January 21, 2016

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem “Pangur Bán”

by JoEllen Bogart
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
March, 2016

At its foundation, The White Cat and the Monk has all the elements of a contemplative read: quiet, books, companionship, and a cat.  But, bigger picture, The White Cat and the Monk is an essay in study and reflection in one’s work and the importance of mindfulness.  JoEllen Bogart has taken the essence of Pangur Bán, a ninth century Old Irish poem, to its humble message and, with Sydney Smith’s austere but inspired illustrations, produced a masterpiece.

The story of Pangur Bán is a simple one.  A white cat treds a familiar path at night to the room of a monk who studies his manuscript, replendent in colour, while Pangur, the cat, waits and watches for a mouse.  Their tasks are intense and focused yet strangely companionably intimate and respectful.  Each appreciates the other’s need for quiet and concentration while providing an anchor for that isolation.

JoEllen Bogart has provided a lovely interpretation of the importance of work and the efficacy of mindfulness, and Sydney Smith has demonstrated again why he has won mutiple awards for his illustrations in Sidewalk Flowers.  In The White Cat and the Monk, Sydney Smith has emphasized the simplicity in the lives of the cat and the monk with the coarse lines and neutral palette of greys, taupes, beiges, golds and blacks, with colour only appearing in the nose of Pangur, the cheeks of the monk, the pages of the manuscript he reads and the few plants and flowers.  Yet the tones of the illustrations, like the text, are not sombre, just modest, as are the tasks upon which the two characters are concentrating.  The White Cat and the Monk is a brilliant reinforcement in words and art of the magnitude of focusing on just that moment and just that one task for life to be complete.  
From The White Cat and the Monk
 by JoEllen Bogart and Sydney Smith


  1. I love Jo Ellen Bogart's works and am very much looking forward to reading this one. Thank you for the stellar review.

    1. Thank you, Marsha, for honouring me with your reading of my review.