distancing the intended audience from the experience. Children are very literal: a bird who is sometimes seen in a cage is a pet, not a child. And while the idea that animals and grown-ups without children can make up a family is completely valid, it doesn’t fully convey the message of diversity and tolerance that Lam intends.
The artwork in My Cat Looks Like My Dad is engaging and clever, with the sharply defined cut-outs providing layered, entertaining images. Lam’s humour is evident, and children will enjoy the antics of the cat and the dad. It’s disappointing that the impact of the big-reveal ending falls short.