This is a continuation of the Olympic series highlighting Newbery Medal-winning books. For previous days, see the links provided below.
Many great works of art are grand in scale and broad in scope. But some come in very small, unassuming forms. This is true of Elizabeth Coatsworth’s tiny masterpiece, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. In faraway ancient Japan, a young artist is struggling to make a living. He lives alone except for his old, faithful housekeeper, studying the teachings of Buddha and painting, poor but surrounded by beauty. One day, the housekeeper brings home a small, shy, beautiful white cat to keep them company. The young man is furious, because she has spent their food money to bring home a demon, but allows the cat to stay for her sake.
The little cat soon shows that she anything but a demon. She is polite, quiet, and very respectful to the artist. She never stares while her master eats, though she is very hungry, and she never eats more than half of her own food, so that she may be as little as a bother as possible. Her soft and gracious presence is such a blessing to the household, that she is named Good Fortune.
After Good Fortune has lived with the young artist for some time, priests from the Buddhist temple come to the young man to tell him that he has been selected to create a painting to honor Buddha that will hang in the temple for all to see. It is a chance for the poor artist to make his fortune, and he jumps at the opportunity. After prayer and meditation, he decides to paint a scene showing Buddha surrounded by the faithful animals. Each animal tells a story and gives an example of a virtue dear to Buddha. Each day, the artist meditates upon the animal and virtue he is to paint, and each day, Good Fortune quietly watches and praises him. When the time comes for the artist to choose and paint the last animal, he can see how desperately Good Fortune wants it to be a cat. But how can the artist dare draw a cat, when the reason cats became demons and devils is because of they rejected the teaching of Buddha in pride?
The Cat Who Went to Heaven may not be the longest book, but within its few pages is a powerful story of acceptance, repentance, and learning to love enough to see past differences. The beauty of Elizabeth Coatsworth’s story reminds of the good and grace that is in life, and will leave readers edified, uplifted, and misty-eyed.
*The Cat Who Went to Heaven is available for check-out at the Provo City Library, and at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library.