25 Women to Read Before You Die

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 16th, 2003


Jenny and the Cat Club (03 Edition)

by Esther Holden Averill

A review by Christina Schwarz

New York Review Books — which for the past four years, in one of publishing's happiest recent developments, has been unearthing unjustly forgotten treasures for adults — is reissuing these stories, first published in the 1940s and early 1950s, as part of its new series of children's classics. That the shy yet social heroine of this collection is named Jenny Linsky, I took to be an excellent sign, a nondescript surname being quite unusual for a cat. I wasn't disappointed. With their remarkable warmth and unstrained whimsy, these stories, together with their simply sketched illustrations, exhibit the most charming qualities of a typical eight-year-old. And the difficulties a sensitive cat faces — the desire to wow a well-established group of cool cats; what to do when a bully dog steals your scarf; feelings of jealousy, boredom, embarrassment, shame, and loneliness — are those with which eight-year-olds (not to mention thirty-eight-year-olds) will be familiar. In the end things always work out well for winsome Jenny and her exceptionally kind friends, which, if not familiar, is certainly gratifying. As with any successful work of fiction, however, what makes these stories especially pleasing is not the relevance of the issues they address but the skill with which their characters and scenes are drawn. The members of the Cat Club (who meet regularly to sing and dance and feast on fish in Captain Tinker's garden), and the other cats with whom Jenny consorts in Lower Manhattan, have distinct personalities, recognizable by and interesting to human beings, presumably the bulk of Averill's readership. However, whereas the animals in many children's books are merely people with fur, Averill captures the essential catness of her characters. When Jenny is afraid, for instance, she lies all day on a soapbox in the cellar. While searching for ice skates, she ransacks a drawer of fishing tackle. When she and Pickles, the cat mascot of a New York City fire company, discuss the fact that they are broke and so cannot throw a party, she "poke[s] her paw in a crack in the sidewalk, as if she hope[s] to find a penny" — an optimistic habit anyone acquainted with a cat will have witnessed. Obviously, Averill colors her stories with abundant flights of clever fancy. (Her cats are partial to accessories, such as — my favorite — an Indian feathered headdress borrowed from a doorman.) But the nonchalance with which she delivers these makes them as real as her grounding details. Although adults may occasionally squirm at touches of didacticism that help to shape the tales' plots, children will find Jenny's lessons about emotions and behavior helpful and reassuring.

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