The picture book The Dog Called Cat by the author and poet Tomi Kontio and the illustrator Elina Warsta is a genuine treasure. Kontio’s lyrical text is well thought out and flows beautifully through the book. Warsta’s illustration appeals with its beauty and harmony without being too smooth. There is rare delicacy and bravery in the compilation, which is bound to touch the reader. The book was nominated for the 2016 IBBY Honour List.
The basic composition of the picture book can be found in its title, The Dog Called Cat. The main character is a mixed-breed dog whose mother named it Cat because cats are independent. Independence is something the dog needs as its adventurous father has disappeared, all its siblings have died in birth and its mother is forced to abandon the puppy without providing any kind of explanation. It is possible to find underlying meanings from the title: break free from the prejudice and break free from the roles imposed upon you.
Playing with the concepts of dogs and cats can be difficult for a small child, but Kontio helps the reader by using lyrical repetition in those parts of the text where he wants to remind the reader about the setting: “Cats are independent, mother said, but I didn’t feel the independence in me, only the loneliness. I was the loneliest dog in the whole world. The Dog Called Cat.” Repetition is heavier in the first half of the book and points at the fact that the main character is not comfortable with its name and role. Throughout the book, the dog ponders the demands of independence connected to its name and whether there really is a difference between loneliness and independence. These themes make the book suitable for older readers as well.
The dog wanders the world, carrying the burden of loneliness. Attempts to find company fail as other animals turn their back on Cat. Warsta’s illustration shows the dog sitting in the middle of a field, the end of its tail in a puddle, with all the other animals running or flying away. The bird’s eye view of the spread emphasises the dog’s misery and it seems like even the trees and the straws are leaning away from the abandoned vagabond. Warsta takes advantage of movement, switching angles and distances in her illustrations, adding an edge and an element of surprise to the pictures. She does not forget to add funny and insightful details to her illustrations, especially to those related to the cat and dog theme.
The dog called Cat finds its way to Helsinki and begins a new life as a city dog. Despite the change of environment and the chance to find company, the dog does not trust anyone or anything, not even itself. However, one day the dog finds an anchor to life, sleeping soundly under a cardboard box. It is a man, smelling like a sewer or a trash can, who tells the dog that he is a “[h]uman called Weasel i.e. a hobo, a bum, a tramp or homeless.” When the two abandoned and rootless lost souls look deep into each other’s eyes, the moment is charged with meaning.
The friendship provides new colours into the illustrations. The blues and the greens give way for warm red and orange tones. Weasel and the dog explore the city together, teaching each other. Weasel shows the best places to sleep and the dog sniffs its way to those trash cans that contain the most delicious meals. They collect empty bottles and return them to a shop in exchange of a full bottle. The homeless life is described in a way suitable for a picture book and the people to be pitied are, surprisingly, the rich ones who, according to Weasel, are prisoners of their money.
The Dog Called Cat has many dimensions and it can be read as a statement for multiculturalism and against exclusion and inequality. Weasel and Cat, living in the moment, show the reader that it does not matter what you look like or what you are called, as long as you have a big heart.
Emilia Kämäräinen, 11/2016
Also by Tomi Kontio:
Keväällä isä sai siivet (Tammi 2000)
Austraasian viimeiset lapset (Tammi 2002)
Lehmä, jonka kyljessä oli luukku (Teos 2006)