I was going to write a feature drawing together several books about cats, but then realised that The Astronaut’s Cat has to stand alone. New South Wales author-illustrator Tohby Riddle’s book (published this year by Allen & Unwin) is both about a cat and not entirely about a cat.
Written from the highly specific viewpoint of a cat living inside a lunar station with her chilled-out astronaut owner, Riddle’s tale encompasses life on the moon and life on earth. He shows us the safe repetitions of an inside life and the dangers and wonders of an outside life.
The cat looks through the glass and explains quite how hostile to creatures it is out there on the moon: how a bowl of water left out in the sun would boil and how, at night, it is ten times colder than a fridge freezer. “Then there are tiny rocks called micrometeoroids whizzing around at ten kilometres per second. That troubles Cat.”
But when Cat dreams, she goes outside. In zero gravity “She leaps and pounces further than she’s ever leapt or pounced.” Her dreams then take her to earth, a place of great beauty and diversity, of flowing water, birds, butterflies and insects. It is “not too hot, and it’s not too cold” and there she can revel in life as an outside cat. It is a artful demonstration of just how lucky we are to have earth as our home.
Visually the book is brilliantly conceived. Riddle superimposes his simple hand-drawn cat and astronaut on to real NASA photographs of the moon. The cat’s dream of the earth is collaged from antique engravings and watercolours, along with Riddle’s own drawings.
At the close of the book, Cat wakes from her dream, her world shrinks again to a beige interior, with a single pot plant and her small ball which resembles the earth. “And that is that.”
This is a book which – thanks to its enigmatic feline lead character – does not tell readers what to think or what to feel. But it certainly prompts a lot of thinking and feeling.
There will be more about cats another time.