Dream-Of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat by Lloyd Alexander
Lloyd Alexander’s love and respect for felines is obvious — one need only look at the number of books he has written about them, such as Time Cat, The Town Cats and Other Tales and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man. And who could forget the giant cat Llyan from The Chronicles of Prydain?
Dream-of-Jade: the Emperor’s Cat continues in the tradition of having a cat protagonist who is clever and cunning, witty and wise, and who uses her considerable intelligence to help out the hapless human-folk around her. Named for her bright green eyes, Dream-of-Jade is an imperial cat that wanders the halls of the Emperor Kwan-Yu’s palace. Deciding to make the acquaintance of the exalted Emperor, Jade makes herself comfortable on his throne and awaits his coming (embodying the saying that a cat can look at a king… and sit on his throne). She’s surprised to find that he’s hardly an impressive specimen of a man (being short, elderly and fragile), but despite the protestations of his councilors, she strikes up a friendship with him.
What follows is a series of five stories in which Jade shares her cat-like wisdom to the befuddled, child-like emperor and making the foolish, simpering mandarins that surround him look foolish. She makes a particular enemy of the Chief Minister Yin-Chuan, whose bluster and fustiness is taken down a peg or two by Jade’s calm rationalization, sense of fun and ability to awaken the Emperor’s eyes to the possibilities around him. As always, Alexander‘s trademark humour, common sense and words of wisdom are pronounced throughout the story, and yet are never too overbearing. He is one of the few children’s authors to seamlessly meld such life-lessons into a text without one feeling as though they’ve been hit over the head with a moral-of-the-story.
In its Oriental setting, it bears a striking similarity to The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, particularly in its gentle mockery of the pompous titles, such as the Chamber of Enlightened Edicts, the Glittering Repository of Highly Valuable Objects and the Department of Lighthearted But Not-Too-Frivolous Diversions. In fact, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen would be a good companion book to this shorter work.
D. Brent Burkett provides delicate, dreamlike illustrations, which capture the liveliness of humans and the beauty of Dream-of-Jade in muted pastel shades. The one in which the Emperor plays leapfrog with the children is guaranteed to make you smile. Even better is his use of light and shadow that fills the regal, tranquil palace and its gardens, adding a sense of homeliness to the exotic setting. It is worth saying however, that the illustrations take up less space than the text — this story is not a “picture book” that you could sit down and read to a four year old. It’s far too long for that, and there are several double pages that consist solely of text.
Cats may not be “man’s best friend,” and even cat-lovers will admit that there is an aloofness and pride to them (as well as that look they give you that makes it very clear that they consider you their servant). But Lloyd Alexander understands the mystery and beauty of cats, avoiding the stereotype of “the mean cat” and tapping into their more appealing essence of wise tricksters. Dedicating this book to “my dear cats who told me these tales,” this is another gem to add to what should be a growing stack of Lloyd Alexander books.
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