raising a child with Ursula LeGuin

We discovered Ursula LeGuin’s “Catwings” when my daughter, Jane, was quite young. She was drawn to the book’s cover with its detailed art that hinted winged cats were the most natural creatures in the world. Since one of the books in the series featured a black cat named Jane, we wanted to read them all.

That realism mattered a great deal. You held “Catwings” in your hand and entered the story before turning the cover. The color palette was melancholy, promising delicate stories about delicate lives. On the other hand, as delightful as cats with wings might be, there was part of you that didn’t want them to exist. You knew — even children knew — such creatures were at risk in a world such as ours.

It’s a classic anthropomorphic motif: Small animals make their way in the world, encountering cruelty and stumbling upon protection, struggling through misunderstanding and learning to accept affection. This is what it means to be a child, of course. Every adult you meet has the potential to harm you or heal you in ways you have yet to imagine.

While it is true that children identify with the vulnerable, shy-yet-adventurous cats (All the better that these cats are unique and misunderstood; so is the reader!) it is also true that children see the cats (simultaneously, this is no contradiction) as “other.”

The Catwings do not inhabit a fantasy place. They pad and flutter about in our place — a place with car exhaust and barking dogs and honking horns and stomping feet. Readers recognize what we have created and see it as it is, especially to those encountering it for the first time.

Noisy. Confusing. Dangerous.

Ursula LeGuin isn’t writing about wonder and adventure, though there is plenty of both tucked into the pages of “Catwings.” Ursula LeGuin is writing about empathy.

When cats Thelma, Harriet, James, and Roger at last meet the children, the author lays out an eloquently structured mirroring of thought, word, and action. Cats begin to trust humans and humans process how to be worthy of trust. The children speak to each other about their own responsibility and the importance of secrecy. They are not only inclined toward kindness, they are determined to be kind.

And then, the deeply satisfying final lines:

“Oh Hank,” Susan whispered, “Their wings are furry.”

“Oh James,” Harriet whispered, “Their hands are kind.”

When I read “Catwings” (again and again) to my daughter (she was maybe three or four when we first discovered it) she identified with the cats. She intuitively knew the world beyond our reading chair was a broad, complex place filled with mother owls and rainstorms, as well as shelter from mother owls and rainstorms. She pretended to be a cat — one who could flit away from danger with a flick of feathers.

And yet she knew she was also a child, and so she became watchful. She navigated the world with an eye to the sky in hopes of sighting a flying cat. Her hands were kind — to kittens and to mice, to delicate flowers, to pages of books.

I read “Catwings” aloud to Jane recently, after we heard of LeGuin’s death. At 16, Jane saw an additional allegory, one of refugees and border crossings and the power of compassion. Is that what the book was always about, she wondered. Was that always hiding within the pages?

The best children’s literature features the most sumptuous syntax, the most memorable characters, and the most essential stories of who we are and who we are capable of becoming.

Before she learned Calculus, before she learned Rhetoric, my child curled herself into a ball, leaning in as close to me as she could reasonably get. With this task in hand, she leaned in to every word, and that is how she learned empathy from Ursula LeGuin — one of many children’s authors who do the important work of raising us all.

When this child flies away, she carries this with her.

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