cover image The Upstairs Cat

The Upstairs Cat

Karla Kuskin. Clarion Books, $15 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-395-70146-1

Kuskin's (City Dog) inventive poem uses two cats--one who dominates a home's upstairs and another its downstairs--and their incessant fighting as a metaphor for the absurdity of war. The feline antics will ring true for cat owners of any age: ""The fighting continues/ to never quite stop,/ one cat at the bottom/ and one at the top/ of the stairs in between,/ with their stare in between,/ if you see what I mean."" Playful observations evolve into weightier themes: ""And suddenly there is a mad confrontation/ the kind that blows up/ on the border of nations."" Kuskin's signature provocative blend of whimsy and contemplation lies at the heart of this poem, but is impeded by the format, which tends to emphasize the lines about battle and lend it the air of a morality tale. Until the final pages, Fine's (Piggie Pie!) realistic pastel illustrations help maintain the whimsy; he makes the contrast between the two cats almost palpable (the older is a plump and fluffy tiger, while the younger has a sleek coat the color of honey). Fine creates tension through a panoply of striking perspectives (e.g., one might be called a crumb's-eye view of an impending dining room skirmish), and frequently breaks the frames of his drawings, allowing the audience to feel the full force of the foes' fury. The design of the concluding pages, however, gives the last lines too much gravity, ""And nothing is dumber/ than war./ [The cats are pictured fighting. Turn page.] Is that clear? [A broken lamp is pictured.]"" Still, Kuskin's words trip off the tongue and Fine convincingly captures the felines' ferocity. Ages 4-8. (Oct.)