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it's like this, cat

24 february 2011

Dave Mitchell, narrator and protagonist of Emily Neville's Newbery-Medal-winning It's Like This, Cat (1963), avoids "hoody looking kids" (26) but likes the kids from the "project" (43). Every once in a while he heads down "to buy some coke" (143). If you're looking for an example of the concept "dated" in children's literature, look no further.

By "coke" Dave of course means a soft drink, and by "project" he means, rather quaintly even for 1963, Stuyvesant Town. But it took me a while to figure out what he meant by "hoody looking": wearing hoodies? from the hood? I finally tipped that he must mean "hoods" as in Robin and the Seven. Jeepers, I wouldn't want to run into hoods like that, either.

If you're going to write contemporary realism, your work is going to become dated; there is no cure for that phenomenon short of the end of history. What's poignant about It's Like This, Cat is how immediately it became dated. For instance: it's 1963, remember. Dave's pal Tom, an NYU dropout, is having some trouble getting back on his feet. Unable to find a job he likes, but interested in marrying someone named Hilda, Tom hits on a super solution: join the Army! It's only for three years, and he can choose his "specialty," marry Hilda, live in Manhattan, and go to night school!

Of course, Emily Cheney Neville could not have known in 1963 that she was setting Tom up for adventures that would be more Full Metal Jacket than Harriet the Spy. She could hardly have known that every cultural verity expressed in It's Like This, Cat would be swept away before the end of the decade.

Most interesting of the sweepings-away involve New York City itself. Fourteen-year-old Dave lives with his parents (a lawyer and an asthmatic, slightly neurasthenic housewife) on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. He's a gentle, mild-mannered kid who rides his bike around the neighborhood, likes cokes and ice cream, can't understand why his chums are starting to prefer the company of girls. Dave acquires a cat from Kate, the local crazy cat lady, and carries the cat, named Cat, around in a wicker hamper. By the standards of 2011, Dave seems somewhat retarded, but he's doing a prep course at a public high school and seems no more developmentally disabled than anyone else in his social circle. Everyone in the blocks around the park is gentle, community-minded, and into each other's business in a pleasantly officious way.

Gramercy Park to this day is an oasis of privilege, but as captured in a 1963 children's book it seems almost surreally so. As the green spots of Manhattan were succumbing to drugs and destitution, from "Needle Park" above down through Washington Square and Tompkins Square Park – even as Neville was writing – the world of It's Like This, Cat remains small-townish, even pastoral. The contrast is all the odder because the infrastructure of the city has changed so little since 1963: you can follow Dave around the boroughs on the same streets, parkways, and subway lines that exist today. (Neville's local color is faultless.) But the social landscape of New York has changed, and changed, and changed again within those outlines.

In addition to its curiously genteel setting, It's Like This, Cat has a plot so unobtrusive as to pass almost without notice. Dave falls out with pal Nick because Nick likes girls. He picks up with pal Tom when Tom, an apprentice thief, helps rescue Cat from a cellar. He picks up with friend Ben on Rosh Hashanah, seeing how the non-Gentile half lives. He picks up with Mary, a girl you can talk to because it's not like talking to a girl. And that's it.

I don't think that kids grow up quicker in 2011 than they did in 1963. I think we just wished, in 1963, that they'd grow up slower. And we weren't afraid to write books about them doing so, or to give those books the highest literary honors.

Neville, Emily Cheney. It's Like This, Cat. Illustrated by Emil Weiss. 1963. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.