A chance visit from a stray cat inspires a first children’s book

When the stray cat emerged from the wilderness to spy on Oregon author Vicki Spandel, its appearance captured her imagination. “I wondered where he came from and that got me thinking,” she explains. “What if a cat left the house on a whim and ended up in a world he was totally unprepared for? What a great story that would make.” The result is Not an ordinary catThe beautifully illustrated story of Rufus, an adventurous cat whose destiny is not only to explore, but to touch the hearts of others. (“Jeni Kelleher is an artistic genius,” Spandel says of the illustrator.)

The book that Kirkus Reviews Hailed as a “cat-centric but deeply human and adult-friendly children’s novel,” isn’t Spandel’s first book. The author previously wrote The 9 rights of every writer and Create Writers and has published over 40 books on writing and writing instruction. As a former classroom teacher and review writing director, she had the opportunity to read thousands of student essays. In her first novel, she demonstrates that she is aware of the sensibilities of both children and adults by writing a novel that never slams its readers — and is well-designed to be read and shared.

From the beginning of Not an ordinary cat, it is clear that young Rufus is going to become an explorer. Inspired by the stories of Uncle Oscar, whose childhood years were accompanied by adventures at sea, Rufus gazes out the window and observes the world. When he is adopted by Mrs. Lin, a gardener and baker, he quickly becomes an indispensable helper, keeping the woman company by making sure she doesn’t forget any ingredients and by digging holes for her flower bed. On his first birthday, he feels the urge to wander:

It seemed as if he had mastered everything his surroundings had to teach him, and the boundaries of his new domain, once boundless as the sky, began to approach him. He remembered something Uncle Oscar had once said. “If your world gets too small, cattle, you’re the only one who can make it bigger.” He was eager to do just that. But how?

So Rufus goes out into the world, and an accident with some geese brings him to the comfortable home of the lonely poet Mr. Peabody, who comes to love having the cat in his house. But when the poet discovers that his new writing companion is Mrs. Lin’s missing cat, he knows he must give up poor Rufus. To prevent Mr. Peabody from resuming a lonely existence, Mrs. Lin persuades him to adopt Asha. Though the aloof, almost feral cat doesn’t behave the way everyone expects, her arrival gives Rufus a new insight that friendship — which he always thought was so easy — isn’t easy for everyone. Rufus’ ability to fill the hole of loneliness and help others connect is something that makes him very special.

This touching story of loneliness, healing and friendship resonates strongly as a book published in 2020, a year when many people had to give up their normal, personal relationships and friendships because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Loneliness has been a universal theme lately,” Spandel says. “During lockdowns, we couldn’t have coffee with friends or hug children and grandchildren who lived elsewhere. Animal societies kept many people going, and that is what the book is ultimately about: the power of friendship and the healing bond between animals and humans.”

The theme of loneliness is not the only part of Not an ordinary cat that can resonate, especially with creative voices who have gone through periods of not being able to write during the pandemic. The frustration of not finding words is, of course, much older, and readers of all ages will probably be familiar with Mr. Peabody’s initial struggle to write his poems. In the story, Rufus’ presence is just the change Mr. Peabody needs to find the inspiration to write again, and some of his poems (and a recipe for crab cakes) are presented at the end of the book.

Spandel avoids the term writer’s block, choosing to think of the moment when the words won’t come as “more of a break”. And while adopting a pet every time a writer is stuck isn’t an option, sometimes changing your environment can be enough. “If one passage just doesn’t work for me, I’ll go work on another part of the document — or go for a walk. Writing doesn’t really live on a computer anyway. It lives in our heads. Writers do their best work outside their desks.”

Both Rufus and Asha were inspired by real cats. Spandel’s experience with the bum who inspired Rufus was short-lived, but Asha “is based on a true legend, Snooky,” she says. “For 22 years, Snooky guarded my Grandma Daisy’s house in North Dakota, taking on all the newcomers, including ferrets and dogs. Growing up with stories about this fantastic warrior, I wanted to honor her colorful history with a cat who also has tiger blood in her veins.” Spandel’s own cats, Suki and Zoe, also act as Rufus’ neighbor cats, Karma and Sadie, who have no inclination to explore the wider world.

Like Mr. Peabody, who reads his poetry aloud to Rufus, Spandel recommends that writers read their work aloud — or have someone read it aloud. “My development editor, Steve Peha, reads my writing nasty me,” she says, “which is a very different experience and even more useful.” In the case of Not an ordinary catAs a result, the novel has an oral cadence that makes it perfect for sharing with young children.

In the novel’s introduction, Spandel shares that her favorite books to read with her children were the ones that had the family ask, “Where were we?” when they picked it up the next night. In 2022, they can ask for their place in the upcoming sequels to Not an ordinary catFinding Waihona and Asha, Cat Queenalso.

With this first children’s book Spandel’s work is included in that canon of the kind of story best shared out loud, whether that be an adult to a young child, or perhaps an adult to a beloved pet. Even for readers who don’t have an audience to share the words with, the characters in these pages, and their triumph over loneliness and friendship, can provide a cure for a reader’s own loneliness. Friends, both cats and humans, can be found on these pages.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books