Another pet story. Another father-and-son story that relies on the interactions of peripheral characters to bring dad and son into a more loving and understanding relationship. Another coming-of-age story. Another story narrated by a kid with a bit of an attitude but is mostly obedient to his parents and nice to other people.
It's Like This, Cat is all of those things, but it does them in a genuinely unique way, and you end up with a book that's eminently readable, quite funny, and at times truly touching. The title is a bit of a misnomer—14-year-old Dave doesn't really talk to Cat much—but Emily Cheney Neville does deftly use the character of Cat to focus attention on the human interactions in her book.
There's no big mystery or intricate plot. Dave lives in early 1960s Manhattan, and spends his time going to school, hanging out with Nick, and visiting "Aunt Kate" when his dad gets too far under his skin. Everything starts to change when he brings home Cat, meets Tom in a basement, meets Mary at Coney Island, and starts to try to understand his lawyer father.
What stands out most about this book is its realism. Aside from a limited amount of period slang, Neville keeps things fresh and timeless, capturing the essence of what it means to be a teenager in the modern world, particularly in the city. Dave struggles with loneliness, the angst of growing up, and a dad he thinks doesn't understand him.
A couple scenes from the book will give some idea what it's like. Dave meets Tom, a college-aged kid, in an apartment basement while trying to rescue Cat. Tom is stealing a suitcase, but he helps Dave get his cat before leaving. We learn that Tom is both a bad seed and an alright guy, just trying to make sense of things. As we learn more about him, like the fact that his dad married another woman and abandoned Tom to fend for himself, we learn just how much this first glimpse showed.
Then there's the time Dave and his Jewish friend Ben travel all over New York City looking for an animal to catch for a school science assignment. They laugh, they argue, they make each other mad—and overall we get such a thoroughly honest view of two boys learning to be friends and fend for themselves that it's almost impossible not to recognize ourselves.
It's Like This, Cat also features one of the best depictions of developing boy-girl feelings and relationships of any children's novel, especially among Newbery Medalists. Dave goes from thinking girls are a strange species to be avoided, to finding himself in an innocent girlfriend-boyfriend relationship with Mary who he can't stop thinking about.
When Dave first meets Mary she's with a couple of friends, and Dave is with Nick. Nick and Mary's blonde friend immediately begin acting like immature teenagers, and a few days later they end up on a date together along with Dave and Mary's redhead friend. Dave only wants to see Mary, though, who's sweet and quiet and likes Cat.
They begin dating almost by accident, and even when they're together we don't get the sense that there's anything terribly romantic going on. The two are just good friends, and while Dave's confusing feelings are definitely the first stirrings of affection, their relationship is chaste and innocent.
By the end of the book, Dave's inveterate kindness and openness to other people have helped many of his friends learn the importance of community. He's also learned how much he and his father are alike, and while the two still grate on each other's nerves from time to time, they're much further along the road of peace and harmony.
None of this is forced, however, and none of it has the sentimental patina that ruins so much children's literature. Neville's book is sort of an adolescent Catcher in the Rye (though much less dark), and we actually see Dave grow up, as much through his mistakes as his selflessness. Dave is a genuinely funny narrator, the book clips along at a rapid pace, and underneath the highly entertaining exterior is a story very much worth reading.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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