LONGLIST REVIEW: The White Cat and the Monk

More than a thousand years ago, an Irish monk poetically penned his thoughts as he sat reading whilst his companion sat beside him. The writer saw a comparison between his daily strivings for wisdom and the activities of the white cat that shared his humble dwelling. Both led a simple life; one pursing knowledge and the other his supper- a mouse living in whole in the wall.

The original poem that this short narrative comes from was written in rhyming couplets and given the name ‘Pangur Bán’. Translated from the original Irish, the word ‘Bán’ means white or clean whilst the word ‘Pangur’ means a fuller - a person whose occupation was to whiten cloth. ‘Pangur Ban’ may simply be a reference to the monk’s feline friend with white fur, who is literally and figuratively the light in his life. A possible deeper interpretation is in similarity of the monk’s and the cat’s activities- their joint pursuit (with reference to the fuller) of purity or light (white).

The book begins with several pages of wordless story, open to the interpretation of the reader, whilst the white cat explores the abbey he lives in and arrives at the door of the Monk. The companions then work though the night in their quests for learning and sustenance and the monk reflects on the peace and enjoyment he finds in his work despite the challenges he faces. Each find ‘light in the darkness’ as their hunger for wisdom and food is satisfied.

This poem is beautifully crafted by Jo Ellen Bogart and exquisitely illustrated by Sydney Smith. Jo Ellen Bogart has written many bestselling children’s books and Sydney Smith has illustrated several, including ‘Footpath Flowers’, a NSTBA favourite. The book’s aesthetic style reflects the time in which the original poem was written, the 9th century over a thousand years ago, and the illustrations wouldn’t look out of place on a stained glass window of the period. The monk’s manuscripts in the centre of the book are particularly eye catching and would serve as a fabulous template for both discussion and artistic reproduction. Jo Ellen Bogart’s translation of the poem has a wonderful emotive feel as she considers the feelings of the monk towards his ‘Pangar Ban’. 

There is much to consider when sharing this text with children, not least developing an understanding of the life of the monk and the history of the time period with readers. There are many inferences to be made regarding the interpretation of the title of the original poem, as discussed above. What will your readers decide the poem means?

There are also many philosophical topics to discuss, for example ‘What is a scholar?’, ‘What is fame, and why would some people not wish to have it?, ‘What is real wealth?’, ‘What does it mean to pursue something and what is worth our energy to pursue?’. The monks reflection, ‘I treasure the wealth to be found in my books’ would be particularly interesting to investigate with readers and would be the perfect staring point for discussing and sharing things the children, and staff, have learnt from books they have read.

This is a truly beautiful book, a simple retelling of an old Irish poem with a profound message if understood. It would be enjoyable to share with children in both KS1 and 2.

The Children’s Writers of Guild have written about this book here, A YouTube video of the book can be seen here and the original poem can be found here. The Oscar-nominated film, The Secret of Kells, was inspired by the characters in this book and can be viewed here.

White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrated by Sydney Smith

Walker Books     ISBN: 9781406372977