It’s Like This, Cat (1964 Newbery Award), Emily Neville
Shiloh (1992 Newbery), Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Perhaps it’s a bit obvious to pair these two, but I couldn’t resist. Each can be read in a day, each tells the story of a boy and his pet and how he manages to make the animal a welcomed member of the family. But there the similarities end.
It’s Like This, Cat is set in New York City in the 1960s, when a subway ride cost only a quarter. West Side Story was showing on Broadway, and 14-year-old kids could go from the Bronx Zoo to Coney Island, on their own, without parents freaking out. Dave, an only child, adopts Cat from a cat-lady neighbor and foresees trouble getting his asthmatic mother and argumentative father to accept the animal.
Of course they eventually do, but it’s a rocky ride, during which Dave has a fist fight with his best friend, rescues a girl (Mary) at Macy’s, helps a young man (Tom) move his life forward, and negotiates peace with his own father after another argument. Dave’s prickly feelings (how do I ask for her number without looking like an idiot? why does my dad change the channel in the middle of the program I’ve been waiting all week to watch?) combine well with his exploration of families: Mary’s mother is a true-to-life beatnik (she offers Dave a cigarette!), Tom’s father has disappeared leaving no forwarding address. Dave may still chafe under his parents’ strictures, but he learns to appreciate them.
A much deeper, more challenging book is Shiloh. The 11-year-old protagonist, Marty Preston, lives in rural West Virginia. His family can’t afford a phone, much less a dog, but Marty decides to rescue a mistreated beagle from a neighbor, Judd Travers. At several points, Marty has to decide between two evils: should he lie to save Shiloh, or tell the truth and return the dog to Travers? He chooses to lie — to his family, his friends, some townspeople, as well as Travers. I’m reminded of Huck Finn saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” when choosing loyalty over law. Marty reaches the same decision, and it leads him into all kinds of trouble. Yet we have to agree he made the right choice, don’t we?
It would have been easy for Naylor to paint Marty’s parents as beaten down by poverty, or Travers as irredeemably cruel, but she does neither. Her characters are real — human in their needs and fears, strengths and weaknesses. And Marty’s love for Shiloh is beautifully portrayed. Here’s Marty, with his best friend, before anyone knows that he’s keeping Shiloh hidden away:
We stand out in the meadow flying the kite, and I watch the blue-and-yellow-and-green tail whipping around in the breeze, and I’m thinking about Shiloh’s tail, the way it wags. You get a dog on your mind, it seems to fill up the whole space. Everything you do reminds you of that dog.
No doubt about it. That’s love.
Newbery Fun Fact: 15 of the 92 winners feature animals: 2 horses, 1 pigeon, several rabbits, 4 dogs (including a wild one), a wolf pack, 2 cats, a few rats, a mouse, a gorilla, and Dr. Doolittle’s menagerie.