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Color Kittens (Anglais) Relié – 1949
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THE COLOR KITTENS is the story of two cats who paint. They live in a world in which all the colors apparently already exist, but yet they are the ones who have yet to make all the colors of the world. They don't, however, have any green paint, so there's no green in the world, but they really like green, because everything they already really like in the world is green. Their reality is a psychedelic and contradictory maelstrom of lyrical color, and then the cats have a long dream about color, and then they wake up and spill their paint, and then all their spilled paint goes out and gives color to the world which we saw..wait...didn't there world already have color...? Yeah, it did. What the...?
It's freaky, and it makes no sense at all, even internally, but it's really not about making sense or telling a coherent story--it's really about creating a world of vivid brightness, a world that connects from image to image in an associative, dreamlike way.
In that sense, this book is a lot like David Lynch's classic psycho-horror film, ERASERHEAD, in that it's more about mood and a dreamlike state than it is about progression or anything literal. It is, admittedly, much less creepy than ERASERHEAD, which is good, since it's supposed to be a kids book, and I don't want my kids to have nightmares. Like ERASERHEAD, however, the story, already very dreamlike, is interrupted and eclipsed by an actual dream, making the "reality" that bookends the dream seem all the more surreal, like something you were never really in and can never really return to. In ERASERHEAD, the main character goes from psychotic drudgery and responsibility, to having his head ground up into pencil erasers. In THE COLOR KITTENS, the cats who paint the world go from mixing paint to a tree that magically changes color when you count, and also to dancing easter eggs.
The book is lyrical, and delightfully weird, and almost biblical in its phrasing. "O wonderful kittens! O Brush! O Hush!" The illustrations aren't perhaps as memorable and trippy as Garth Williams' pictures in LITTLE FUR FAMILY, but they are good--simple and schizophrenic, straight off a Haight-Ashbury 1960s mural about the power of culturally diverse acts of community service.
I didn't like this book when I first read it to my daughter, but that's only because I'm an adult, indoctrinated by a lifetime of trying to make sense of everything. Once I read it from my three-year-old daughter's point of view, however, I could really see the appeal--the appeal of pure color and feeling, oddity and dream. It's a good book for kids in that way, because it's probably a lot like how most kids experience the world--not as a straight adult narrative, but as a wild wash of strangeness and the new.
If you have kids as young as two or three, pick this one up. They're sure to enjoy it, and you might find your mind stretched a bit from it as well. It's something else.