August 07, 2020

The Girl with the Cat

Written by Beverley Brenna
Illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan
Red Deer Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-10
April 2020

Based on a true story, The Girl with the Cat recounts a fortuitous visit to an art gallery that leads to an act of activism and the permanent installation of a bronze sculpture in Saskatoon.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
When a young girl and her older brother go exploring one Saturday shortly after the family's move from Toronto to Saskatoon, they discover an art gallery of epic proportions. Within the walls, the girl discovers a plethora of art which cannot be touched; that is, until she finds a bronze sculpture of a girl in a rocking chair with a cat on her lap. Without a sign about touching, lonely Caroline touches the chair and sees it rock. She pats the cat, and takes in the details of the artwork, from the girl's bare feet and shorts to the ripples of the cat's fur. Everything reminds Caroline of the home and cat she left behind and of playing with her friends. She makes a connection and returns to talk to the girl and her cat, identified as Nina and Sammy, time and time again.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
I sit beside them and the Gallery breathes softly around us. In the stillness I start to really see the paintings. This room is full of summer. There are trees for treehouses and beaches for swimming. I bet Nina likes this place. Maybe that's one of her secrets. I tell her my secrets in return.
But when Caroline learns that the sculpture is being returned to Ottawa where the artist lives, Caroline is devastated.
It feels as if there's a hole in the roof and all the light is leaking out.
Nine-year-old Caroline gathers up the little bit of money she and her brother have and delivers it with a letter to the director. Though he suggests there's nothing he can do, the next morning her letter graces the front page of the newspaper, and a month later Caroline is pleased to hear that the "Girl With Cat" would not be moved.

From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
According to the notes at the conclusion of The Girl with the Cat, Caroline Markham was the little girl who wrote the letter that saved this sculpture at the Mendel Art Gallery in 1966. That sculpture, by the artist Arthur Price of his own daughter and her cat, remains in Saskatoon though it has been relocated with the gallery's collection to the city's new art museum. But this child's small act of activism, championing a piece of art with which she made a connection and helped her become accustomed to her new home, reminds us that small deeds can enact important changes. Beverley Brenna, who has penned everything from picture books and early readers (I reviewed Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life last year) to middle grade, YA and short stories, is very astute about getting into the heads of children and giving voice to that which matters to them. This story may be about taking action but at its most heartfelt it's about the anguish a child feels about her family's move and her need for reassurance and a friend. She finds both in a bronze sculpture that also leads her to real friends. Not surprising she returns the favour.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
With Brooke Kerrigan's illustrations created with the softest of media like pencil crayon and watercolours, The Girl with the Cat is both muted and dramatic. Brooke Kerrigan makes the gallery itself impressively monolithic and the art it houses striking, which is how a child would perceive them to be. Her distinctive art styling has both a grace and a magic that consistently draw me in to the story. (Read my reviews of The Christmas Wind, The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain, and Fishermen Through & Through for a sampling of some of my favourites by Brooke Kerrigan.)

I'm glad Arthur Price created his sculpture and that it was there to comfort Caroline in 1966 and that she was able to help safeguard its presence in Saskatoon, but I am most thankful that Beverley Brenna and Brooke Kerrigan were able to share this story about how a small act can lead to transformation.

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