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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The Christmas CatThe storyteller. Maryanne MacDonald has a gift for writing children’s stories that appeal to adults as well. Her latest work, The Christmas Cat (which imagines a relationship between the Child Jesus and a cat), is available today (10/17). She says it, as well as her previous book Odette’s Secrets can be summed up in one sentence: “Love saved them.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with her just prior to the opening of an exhibit of her husband George‘s beautiful landscape and still-life paintings at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center in New York.

JWK: Where did the inspiration for The Christmas Cat come from?

MARYANN MACDONALD: Well, I was always a big fan of Leonardo da Vinci and I happened to go to a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I saw this wonderful drawing of the Madonna with Child holding a big, fat, furry cat. I discovered that (Da Vinci) had done numerous drawings of what he called Le Madonna del Gatto in 1480 and 1481. So, I did a little more research into that and I discovered that until this period — until the Renaissance — the cat had been a eliminated for the most part from religious art because it had demonic associations but then (they were) rehabilitated at the time of the plague because people began to see that cats were our friends. You know, they killed off the rodents that carried the germs…So, they began appearing in religious art again. I thought how charming. Maybe it was conceivable that the Christ Child did had a pet because cats were kept as pets as early as the (ancient) Egyptians.

I did a little more research and discovered that there was a legend about a kitten that purred the Christ Child to sleep in Bethlehem on the night that He was born. I thought that was just charming and adorable. So I started the story that way and carried it on just a little further to the childhood of Jesus.

JWK: Are you a cat lover yourself?

MM: Yes, I am. I think they’re adorable little creatures and I’ve had many in my life. In fact, my husband and I were foster parents for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the RSCPA, when we lived in England. We had many cats and usually ended up keeping more than we wanted  to until we could find homes for them. So, we had lots of funny cats with personalities. They were just a lot of fun to have around.

JWK: What age group are you targeting with The Christmas Cat?

MM: Four to eight. That’s the picture book age range usually. Before the age of four they’re mostly board books or very, very simple picture books. I haven’t road-tested the book with anybody as young as three yet but I imagine three-year-olds would enjoy it — or (even) a precocious two-year-old, I’m not sure. It’s a little long maybe for a two-year-old.

JWK: Do you have children yourself?

MM: I do. I have two grown-up (daughters) and I have two grandchildren now. I have a granddaughter who…turned nine last weekend and a little grandson who is eight months old.

JWK: What do you hope little children learn from The Christmas Cat?

MM: I think children love animals and I think it humanizes the Child Jesus. Jesus can be a distant figure for children until they until they fully appreciate His human side. So, I think the idea of Jesus as a child like them and who had a pet,  perhaps like they do or would like to have, might bring them closer to the experience of appreciating Jesus’ human side and also I think the main line in the book about love is “Love saved them.” I think that the saving nature of love is the other element that I think is important about the book. Hopefully, they’ll understand that.

JWK: I understand that you’re a Catholic, like me.

MM: Yes, I am.

JWK: As a cat lover myself, I always like to point out that you can’t spell Catholic without CAT.

MM: Well, that’s so true, John! I’m glad you pointed that out!

JWK: Tell me about your husband.

MM: My husband used to be a lawyer. He worked for an international firm and worked in (for a company) in England for many years. So, we lived overseas for a long, long time. But now he’s painting. He has his first show here in New York City…We’re very excited about that.

MM:  Yeah, how did that happen!

JWK: Maybe he could do the illustrations for one of your books?

MM:  George — who was always good at drawing but committed to making a living — didn’t really get into painting until, say, the last ten years. He just retired officially a few weeks ago. So, now he’s really devoting a lot of time to it. He loves it. He just is really loving it.

JWK: Who did the illustrations for The Christmas Cat?

MM: They were done by a young woman — named Amy June Bates — who is really talented. I think you’ll agree with me (that) the book is beautiful. The illustrations are just luminous. I just loved the pages that stable (and) the light (shining) down from the star above…I loved the picture that showed the Baby Jesus sleeping with the cat. There are so many illustrations in that book that I just love. She has a real gift. She has a very loose, free hand — the way Leonardo did. But, at the same time, her art is very child friendly.

One of my daughters said when she was reading the book “It’s almost Disneyesque.” She meant that in the nicest, possible way. Because the animals — although they’re anatomically like animals — have living personalities…It’s beautifully done. I can’t say enough for her work.

JWK: It might make a good TV holiday special. Any possibility of either a film or TV special?

MM: That would be really so wonderful, wouldn’t it? From your lips to God’s ears, John.

JWK: Changing gears a bit, the tone of The Christmas Cat is quite a bit different than Odette’s Secrets, your previous book.

MM: Yes, it’s quite different. Odette’s Secrets is an historical novel. It’s written for a middle-grade audience — children, the publisher says, from ten to fourteen. I’ve heard from readers as young as eight (and) as old as seventy — or older.

It’s based on a true story about a child who survived the Holocaust in France during World War II by hiding in plain sight. While I was living in France years ago, I encountered a stunning statistic and that was that 84% of French Jewish children survived World War II — which I thought was astonishing! Everyone seems to think of the French as collaborators but, in fact, they saved three-quarters of the Jews who lived in France at that time — mostly by hiding them. They reckon that it took between seven and nine people to be complicit in hiding just one person. It involved a significant number of people. I was fascinated by that and I kept wondering what was it life for those children — who were not hidden with their parents. For the most part, they were hidden in Christian homes, schools and monasteries. What was it like for those children? They were in their formative years when they left their families behind and had to take on new identities. How did this affect them in their lives when they had to go back to being who they really were.

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Note: You can read more about both The Christmas Cat and Odette’s Secrets at Maryann’s website here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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