There are any number of kids’ books that are only ostensibly for kids, that in their tone or language or execution reveal themselves to be aimed at the kind of kid idealized by some adults, or even the kid they imagined they were themselves, once upon a time. Think of YA novels that are full of knowing, overly clever, self-conscious humour, the kind that assumes kids revel in literary smarm as much as their parents. Similarly, picture books that are more faux-antiquarian collectable than reliable readalong appear every season.
At first blush, the work of Wallace Edwards would appear to fall into this category. There is no doubt that the Toronto author-illustrator’s work, in books such as Mixed Beast, Monkey Business, and the Governor General’s Literary Award–winning Alphabeasts, is classier than the average picture book. Edwards, though, always takes care that, however visually rich his images and pithy his text, his books appeal to both Little Lord Fauntleroy and Dennis the Menace.
The Cat’s Pajamas, like Monkey Business, is a collection of common English idioms illustrated with often absurdly literal (and sometimes just absurd) animal portraits. For “home sweet home,” we get a pair of cookie rabbits returning happily to their candy home. For “use his noodle,” a panda bear employs a strand of spaghetti as a violin bow.
The idiomatic captions are like quirky one-sentence tales: “The sight of Sir William’s new painting made Anita hold her tongue.” (Anita is an art patron anteater and the painting is of a guitar-playing ant – and, yes, she is actually holding her long, thin tongue.) Not surprisingly, the images are the main attraction here. Edwards’ illustrations are richly detailed and gloriously colourful. Though his animals do everything from ride a roller coaster to pilot a submarine, they posess a strangely affecting dignity. They are superficially anthropomorphized (many have clothes, jewellery, or a job), but retain their fundamental animalness, a point underscored by the occasional use of more cartoony images within the portraits. The figure of a cat appears somewhere on each page (sometimes very well hidden), but even without this spur to closer viewing, kids will find themselves utterly absorbed.
Many young readers are (rightly) allergic to anything that can be described as “exquisite,” but there’s no better word for The Cat’s Pajamas.