Children's Book Notes: You Had Me at Meow

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I was walking one morning in New York City a couple of years ago when I first imagined a pope meeting a cat on the streets of Rome.

I visit New York for work from time to time, and I like to get out early in the morning before traffic and crowds build to walk the relatively quiet streets. The sun is usually coming up. I see service people arriving for work. There are no tourists. Sometimes, I’m on my way to an early morning Mass.

One of these mornings, I turned a corner and saw a stray cat sitting in the doorway of the church where I was headed. She was crouching down, her paws resting on bones of what looked like a small fish she had been eating. “Hello there,” I said. I like cats. She looked up at me, without fear, as if to return my greeting. So, I kept walking toward her. She darted away.

I continued to Mass, and when I came back out, I immediately thought again of that cat. She still wasn’t there, but the tiny fish bones lay in the empty doorway. It was a few days later, back at home in my office, when I began to jot notes for a story about a pope meeting a stray cat on the streets of Rome early one morning.

In that first story, The Pope’s Cat, my fictional pontiff adopts the cat he meets, and he carries her back into the Vatican. He names her Margaret. I didn’t realize it then, but I must have been motivated to create this part of the story because my wife and I were in the process of adopting a teenage girl. It was only when I sent the manuscript to my mother a month later, asking her to give it a read, that this became clear. Mom wrote back saying, “Margaret is Ana!” For whatever reason, that connection wasn’t known to me until my mother mentioned it. Now, of course, I realize that my fictional Margaret and my very real Ana have some things in common.

The second book in the series is about to publish. Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s will be available on October 1. In this book two, Margaret still feels vulnerable. She hasn’t forgotten what it was like to live on the streets, to be hungry, to be scared. In the story, the pope decides to show her around St. Peter’s Basilica, but soon after their tour begins he is called away. (He’s very busy, but wants to spend more time with Margaret – that’s one of the ongoing themes in the books.) The pope leaves Margaret in the care of a friendly Cardinal, but Margaret runs away, frightened.

She’s unable to leave the basilica, however. Doors are blocked by lines of tourists and pilgrims waiting to come inside. Margaret hides behind Michelangelo’s Pieta for a while, and she ponders what she sees, and what’s happening around her.

By the end of the day, as well as the end of the book, Margaret realizes that a liturgical event is beginning to take place inside the basilica. It turns out to be midnight Mass. Then and there she is reunited with the pope.

I wanted my main character to be a vulnerable creature. Kids feel vulnerable; parents worry about kids’ vulnerability; and Jesus says in the Beatitudes, essentially, “Blessed are the vulnerable.” What do we make of all of that? How can we live with such vulnerability?

As kids who read Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s will discover, the Christ child is born in vulnerability, and as Margaret understands by pondering the Pieta, that same Christ child later died as an adult feeling vulnerable again.

It seems to me that these are very important lessons for any Christian, for any human being, to contemplate and try to understand. I didn’t write The Pope’s Cat or Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s in a way that offers many answers. I think you’ll see that the books mostly tell stories, while leaving plenty of room for teachers, pastors, and parents to talk with the kids they love about what those stories mean.

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Copyright 2018 Jon M. Sweeney

About the author: Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope’s Cat series, illustrated by Roy DeLeon and published by Paraclete Press. Book two in that series, Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s (A Christmas Story), publishes on October 1.

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