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Book Reviews

The Cat Came Back

by Cordell Barker

My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts

by Torill Kove

This fall, publisher Firefly is mining the National Film Board for source material. Two Oscar-nominated NFB animated short films are repurposed for a new audience as the original filmmakers serve as authors, reusing and reformatting their art to give the stories new life.

My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts is a fresh, quirky, and funny tall tale that purports to be the narrator’s true account of her own grandmother’s adventures, but which progressively leaves the realm of realism behind.

When the people of Norway decide they need a new king, a motley group of “unemployed royals from all over the world” line up to be interviewed for the job, and a king is chosen. However, the new king’s wrinkled clothes shock and dismay his subjects, who agree that he is “the most wrinkled King they had ever seen.” To appease them, the royal family begins sending their clothes out to be expertly pressed by professionals – like the narrator’s grandmother.

All is well until the royals flee the invading German army and the shirt pressers are forced to serve a nasty new clientele. The grandmother organizes a resistance movement among the shirt pressers, who institute a nationwide “shirt sabotage,” putting itching powder and insects in the occupying Nazis’ uniforms. By the end of the war, the Nazis are shirtless and ragged, and retreat miserably to their ships. The shirt pressers’ actions contribute to the country’s liberation. Grandmother retires when the fashions of the 1960s and the abundance of male facial hair prove too much for her sense of taste and decorum.

Torill Kove’s droll illustrations are filled with sly visual jokes throughout, such as the expressions on the faces of the candidates for “king” and the Ironing Diploma prominently displayed on the grandmother’s wall, which reinforces the idea that even humble shirt pressers can exercise power against tyrannical regimes.

The Cat Came Back must live up to the reputation of not only the 1988 NFB short, but also the beloved Harry S. Miller folk song of the same name, which has been recorded by both Raffi and Fred Penner. While lacking the rhythm and bounce that fans might expect, taken on its own, the picture book is still rollicking good fun. The little yellow cat that arrives at Mr. Johnson’s door looks innocent enough at first, but quickly begins wreaking havoc, including smashing his host’s childhood rattle, which “was his favourite thing in the whole world!”

Determined to rid himself of the cat, Mr. Johnson tries losing it in the forest, abandoning it at sea, setting it adrift in an air balloon, and tying it to railroad tracks. Of course each plan fails, the cat comes back, and Mr. Johnson is left the worse for wear. He finally resorts to blowing up his own house, only to find that the cat has nine lives.

Barker’s bold and colourful illustrations drive the cartoon action forward. Mr. Johnson becomes increasingly frustrated and defeated as his house and furniture are progressively shredded by the cat. The slapstick comedy makes light of the destruction, with the last line asserting that the cat “just couldn’t stay away.”

At a time when everyone’s on the lookout for the next film adaptation of a hot new book, it’s a treat to see the tables turned and these short films poised for a literary encore.