At the Drop of a Cat by Élise Fontenaille

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With lush art by NYT Best Illustrated recipient Violeta Lópiz, a picture book about a boy and his larger-than-life immigrant grandfather, who shares with him the kind of learning that’s not taught in classrooms.

At six years old, the child-narrator of this picture book loves nothing more than spending time with his grandpa, Luis — especially in his marvellous garden, where green beans reach as high as the sky. Luis’s garden is where the little boy practices reading and writing. But just as importantly, it’s also where he learns wonderful things from Luis, like the names of all the birds in the trees and new expressions that are so much fun to say. Luis's playful vocabulary is as vibrant and full of life as his garden, and phrases that are particular to his way of talking, like 'at the drop of a cat' (which means right away), are soon adapted into the little boy's lexicon, too.

A talented cook, artist, and gardener, Luis has much wisdom to impart and many experiences to share with his grandson — even though, as a war refugee, he never went to school himself and never learned to read and write. A loving testament to the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and the breathtaking beauty of the natural world, illustrated with evocative, multilayered art by Violeta Lópiz.

 

'A dark-haired, pale-skinned 6-year-old adores spending time with their grandfather, whom they call Luis. The sensitively written text reveals Luis’ struggles without presenting him as lesser. The young narrator loves how Luis mixes up idioms, the source of the book’s title. Because Luis fled Spain as a child during ‘a terrible war’ and had to work to support himself in France, he never went to school or learned to read and write. Although early on, the narrator informs us, ‘I’m learning to read and write,’ this does not turn into a story centered on Luis’ illiteracy. The grandchild lovingly details their grandfather’s appreciation for birds, cats, and the natural world as well as his many skills, like gardening, cooking, playing guitar, and painting. ‘Dad says Luis is as good as Henri Rousseau,’ the text reads, which provides insight into the artistic inspiration behind Lópiz’s lush, naïve style and flat aesthetic. By book’s end, the narrator can read well, and Luis celebrates this accomplishment with a gift that reinforces their special bond and brings this stunning and tender tale to a satisfying conclusion. Warmhearted and affirming—one to pick up.' — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

'Lópiz shows in lush, dreamy illustrations the magic of the world Luis shares with the boy. A wonder-filled landscape of flowers, birds, aromatic meals, and cranky cats, it is also a world far beyond what can be taught in a classroom. Showing love and admiration across generations, this sweet title can be a guide for the appreciation of the natural world and the quiet love of family. This lovely purchase is a gentle yet effective work; its story and rich, complex illustrations highlight the joy of sharing the natural world that exists between a boy and his beloved grandfather.' — School Library Journal

'A six-year-old narrates this reflection about a cherished grandparent...Luis is a miraculous gardener with an intimate knowledge of wildlife. Artist Lópiz (The True Story of a Mouse Who Never Asked for It) places colorful silhouettes of leaves and birds within the contours of Luis’s face, behind his bushy moustache and serious eyes... The dense foliage that twines through the art mirrors the rich thicket of the grandchild’s thoughts and the grandfather’s knowledge as the two spend time together, sharing Luis’s idiosyncratic idioms ('At the drop of a cat') and celebrating the child’s success in a lushly produced book that asks where worth really lies.' — Publishers Weekly

'This book was lovely, absorbing, and wistful without being cloying. The lack of a name or gender for the child will give the book even more resonance for all readers. The child also describes Luis’s art and I assumed that the beautiful illustrations were, in fact, Luis’s drawings that he and the child work on together in the book. They look to be a mix of watercolor and collage, full of the green leaves of Luis’s garden, naive, and easy to interpret with many fascinating details. The child and the grandfather appear repeatedly, with the smaller human nestled inside the outline of the bald, big-nosed grandpa. This will be a wonderful one-to-one read aloud with an adult. The translators have done a great job here; originally published in French, this English translation flows beautifully. I was fascinated by the author’s ability to present hard truths in such a joyful and plain manner. The book manages to be equal parts moving and funny.' — Susan Harari (Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA), Youth Services Book Review, starred review

'Verdant, layered artwork by Violeta Lópiz brings a sense of mysticism to At the Drop of a Cat, a picture book by Élise Fontenaille in which a 6-year-old boy describes his relationship with his grandfather, Luis...Against a backdrop of lush, plant-filled pictures, the child explains that Luis had left his home in Spain at the age of 11 and walked overland until he reached safety in France...As the child chatters on, readers ages 4-8 find out more about Luis’s life experiences while also coming to appreciate the things the old man can teach his grandson: songs in Spanish, guitar chords and the difference between edible and poisonous plants...Translated from the French by Karin Snelson and Emilie Robert Wong, At the Drop of a Cat is the sort of picture book that seems intended to awaken empathetic feelings and a child’s aesthetic senses.' — Wall Street Journal