Double Feature: tales of the Beckoning Cat

According to Japanese legend, a homeless cat once saved a samurai warrior and brought wealth to a poor monk simply by raising one paw.  This is one variation of the beckoning cat (Maneki Neko) legend, which some say originated between the early 17th and late 19th centuries.

Two of the most recent re-tellings of this story for children are Wendy Henrichs’ I Am Tama, Lucky Cat and Susan Lendroth’s Maneki Neko: the Tale of the Beckoning Cat.  Both contain the same elements – the homeless cat, the poor monk, and the samurai – but Henrichs and Lendroth interpret these features in significantly different ways.

Wendy Henrichs.  I Am Tama, Lucky Cat.  Illus. Yoshiko Jaeggi.  Atlanta: Peachtree, 2011.

In Henrichs’ version, the cat tells its own story.  It is not clear whether the cat is male or female, but for the sake of simplicity, since Lendroth’s Maneki Neko is female, I will refer to Henrichs’ cat likewise.

This Tama is a Japanese bobtail, considered a very lucky breed.  She begins the story with her long travel in search of a home.  She finally stops at a temple whose monk is so poor he cannot afford firewood or supplies to fix the leaking roof.

Despite his worries, the monk is kind and cheerful, following Buddhist teachings by thinking only of others’ suffering.  He names his new companion after the Tama River where he grew up.

What works:  Jaeggi’s watercolors create smooth, gently textured scenes and very real-looking characters.

Her portrayal of the monk matches Henrichs’ description of his serene attitude and his love for Tama.

Jaeggi’s portrayal of the samurai likewise matches Henrichs’ description, showing his proud stance and his initially condescending attitude.

Overall, Henrichs offers a fuller, more fleshed-out account of the legend, especially in her portrayal of the monk.  By including his childhood memories and religious beliefs, she makes the monk seem like a very real, relatable person.

What doesn’t:  There are passages in which Tama’s narration jumps from her own point of view to that of other characters.  Most of the time this is fine, since she is speaking in retrospect and has had time to imagine what the other characters were thinking.

But there is one passage that felt very out of place.  At that moment, Tama describes her actions without explaining why she acted that way:  “Without warning, I ran out of the temple […], startling my master.”  This would have worked much better if the story had been told entirely from a third-person p.o.v.

Overall:  I Am Tama provides a good view into some of Japan’s folklore, history, and culture.  Henrichs and Jaeggi create vivid characters who look real enough to draw the reader into each scene.

Susan Lendroth.  Maneki Neko: the Tale of the Beckoning Cat.  Illus. Kathryn Otoshi.  Walnut Creek, CA: Shen’s Books, 2010.

Lendroth’s story is told entirely in the third-person and begins with the monk’s greeting to the cat on his doorstep.  The cat herself seems to have no immediate needs, and is only sunning herself.

As in Henrichs’ version, the monk is very kind and cheerful.  He names the cat Tama because of the round black spot on her back (Tama means “round,” according to the glossary at the back of the book).  This Tama is not a bobtail, but instead is white with patches of black.

The monastery in Lendroth’s version is not as worn down as the temple in I Am Tama, and in turn, the monk has fewer worries, though he is still relatively poor.

In addition, while Henrichs’ and Jaeggi’s samurai is proud and confident, Lendroth and Otoshi’s samurai looks more beaten-down and frightened.

What works:  Like Jaeggi, Kathryn Otoshi creates beautiful scenes and expressive characters.

Otoshi’s colors are more vivid than Jaeggi’s – strong pink sunsets and midnight blue nights with purple shadows; trees with leaves of dark red, magenta, purple, and gold.

Her characters also have a more sketched style that complements the supernaturally vivid backgrounds.

The story flows very smoothly and all of the characters’ actions, including those of Tama, make sense.  Lendroth’s Tama has clearer motivations overall than Henrichs’ Tama.  And because Lendroth’s cat behaves like any cat would, her effect on the story’s outcome is more remarkable.

Overall:  There were no significant problems in this story.  Though Henrichs provides more details about the characters, Lendroth makes hers just as expressive and relatable through dialogue and action.  She helps the reader understand the story’s Japanese terms and concepts through context clues, as well as by including a glossary at the end.

Other recent Beckoning Cat tales:

The Beckoning Cat, by Koko Nishizuka.  2009

The Tale of the Lucky Cat, by Sunny Seki.  2007

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