How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps – Nicola Winstanley and John Martz, Tundra Books, 2019
Very young children like routines, as long as they can control them. However, it something upsets a familiar process, such as a cat who refuses to take a bath, the results may be frustrating. Yet they also adapt, as Nicola Winstanley and John Martz chronicle in their sweetly empathic collaboration, How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps. A persistent little girl is determined to bathe her cat, appropriately named Mr. Flea. She has it all planned out. When her five easy steps don’t produce the desired result, she needs to reevaluate without giving up on her goal. Children reading this book will probably laugh both at her and with her, because kids can do that. Adults will enjoy the poetry of the simple language and the visual rendering of child-produced chaos.
No one has any reason to suspect potential problems on the first page: “STEP ONE: Fill the bathtub with warm water.” A little girl with a round brown face and equally round red pigtails peers over the edge of the tub while turning the faucet. Her cat, whose red ball of a nose matches the girl’s hair, looks down from a shelf with no sign of anxiety. By the second page, things start to go awry. The tub overflows and the girl starts over, this time with “a little warm water.” Winstanley’s words reflect a child’s mindset, as the girl adjust her expectations in a way that adults would not. Maybe the water should reach the cat’s knees. Maybe the problem is lack of energy, requiring cookies and milk.
In each of Martz’s pictures, the girl changes expression, from confidence to concern, and finally to anger, as she is forced to admit that cats have a different idea of a bath from humans. The small objects on each page help to tell the story and even to build a backstory. When she starts over after two failed steps, the girl stands on a stool to reach into the refrigerator. A broken egg and open jar of pickles litter the kitchen floor. The cat, perched atop the refrigerator, looks down at the process. Meanwhile, the refrigerator door is decorated with twin images of cat and girl, emphasizing their friendship, and even their equality. They are each invested in their own ideas about taking a bath. Step Ten is an image of defeat, the girl flat on her back, and the mop and pail in the background useless in cleaning up from her struggle with the cat.
The final two-page spread shows that the girl’s enterprise of bathing her cat was doomed from the start, as she has learned reluctantly to “Sit quietly while your cat licks himself clean.” If fact, the most interesting part of this story is the lack of a tidy resolution. There is no embrace of cat and girl, and her plucky persistence just doesn’t work. Toilet paper, an apple core, banana peel, and fish skeleton, as well as the more elevated accessories of books, a newspaper, and a cute stuffed koala, attest to the truth that, sometimes, you just have to admit your mistake. Children know this, and will find the book both funny and comforting. Adults certainly know that multi-step attempts to accomplish a goal often end up with the equivalent of banana peels on the floor. Everyone will appreciate this delightful book.