Emily Neville’s 1963 Newbery winning coming of age tale, It’s Like this, Cat, follows 14-year-old Davy as he navigates New York City and his family in the 60s. I found the depiction of New York City life in the 60s so great. Davy as a 14 year old has so much freedom to take trains and buses and ferries or pop over to Coney Island and Staten Island. He eats hot pastrami sandwiches, goes to see a showing of West Side Story, goes to the Bronx Zoo, has Jewish friends, and gets Jewish holidays off school. Living a few years in New Jersey during junior high meant that I got a taste for NYC in the 90s (mostly when friends came to visit us), and it was so fun to travel around with Davy.
What I liked. I really liked the pacing and the tension in this book. It was a pleasure to read…which is not something I say about most Newberys! It had conflict (arguments with dad, fist fights with friends, new friends in trouble with the law) but one of the main takeaways from the book is that Davy actually has a really great family, and while he and Pop (his lawyer father) need to learn to talk without yelling, there are a lot of other kids who don’t have parents who care the way that Davy’s care.
What was interesting. I really liked the way that Cat (the cat so originally named) played such a great role in teaching Davy about parents. Cat, an adopted stray tomcat, starts to come home pretty mangled from his mating turf wars with neighboring cats. Aunt Kate (an 8+ cat owning bona-fide odd cat-lady) tells Davy that getting Cat castrated is the only way to help him stay out of fights. At first Davy resents this, but then when Cat shows up really worse for the wear Davy has a talk with his mother about getting Cat fixed: “Cat’s not a free wild animal now, and he wouldn’t be even if you turned him loose. He belongs to you, so you have to do what ever is best for him, whether it’s what you’d like or not” (p. 72). That is such a succinct articulation of what it means to be a parent (of children or animals). I think it’s really one of the strong metaphors for how Davy is growing up and learns to be more patient with his parents.
What were some limitations. I really don’t have a lot to say here. I think that Emily Neville really did what she set out to do with voice and character. In some ways I enjoyed it enough that it would have been fun to have it be a bit longer, getting to know some of the characters like Tom and Mary, Nick and Ben a bit more. But, in actuality, I appreciated the pacing and length a lot, and I think it made me like it more because it was just a great sketch of NYC (and the actual sketches by Emily Weiss were also lovely!)
Similarity to other Newbery winners. It’s very different than Roller Skates, also set in New York City but in the 30s with a young quirky female protagonist. It would be a really interesting project to compare two NYC novels. (You might also add Rebecca Stead’s Newbery When You Reach Me set in 1970s NYC or Newbery winner author Madeline L’Engle’s book The Young Unicorns—also set in 1960s NYC, unfortunately no actual unicorns.) It’s nothing like Cat Who Went to Heaven even if cat is in the title. It shares a bit more with the dogs of Adam of the Road, Ginger Pye, Island of the Blue Dolphins, or the pigeon in Gay-Neck the Pigeon. In boys’ coming of age tales it’s similar to Onion John, …And Now Miguel, Miracles on Maple Hill, Young Fu of the Yangtze, but it might be my favorite of those four.
What it teaches me as a writer. I think the power of voice and brevity really came through in the book (and the fact that there was so much conflict but not too much tension.) I would guess that Emily Neville worked hard to condense her work to just the essence of it. I am a slow and long writer, who tends to think more is better. I think that this is a great book to remind me that there is strength in the pithy.
Have you read It’s Like this, Cat? What are your favorite New York City books?
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