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The White Cat and the Monk

by Jo Ellen Bogart; Sydney Smith (illus.)

If ever there was a book that could calm a child and draw her into meditative contemplation (perhaps right before bed?), The White Cat and the Monk is it.

unnamedGuelph, Ontario–based author Jo Ellen Bogart puts her spin on the 9th-century Old Irish poem “Pangur Bán,” which is attributed to an unknown monk. As in the famous poem that inspired it, Bogart’s story explores the similarities between a monk seeking knowledge in a manuscript and his companion, a white cat he calls Pangur, seeking its prey – specifically, a mouse in the wall.

The simple, sparse text and gentle rhythm of the prose exude a sense of peacefulness that mimics the monk’s quiet, diligent work. Even Pangur sits silently, studying a hole in the baseboard, waiting with patient intensity for the mouse to emerge.

The book relies heavily on the imagery of illustrator Sydney Smith, whose recent success with Sidewalk Flowers (with JonArno Lawson) attests to his ability to craft a wordless narrative. Indeed, the first five pages of The White Cat and the Monk simply show Pangur finding his way into the monastery and the monk’s quarters, quietly leading young readers into this introspective tale. The colours are muted and the details sparse, reflecting the nature of life in the monastery, as well as the reflective approach taken by the monk and the cat in completing their tasks.

The story touches on a number of themes that introduce kids to important life lessons: the value of patience, diligence, and the pursuit of knowledge; the pleasure of simple entertainments, particularly when facing challenges; the importance of companionship; and the simple truth that we’re often far more similar to those in our midsts than we are different. Lessons we all would do well to remember.