20 facts about cats in children’s literature

Here are 20 facts about cats in children’s literature. I hope you find the page useful and enjoyable. There are some great celebrity cats in literature. They’ve featured in books for centuries.

Kathleen Hale's marmalade cat Orlando in real life and in one of her stories
Kathleen Hale’s marmalade cat Orlando in real life and in one of her stories. Image: MikeB based on image in the public domain or fair use pleaded.
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  1. After the persecution of the domestic cat during mediaeval times, in the 18th century the cat again became more popular and their reputation rehabilitated in the eyes of the public and as a consequence cats began to be featured in children’s tales some of which were true in respect of their behaviour which helped children to understand cat behaviour but many were fictional and written to entertain.
  2. There are many stories of magical cats which became very popular.
  3. Cats are very often featured in children’s books nowadays and on the Book Trust website there are no less than 21 children’s books featuring cats including, for example, The Story of Tantrum O’Furrily, The Cat and the Fiddle: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes and Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons. Clearly, children’s authors believe that cats help sell their books and they are correct.
  4. It is believed that cats began to be featured in children’s books as fables i.e. morality tales. The books were didactic in nature which means that they were teaching children about morality and how to behave.
  5. For example, the original version of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1826-1819) was a morality tale for children’s parents, the adults, and was later regarded as children’s literature. The cat represented human hypocrisy, surviving as a street cat and scavenging for food. The cat was a great survivor as most cats are, and in one illustration is seen escaping from an argument between Pinocchio and his creator.
  6. Rudyard Kipling in his famous book The Cat That Walked by Himself examines the relationship between cat and human. It is set in the Stone Age and man and woman live in a cave. The woman tamed a number of animals to serve her and Man. They almost tamed the cat. The cat bargained with them and struck a deal in which the cat agreed to kill mice and be kind to babies. The woman praises the cat three times and he gets to sit by the fire and drink all the milk whenever he wants. But “he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him”.
  7. Children’s literature often employs the cat’s association with magic and sorcery.
  8. In Alice in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll, Alice talks to the Cheshire Cat. She asks, “Please would you tell me why your cat grins like that?” The answer was “It’s a Cheshire Cat and that’s why”. Hardly an answer at all. It is believed that the answer may originate in the saying “to grin like a Cheshire caterling”. Caterlings were deadly swordsmen. They protected the royal forests during the reign of Richard III. The word ‘caterling’ was shortened to ‘cat’ over time. Anyone with a gin was subsequently described as grinning like a Cheshire cat. In the book, the cat disappears slowly leaving a cheesy grin. I say “cheesy grin” because many possible origins have been discussed for this story one of which is a brand of Cheshire cheese which featured a cat’s grin on its packaging. Alice in Wonderland is the 3rd most popular children’s book of all time.
  9. The American Kathleen Hale (1898-2000) was a children’s author for over 30 years. She wrote and illustrated her Orlando adventures in which an affable marmalade cat (a ginger tabby) makes a trip abroad, becomes a doctor and celebrates his wedding. In 1968 he went to the moon.
  10. She based her cat characters, Orlando, his wife, Grace, and their kittens, Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle on her own cats. There are a series of 18 books containing humorous stories and distinctive illustrations. They are classics of children’s literature (see heading illustration).
  11. Edward Lear, the British-born artist and humorist, who lived between 1812 and 1888 based his The Owl and the Pussycat on his tabby cat Foss. His cat had a stocky body and the short tail but Lear addressed his cat as “what a beautiful Pussy you are”. He wrote his book while living and working in Italy.
  12. Another celebrated author and cat lover, TS Eliot (1888-1965) wrote 14 cat poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, based on his cats. Each poem is a play on English language. The characters include Growltiger, Rumpuscat, and the mystery cat Macavity. His cats had human traits combined with a feline characters.
  13. It seems that book series featuring cats are less common nowadays or have died out and the modern trend is towards unusual animals, and fantastic creatures.
  14. In an 18th-century British children’s story, The Life and Adventures of a Cat, the cat hero is Tom. Up until the publication of that book male cats were referred to as “rams” or “boars” but ever since the publication of the book, in English-speaking countries, male cats that have not been neutered, are referred to as tomcats.
  15. Often cat heroes are humanised (anthropomorphised).
  16. Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the celebrated children’s author, found great success in humanising her cats. Her cats have character faults just like real people. For example, in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Mr MacGregor’s white cat is someone to be avoided according to Benjamin Bunny and in The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers the cats are portrayed as likeable characters; naughty but nice.
  17. Another well-known individual, Louis Wain, a cartoonist and illustrator also humanised his cats to brilliant effect. I have a page dedicated to him which you can see by clicking on this link.
  18. In a 19th century morality tale, Poor Minette, the soul of an unsophisticated cat is fought over by good and bad cat spirits.
  19. Perhaps the most mischievous of all cats in books is in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s The Cat in the Hat. The cat wears a stovepipe hat and is subversive and gawky according to Dr Fogle in this book The Encyclopedia of the Cat. The cat entertains two bored children while mom is away but it leads to chaos. However, the magical cat returns things to normal before the return of mom. If only reality was as efficient.
  20. Another harsh lesson was learned in the French story La Boite d’allumettes (The box of Matches). A girl plays with matches and sets herself alight. She burns to death. He faithful cats extinguish the flames with their tears.

Domestic cats are wonderful subjects to feature in literature and have been used to good effect over centuries.

Sir John Tenniel's hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat
Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat in the Tree Above Alice for The Nursery “Alice”. This is a tabby cat and probably in the mind of the artist a random bred cat that he had seen. A classic domestic cat. Image in the public domain (assessed).

Below are some pages on cats in books.

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