A few weeks back, I found myself in a conversation with Jane Godwin over a glass of wine. We were talking about the unexpected ways that children respond to picture books. They might love something that the adult finds incredibly dull, or perhaps they adore something the grown-up loves, but expected no engagement from them at all.

I recounted a story from when I was studying Early Childhood teaching and was on a prac placement in a pre-school. There was this one boy who was a terror most of the time, as is the way sometimes. He dominated the playground, disrupted mealtimes, and rarely went to nap time without some kind of resistance.

On the third or fourth day I was there, it was my turn to lead story time, and I selected John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat from the display of picture books. It had been some time since I’d read it, but I recalled liking it. I found myself thinking that this boy might struggle with such a quiet story from 1977 about an old woman, her dog, and a cat that comes calling. I was astounded, however, when he sat transfixed throughout the entire book, and then begged me to read it again. I obliged. I’d never seen him as still and attentive. He went straight into nap time without argument. The experience stayed with me.

When I finished this story, Jane told me that she has never forgotten a blogpost that the author Anna Branford wrote over a decade ago about her own personal readings of that same book at different ages. I have always loved Anna’s writing since the first Violet Mackerel book came out while I was working with Walker Books. I’ve even modelled some of my own writing on her work because I admire her so much. I immediately searched for this blog post, but it was no longer online.

In the following days, I couldn’t get the thought of it out of my mind, so I emailed Anna, recounted Jane’s recollections and asked if she happened to have it filed away somewhere. She didn’t, but she found it hidden in the archives of the internet and sent it to me.

As it happened, it was profoundly relevant to my current state of mind.

With her permission, I’m sharing it here, and then I will talk about how much it meant to me.

An internal spread of the picture book 'John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat'. It shows a dog turning over a bowl of milk on a porch while an old woman is seen through a window. and a cat walking around the corner.

Anna Branford:

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat

April 30th, 2011

I recently reread Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ beautiful book, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat.

The book is about an elderly woman, Rose, and her beautiful loyal sheepdog John Brown. A strange black cat visits each night. Rose longs for the cat to join them in their home but John Brown won’t allow it.

He drew a line around the house and told the midnight cat to stay away. “We don’t need you, cat,’ he said. ‘We are all right, Rose and I.’

For me, what is special about this book is that it has been three completely different stories at three different times in my life.

~

When I read it as a child, it was a story about overcoming jealousy and being able to share even the friend you felt the most possessive about. I generally had a ‘best friend’ throughout my primary school years and sometimes it was me who wanted to draw the line around us and not allow anyone else in, sometimes the friend who was being possessive of me. Either way, it was always a bit painful when it was stepped over.

But Rose saw the midnight cat often after that.
Every night, when John Brown was not looking, she put out a bowl of milk.
And every night, when Rose was not looking, John Brown tipped it out again.

As a child, I longed for Rose to be able to have both the companions she wanted and was so relieved when John Brown overcame his reluctance and allowed the midnight cat to enter in the end.

~

When I read the book again in my early twenties to the children I looked after, it had changed. It had become a story about an elderly couple facing the worst kind of sadness.

‘I’m sick,’ said Rose. ‘I’m staying in bed.’
‘All day?’ said John Brown.
‘All day and forever,’ said Rose.

John Brown’s unwillingness to allow the black cat to enter their home had become that of an elderly husband unable to face the thought of the death of his wife. In both sets of my own grandparents, one far outlived the other, and I think I must have found my fears of their grief and loneliness in the story. I longed for John Brown to shoo the midnight cat away forever.

~

Not having seen the book since my twenties and having lost my old copy, I bought myself a new one and read it last week. And what do you know, it has changed again, to become a story about just about one person, wondering whether or not she can face some dark part of herself.

It’s not a very fashionable idea in pop-psychology (which, broadly speaking, would have us believe that our fears, shortcomings and cruelties are absolutely intolerable and must be immediately transformed to facilitate our personal greatness) but Jung wrote, ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is’.

‘Look, there he is, John Brown,’ she said. ‘Don’t you see him now?’
But John Brown shut his eyes.

In Jungian thinking, struggling against your shadow and denying its existence is a pathway to confusion and unhappiness. Coming to know and understand it is a pathway to peace.

John Brown went out to the kitchen and opened the door, and the midnight cat came in. Then Rose got up and sat by the fire, for a while.

And the midnight cat sat on the arm of the chair…and purred.

~

I wonder what story John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat will tell me when I’m Rose’s age…

 

A page from the picture book, 'John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat'. It shows a dog standing by a door and a cat walking in.

 

For much of this year I’ve been struggling with my own shadows, and a feeling of overwhelm and insignificance, almost like a combination of all three of Anna’s readings of this book.

If I allow the midnight cat in, does that somehow make me less significant in my own life, as well as the lives of others? Is jealousy of others supposed happiness keeping me from acknowledging my own depression? And is acceptance of the shadow a finite act signifying the end?

When my own trauma lurks for longer than I can account for; when dealing with it head on makes me wonder if I’ll ever be free of it, yet I know full well putting it behind me unaccounted for would be worse; when the trauma of a world haemorrhaging lives and love is constantly present and goes unchecked by global powers…

I find myself stuck, and shrinking, and unable to function.

‘Look, there he is, John Brown,’ she said. ‘Don’t you see him now?’

I refuse to close my eyes.

So, it’s a comfort to know that others see the world as I do; that picture books are not just for young children, and that important things can be discovered in their pages by readers of all ages.

Like that boy at that preschool all those years ago, I’m the troublemaker in my own head, distressing my already terrorised mind with narratives that deconstruct my ability to affect or contribute to positive change. And this unlikely picture book – a format some would argue is for children alone – calmed me. I asked for it again, and I found some rest.

Then Rose got up and sat by the fire, for a while.

In my next blogpost, I will explore some other picture books that have meant the world to me as an adult reader. It is an artform I firmly believe transcends age.

1 Comment

Ann Haddon

Great to read!
Couldn’t agree more about how important picture books are for any age …
Thanks Michael

May 21, 2024 at 7:14 pm ·

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