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‘They All Saw a Cat’ displays extraordinary vision

“They All Saw a Cat”

Written and Illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

Chronicle Books, $16.99, ages 3-6

“They All Saw a Cat” is Brendan Wenzel’s first book as both author and illustrator. But this debut doesn’t have any of the rough edges or flat notes of a rookie’s work. What it does have — in abundance — are the easy charms and wisdom of a classic.

First there is the simple text, hypnotically repetitive, which tells the story of a cat as it crosses paths with other animals. “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . . and the child saw A CAT, and the dog saw A CAT, and the fox saw A CAT. Yes, they all saw the cat.” It’s easy to imagine a group of toddlers chanting along, palms thumping knees to keep time with the rhythm of the words.

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The cat comes across more animals — a bee, a flea, and a snake among them — and what lifts these encounters from the realm of nursery rhyme into fizzy, inspiring picture book stratosphere is Wenzel’s extraordinary delivery of a high concept.

Here’s the idea: The cat looks different when viewed by each animal. Cool, right? But wait. Each page is illustrated in a completely different style. Wenzel doesn’t just tweak perspectives. He creates — with marker, pencil, crayon, cut paper and watercolor, acrylic and oil pastel — a new vision of the cat for every creature. The cat in soft-focus — magnified and distorted — as seen by the fish, transforms by the next page into an angular, toothy, feline set on a sanguine background, towering over a terrified mouse.

Once you get over the marvel of the book’s creation (which I still haven’t) you can start to appreciate the perspective of the intended audience. You know, children. Science-minded little ones will want to Google, “How do bees see?” They might then boast about how they will invent dog-vision and worm-vision glasses. Older kids might bump the questions up the food chain: How do different people see the world differently?

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A terrific twist at the end — a linguistic and visual flip — is the perfect resolution, and will nudge the conversations back to where kids are most comfortable, themselves. Empathy and self-reflection may seem like lofty goals for a picture book, but Wenzel scores big with both through his extraordinary vision.

NICOLE LAMY