This story is about a clever boy from a small Japanese village who is too small to be of any real help working in the fields. So he is sent to a nearby monastery to become a monk. But all he wants to do is draw cats, which annoys the monks when he keeps drawing instead of focusing on his lessons. They finally give up on him, saying that his passion for drawing makes him better suited to be an artist. An old priest sends him on his way with a bit of cryptic advice, and with that, the boy embarks on an unforgettable adventure.
Most folktales involve a hero who wins through being kind and good. What made this one particularly interesting to me was that the boy is true to his passion, and he listens to (and remembers) advice, and that is what saves him in the end. He survives because of his talent, not through being good or kind. The illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the text – they are Japanese in style, using watercolor, cut paper, and an airbrush. With a few simple strokes, Sogabe captures the emotions of the boy in the story.
Hodges cites the source for her story: it was originally published as a pamphlet in Tokyo by Takejiro Hasegawa, and she adapted it from a 1918 publication of Japanese Fairy Tales by Lafcadio Hearn. A note in the back of the book talks about the history of the story and the life of Lafcadio Hearn, who collected and retold folktales and legends from Japan. The book makes for an exciting read-aloud, with evocative language and pictures that complement the tone and style of the text.
The Boy Who Drew Cats by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Aki Sogabe (Holiday House, 2002)