The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (J)

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Elizabeth Coatsworth (Juvenile Fiction)

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  But on this particular day, dinner was not coming.  Instead, inside the housekeeper’s little bamboo basket was a small white cat with yellow and black spots on her sides.  But the artist could barely provide for the two of them let alone a third!  Fortunately, a tri-colored cat is a very lucky thing to have and so she was kept and named Good Fortune.  True to her name, good fortune followed her and soon the head priest from the temple arrived and commissioned the artist to paint the death of the lord Buddha.  It seemed that the luck of everyone…and everything…in the household was about to change.

Written in 1930 and awarded the Newberry Medal in 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a short book (just 63 pages) brimming with lessons of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Elizabeth Coatsworth’s book has been reprinted twenty-four times, but I suggest selecting the version containing Lynd Ward’s exquisite illustrations.  His drawings bring an added depth and richness to Coatsworth’s beautiful words and will allow readers to fully immerse themselves within this exotic and mystical world.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is recommended for ages 10 and up, but younger audiences may enjoy it as a bedtime story.  The short chapters followed by a summarizing poem make it an ideal nighttime read.  Most of the book centers around the artist painting various animals which Buddha embodied throughout his life.  Each animal has its own story, and each story has its own moral including honesty, kindness, fidelity, and bravery.  The story is charming and flows like silk, but the ending is abrupt (it even took me a bit by surprise) and may not sit well with more sensitive readers.  Not to spoil the story, but the title IS an indicator as to how this story ends so forewarned is forearmed.

“Forgiveness” is the centerpiece of this book and it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and human rights activist, who once said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”  Coatsworth wrote her book a year before Archbishop Tutu was born, but she too must have realized the sentiment behind these words because through forgiveness, she has given Good Fortune a very happy beginning, which in turn gives her readers a truly happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org

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The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson (J Historical Fiction)

The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll

Kirby Lawson (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Miss Kanagawa was the last doll that master dollmaker Tatsuhiko would ever make.  She was a doll like no other and was to be Master Tatsuhiko’s masterpiece.  Miss Kanagawa, along with her fifty-seven sisters, were being sent to the children of the United States by the children of Japan as a gesture of friendship.  These fifty-eight ambassadors of peace and goodwill carried with them the assurance that Japan was indeed a friend of America.  But Master Tatsuhiko wanted his prized creation to be more than just a messenger and wished that she would discover her true purpose as a doll: “to be awakened by the heart of a child”.  Sadly, Miss Kanagawa was as callous as she was beautiful and she was very certain that a doll with a samurai spirit such as hers would never have a need for a child.

The Friendship Doll is based on the actual arrival of fifty-eight dolls from Japan to the United States in November 1927.  In her book, Kirby Larson takes us from 1927 to the present day and introduces readers to such events as the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Through Miss Kanagawa, we meet a hopeful orator, an aspiring pilot, a voracious reader, and a devoted writer—each with her own remarkable story and each changed by a chance encounter with a unique and proud doll.

While reading The Friendship Doll, I couldn’t help but notice several similarities between it and Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (one of my favorite books).  Both stories revolve around an exquisite doll with an overly-high opinion of itself who imparts something of value with those it meets while simultaneously discovering the joy that comes from being wanted and loved.  While Edward is a silent presence, Miss Kanagawa somehow speaks directly to her visitor’s subconscious.  Young readers won’t be bothered by this, but those of us old enough to remember The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Living Doll” featuring Talking Tina might be overly susceptible to the heebie-jeebies.  Still, if you liked Edward, you’re sure to enjoy Miss Kanagawa as well.

Although this book does touch upon the sensitive subjects of death and dementia, its historical insights offer readers a valuable glimpse at a few events from our nation’s past.  It also serves as a reminder that it is often the smallest of things that can bring about the greatest change within ourselves and there is nothing heebie or jeebie about that.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Wishing Trees by John Shors

The Wishing Trees

The Wishing Trees  

John Shors (Adult Fiction)

Kate McCray died ten months ago, but her absence remains as fresh and painful for her husband, Ian, and their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie as the day she slipped away from them.  Upon her death, Kate leaves a letter for Ian expressing her dying wish: “Be happy.  Learn to laugh again.  To joke.  To wrestle together like you once did.  Learn to be free again.”  To achieve these things, Kate wants Ian to take Mattie on the trip the two of them intended to make to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.  A trip across Asia that would allow Mattie to experience what her parents once shared in so many diverse and wondrous countries: Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.  But can Ian do it?  Can he revisit a past full of memories of his wife in order to forge a future without her?

John Shors delivers a touching and bittersweet story of a husband and daughter embarking on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and enlightenment.  Although deceased, Kate remains a prominent presence and central figure throughout the story.  She has left handwritten notes inside twelve film canisters—six each for Ian and Mattie—which are to be opened upon the pair’s arrival in each country.  Kate’s words of love and encouragement are a constant reminder of the tender and altruistic person so tragically torn from our main characters.  Her careful planning of this trip, despite her weakened state, and her desire for her family to move on without her is heartbreaking in its selflessness and hopeful in its intent.  What’s most striking is Kate’s constant encouragement for her loved ones to make a positive difference in the world.  In one of her letters to Mattie, Kate writes of Buddha, “Do you know what Buddha says about happiness?  He said, ‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared.’”  With each canister that is opened and with each note that is read, we can easily understand how indomitable a task it is for Ian and Mattie to emotionally recover from their loss.

The Wishing Trees is a beautifully written love letter to anyone who has ever lost a love and hungers for a sign—any sign—that they’re still with us.  That they still see us.  That they still remember us.   It’s also a story about the power of kindness and the extraordinary healing powers in doing good.  Numerous books have been written on research connecting helping others to health benefits or, simply stated, doing good is good for you.  Perhaps Kate knew this all the time or perhaps she remembered an Indian saying during her travels, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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