Another post for the From the Bowels of Obscurity Book Club (Hee! Ahem, *cough*, sorry, I promise to settle down now. Really, I will.)
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In 7th grade, I went through a cat phase. Since I couldn’t actually have one of my own (family members with allergies), I settled for reading lots of books about them and watching That Darn Cat (the Christina Ricci version) and inventing an imaginary cat named Fred.
That last one might’ve been in high school, actually…look, I was a very daydreamy kid with a slight penchant for being “eccentric” and it wasn’t like I actually talked to Fred or had imaginary tea parties with him or anything, and you can just stop judging right now.
Um, anyway, back in 7th grade I was really into cats. Remember that playground game, Four Square? Did you ever add extra rules besides “don’t miss the ball”? My classmates and I sometimes added things like “you have to say the name of a TV show/celebrity/etc. when the ball comes to you and before you pass it.” And you couldn’t take too long; you had to keep the ball going at a relatively steady pace.
Well, one time I suggested “you have to say a type of cat.” Considering I was the only one reading up on lynxes and pumas and ocelots and Abyssinians, I maaay have been giving myself an unfair advantage. In any case, that round lasted about a minute before everyone besides me decided it was dumb and we moved on to “say the name of a music band” or something.
Around this time, I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s Catwings books.
Cats. With wings. Faery cats (well, I didn’t think of them that way then, and I wasn’t to learn of the Cait Sidhe–actual fae cats, minus the wings–until I got into the October Daye series, but that’s another tangent…) What could be cooler than that?
I’m willing to guess that for many people, the name Ursula K Le Guin is associated primarily with her more YA/Adult fantasies like the Earthsea cycle or The Left Hand of Darkness?
For me, Catwings was the first step into Le Guin’s world – a world which, I’m sorry to say, I have yet to really explore further. Since Catwings, I’ve only read her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
From the little I know about Le Guin’s main body of work – and please correct me if I’m wrong – it seems to be mainly high fantasy/sci-fi or speculative fantasy, the stories most often set in entirely fictional worlds. Whereas the Catwings stories are set in our world, its specific environments ranging from a typical city, to the woods, to the countryside. All the other characters whom the Catwings encounter are ordinary, recognizable people and creatures; the only element of fantasy, really, is that these four cats happen to have wings.
And even that phenomenon isn’t explored very far – not even their mother knows why Thelma, Harriet, James, and Roger were born with wings. All she can say to those who ask is: “Maybe they have wings because I dreamed, before they were born, that I could fly away from this neighborhood.” 
In short, we are simply to accept the existence of four winged cats – and maybe even the possibility that a mother’s dreams could actually affect how her children will be born – in an otherwise familiar world. Magical realism! 😀
The first story begins with Mrs. Tabby and the four kittens living under a dumpster in an alley of a poor, rundown neighborhood. Mrs. Tabby constantly worries about her children, and when conditions become too dangerous to ignore, she tells them they must leave – “This is not a good place to grow up in, and you have wings to fly from it. I want you to do that.” 
The rest of the story follows Thelma, Harriet, Roger, and James as they try to find some place where they will be safe and accepted.
The second story starts as the now-older Catwings wonder how their mother is doing. James and Harriet decide to fly back to see her, just for a visit…but when they arrive, the dumpster is gone and there is no sign of Mother. Only people with machines, “roaring, grinding, crashing, hammering”  away at the old alley…
Those were the two books I definitely remember reading in middle school. The next two…
I know I hadn’t read Jane on her Own until a few weeks ago, since it was published in ’99, long after my cat phase had been supplanted by my horse phase.
Wonderful Alexander, though, was published in ’94, a few years before I discovered Catwings, so it’s entirely possible I read it along with the previous two books. I’m just not totally sure. Certain scenes seem kind of familiar, but I could just be associating them with similar scenes in Catwings Return.
Anyway, both books are just as sweet as their predecessors (though, yeah, that guy in Jane on her Own, who calls himself “Poppa” and calls Jane “Baby” or “Baby honey,” is a tad creepy). The series overall has a cozy read-under-a-tree-in-the-summertime feel, with not-too-scary challenges and ideal ever-afters. They’re quick reads, 40–50 pages apiece, with pen-and-ink illustrations that start out black-and-white with muted hints of color, and become progressively more colorful as we move away from the city (symbolism much? 😉 ).
So far this re-reading challenge has brought me back to some real gems. As I did with A Hive for the Honeybee and My Sister Sif, I’m now tempted to Amazon the Catwings series, too. For my own future children, or nieces and nephews, and just for my own chance to re-re-read whenever I like.