CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 2 . . . . September 17, 2004
On the night of the comet, when cats can speak to humans, Peter is having trouble sleeping. There is a question that runs around and around in his head, just like a cat chasing its tail. So he is awake when their Persian kitten comes into his room, leaps onto his chest and informs him that there are tigers at the door.
The visitors, two tigers and a Snow Leopard, tell Peter that they are on their way to ask questions of the Great Cat who lives far away beyond the mountains. Peter wants very much to go with them so he can ask the question that has been keeping him awake. As the cats explore his house, they pass through a big empty bedroom filled with dying plants and prowl around Peter's sad-faced father who is sleeping on the couch. It appears that all is not as it should be in Peter's life. In an effort to comfort the sad little boy, the Snow Leopard wraps her long, soft tail around him; however, when the magical night is over, she must travel on to the Great Cat without Peter.
Later that night, as Peter's father tucks him into bed, they discover they have both dreamed of tigers, and, although Peter still doesn't have the answer to his question, he finds that there is something he can do to make himself feel better.
There is a good deal more to On the Night of the Comet than meets the eye. Leslie Elizabeth Watts' sumptuous paintings of the cats depict richly detailed, over-sized felines who dominate the pages of this book. Watts' affinity for cats has shown up in other picture books she has illustrated, including You Can't Rush a Cat published in 2003. The artist skillfully captures the haunting mood of sadness and emptiness which permeates this story of a little boy dealing with the loss of his mother.
Coakley's story, unfortunately, does not match the high calibre of the illustrations. The narrative unfolds by way of a confusing mix of dream, symbolism, fantasy and reality. The reader is not sure which events are real, which dreamed and which imagined. If Peter is lying awake at the beginning of the story, how can the Persian kitten talk to him? Or is it just his imagination? Later in the book, he drifts off to sleep cuddled up with the Snow Leopard. "When Peter awoke the tigers were nibbling his toes." Is this event a dream within a dream? There are other inconsistencies in the tale which should have been picked up by the editor, if not the author.
Another serious problem with the story concerns the most pressing question that a reading of On the Night of the Comet will elicit. That question is, of course, "What has happened to Peter's mother?" Why the author decides to leave her audience in the dark on this issue is not clear. It is clear, however, that Coakley's brave attempt to deal with the difficult theme of bereavement from the point of view of a child does not work. The plot is sidetracked by her focus on the antics of talking cats, and the theme is muddied by her unwillingness to spend more of the narrative on Peter and his father's feelings.
A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.