Adventures in Catland: Cats at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books

August 16, 2022 | Wendy B.

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The Cat Scouts FP Osborne blank horizontal
Detail from The Cat Scouts, by Jessie Pope, illustrated by Louis Wain. Approximately 1916.

Tricksters. Familiars. Helpers. Criminals. Suburban dads. Fluffy little babies. Hiss-torically, cats have played every pawsible role in children’s books.

Our new exhibit, Adventures in Catland, runs from August 2 to October 14, 2022 at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (located on the 4th floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch). Here's a sneak peek at some of the books on display.


Fairy Tales and Folklore

Dame Wiggins of Lee

Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats (PDF). Ascribed to Richard Scrafton Sharpe and Mrs. Pearson. Approximately 1867.

First published in 1823, Dame Wiggins of Lee was a nursery favourite in the 19th century. The Dame’s clever cats attend school, learn to paint and rescue a farmer’s herd of sheep. You can compare this story with the similar tale of Dame Trot and her Wonderful Cat(s) - we have more than a dozen versions in our Digital Archive


Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington (PDF). Author unknown. 1907.

Dick Whittington's cat is a talented mouser who helps Dick become a wealthy merchant and politician. Richard Whittington (circa 1354–1423) was an actual historical figure, who served as Lord Mayor of London. The story of “Dick” Whittington’s life became folklore, with popular ballads and chapbooks featuring fairy tale retellings. This is a later, "shaped" picture book of the tale. You can also see an earlier chapbook edition in the exhibit, as well as several more in our Digital Archive.


The Cat and the Devil

The Cat and the Devil (print book). By James Joyce. 1965.

Did you know that James Joyce, celebrated author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, wrote a children's book? Originally written as a letter to Joyce’s grandson, The Cat and the Devil was published posthumously. In Joyce’s fable, a mayor cleverly escapes a deal with the devil with the help of a cat.


Picture Books

Angus and the Cat

Angus and the Cat (print and ebook) by Marjorie Flack. 1931.

Angus, the lovable Scottish terrier from the classic picture book series of the same name, spots a cat while exploring outdoors – but his leash won’t let him get close. When the same cat returns indoors, Angus must share his food and his favourite cozy spots. Will this visitor stay? Could this be the start of a new friendship? Marjorie Flack based Angus on her own dog.


My Cat Looks Like My Dad

My Cat Looks Like My Dad (print book) by Thao Lam. 2019.

Family, and family resemblances, are what you make them in this funny and charmingly illustrated picture book by Toronto author Thao Lam. 


Famous Cats

Puss in Boots

Colman's Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots (PDF). By Charles Perrault, published by J & J Colman. 1890.

In Puss in Boots, a clever cat helps a commoner become a noble and marry a princess. Charles Perrault’s popular telling of the story was published in 1697. It was entitled Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (The Master Cat, or the Booted Cat). However, the first recorded version was Giovanni Francesco Straparola's Costantino Fortunato (Lucky Costantino) in Le piacevoli notti (1550). While we don't have this version on display, we do have another Italian edition that dates back to 1604. You can also browse 48 different versions of the tale in our Digital Archive. (This one doubled as an advertisement for Colman's mustard!)


Cheshire Cat

Cheshire Cat

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (print and ebooks) by Lewis Carroll. Originally published 1865.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat speaks with Alice on two occasions, then disappears, leaving only his grin. According to Carroll, the character was inspired by a stone carving of a cat he saw on a building when he was young. Since the publication of Alice, literally hundreds of artists have illustrated editions of the book. We have several on display, including versions by Mervyn Peake, Tove Jansson, Yayoi Kusama and Salvador Dalí.


Famous Cat-lovers

Beatrix Potter

Tom Kitten

The Tale of Tom Kitten (print and ebooks) by Beatrix Potter. 1919.

This tale follows Tom Kitten and his two sisters as they play in the garden. But they end up in trouble when their mother finds out that their clothes have gone missing! Despite complaining to her publisher that she did "not draw cats well," Potter’s troublesome kittens have appeared in many of her stories. We have several of them on display, along with porcelain figurines, an original sketch by Potter (in a letter to a Canadian friend) and much more.


T. S. Eliot

book of practical cats

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (print and ebooks) by T. S. Eliot. 1939.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is a collection of whimsical poems by celebrated Modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). These poems were written in the 1930s and included in letters to his friends’ children. They were later compiled and published into one volume by Faber & Faber, where Eliot was a director. We have several versions of the book on display, including a 1939 edition illustrated by Eliot himself (shown here), and of course the iconic 1982 edition illustrated by Edward Gorey.


Edward Gorey

Gorey beanbags

Beanbag dolls, by Edward Gorey (print books). 1978. 

Beloved illustrator Edward Gorey, known for his quirky Gothic sensibility, was extremely fond of cats. He designed these two beanbag toys himself in the 1970s. Although these are mass-produced, Gorey sometimes made stuffed animals by hand as gifts for friends. In addition to toys, we have several of Gorey's cat-themed books on display.  


R. M. Ballantyne

Illustration of a cat checking itself out in the mirror, while another cat enters the room and shockingly looking at it.

Illustration from The Robber Kitten, included in Funny Animals (PDF), by R. M. Ballantyne. 1867.

R. M. Ballantyne was known for his Victorian adventure stories. (He wrote over 100 of them, one of which, The Coral Island, is still in print.) But he also wrote books about kittens for young children. Ballantyne's kittens, like many other fictional cats of their time, ranged in behaviour from mischievous to criminal. This attitude towards cats changed suddenly in the late 1800s, when Louis Wain appeared on the scene.


Louis Wain

Fidgety Phil

Father Tuck's Fidgety Phil and Other Tales (PDF), by Louis Wain. 1901.

In Louis Wain's imaginary Catland, cats dressed in human clothes, played golf and hosted tea parties. And they were a publishing sensation. In the early 20th century, in spite of a tragic personal life, Wain sold hundreds of his Catland paintings, postcards and picture books every year. Some people even credit him with popularizing the keeping of cats as pampered house pets in the English-speaking world. We have several Louis Wain items on display, including this all-cat adaptation of Heinrich Hoffman's terrifying German classic, Struwwelpeter


Post adapted from Adventures in Catland (2022), curated by Wendy Banks, Roberta Duarte, Maya Fang and Myrna Scully-Ashton. Adventures in Catland features content from Puss in Books (1997), curated by Elizabeth Derbecker.