“Four Little Kittens”, a Little Golden Book by Kathleen N. Daly, should be enjoyed for the colorful and soft illustrations by Adriana Mazza Saviozzi, rather than scoured for any life lessons. Indeed, I must have been a child to have enjoyed a tale in which children are encouraged to choose between a life of homelessness, vagrancy, killing, or freeloading.
The “Four Little Kittens” of the title are born in a barn to a single mother with very little education or experience of the world at large. While being a caring and proud parent, her ability to envision a future for them is limited by her narrow scope of reality. She is also rather quick to force upon them the kind of decisions that are difficult to make when one is still a very small animal.
“Children,” she says, “the time has come for you to decide what kind of cats you will be.”
Before they have been properly socialized and before she has had the time to observe their personalities and preferences, she foists identity upon them in the form of occupation, reinforcing the uniquely American idea that “you are what you do.”
Because of her provincial nature, her already limited vision of the future is further limited by her presentation of only three kinds of individuals: one can be an alley cat, a ship’s cat, or a farm cat.
Alley cats are described as care-free anarchists, like the beatnicks of the feline world. They don’t have to wash, and they “make fine music at night.” Of course, they are vagrants, subsisting off the scraps of human city life, and they create no social value. One could argue that they help to control the rat population, but my guess is that rats and cats in this particular ecosystem are competitors rather than predator-prey. Tuff, the biggest cat, chooses this life and takes off immediately.
This would be a good time to talk about sexism and gender roles. This feline world reflects the human mores of its time: America in 1957. Of the four kittens, Tuff, Luff, Ruff, and Muff (we could have a separate review discussing the ingenuity of names in this tome), only one, Muff (of course), is a girl. This will play out in the mother’s discussion of occupation.
A Ship’s Cat is a stowaway. They are described as “jolly” and “roving.” Much like members of the armed services, they get to travel abroad, meet interesting foreign individuals, and kill things, as they are expected to keep the rat and mouse population under control. Luff chooses this life.
Farm Cats, like the mother cat, are killers. They catch mice and rats and live in a barn. “No House Cat am I,” says the mother proudly. She is “splendid, useful, and strong,” insinuating that House Cats are none of those things. Ruff chooses to be a Farm Cat.
The smallest, youngest, and most traditionally female kitten, Muff, is “gentle, playful, and pretty” as well as fastidious about her white paws. Clearly, she’s a nuisance and is ill-suited to any sort of life of hard knocks or challenges. The mother cat is frustrated with her, sighing “I don’t know what kind of cat you are,” before going off to catch a mouse for dinner.
Muff is afraid of big rats, likes to be clean, doesn’t want to travel, and she despairs of ever finding her purpose. In a classic depiction of the pathetic fallacy, she is rained on as she wanders the streets of the city alone, feeling cold and hungry and cross. She is then saved by a paragon of the patriarchy: an older, white male.
She winds up an a warm house with a little girl. She is given saucers of cream and cozy fires. She “jumps” and “pounces” in her “prettiest way” and never looks back to her siblings or mother. She discovers that she is “a cushion and cream cat, a purring cat, a cuddlesome cat, a playful cat, a little girl’s cat… a House cat!”
It’s a thinly veiled lesson to the little girls who are no doubt attracted to this little kitten book: boys can Be Someone, even if that Someone is of dubious value to society. Girls must be taken care of and fill their role as a pretty object, expected to perform at the will of the master. They are chosen not for their skills or their qualifications, indeed, they are not even expected to develop skills; they are chosen for their looks and their temperment, both of which are tied in to the societal expectations of their gender.
It would be one thing if this sort of attitude were confined to a time when we just did not know better, but, sadly, it is all too contemporary.
“Four Little Kittens”
Written by Kathleen N. Daly
Pictures by Adrianna Mazza Saviozzi
A Golden Book, copyright 1957