Author Wendy Henrichs
Iowa author Wendy Henrichs debuted not one but two children’s picture books in 2011. I Am Tama, Lucky Cat pairs Wendy’s often lyrical text with soft, stunning watercolors by award-winning illustrator Yoshiko Jaeggi. In When Anju Loved Being an Elephant, John Butler’s majestic, uncluttered paintings shift from gray to amber tones as the title character transitions from lonely solitude to elated companionship. In both books, a beleaguered animal eventually achieves a better life thanks to the belated kindness of strangers. Generosity, patience, and friendship play a large part in both books as well.
Wendy’s ability to convincingly capture the perspectives of a lucky cat and a patient elephant stems from a long-held fondness for creatures large and small. She considers herself fortunate to have grown up in an Illinois home stocked not only with parents and three older sisters but also with birds, hamsters, cats, dogs, and chickens. Today Wendy lives in Iowa City with her husband, two sons, two cats, one dog, and, occasionally, stray wildlife that slips into their 88-year-old home.
Shortly after adopting the two cats, Wendy noticed that one of them had a habit of raising one paw while sitting, just like the Lucky Cat figurines often displayed in windows and counters of Japanese restaurants and shops. Curious, she researched the figurines and discovered the enchanting Lucky Cat legend, which probably originated during Japan’s early Edo period over 350 years ago.
In an informative afterward to the book, Wendy explains that she based I Am Tama, Lucky Cat on a popular version of the Lucky Cat legend. Concise, vivid details enliven the text by clearly establishing its exotic, ancient setting. Told in first-person from the Lucky Cat’s perspective, the book opens with the cold, hungry stray stumbling upon “a rundown temple at the foot of a majestic snowcapped mountain.” Inside lives a kind, impoverished monk who names the cat Tama after a river near his boyhood home, where he “watched the brilliant, blue-backed kingfishers fly.”
The cat explains that it offers the monk simple gifts: “a touch of fur to keep him warm, a mouse caught to protect our meager rice supply, and a happy companionship.” Together the new friends enjoy “the overgrown garden of the temple, watching the carp swim between the plum petals floating on the pond.” Later, when thunder “barreled down the mountain,” Tama brings good fortune to the monk and his people.
Using a few carefully chosen words to quickly and lyrically establish settings contributes to the success of When Anju Loved Being an Elephant, too. Wendy was inspired to create her fictional main character Anju after reading about real elephant friends separated during their youth, then accidentally and ecstatically reunited decades later. Told in third person from the elephant’s perspective, the picture book covers 50 years of Anju’s travels. Settings range from Sumatra, where long ago Anju “romped and rolled in rivers and mudholes” with her best friend Lali, to present time and the “hard floor of the trailer truck” where “the chain clinks and clanks at her ankle.”
Years ago she grew too old to work near clown cars. Now Anju is leaving her most recent home, a small zoo, after 15 lonely years there. Anju recalls her past while traveling to yet another unfamiliar destination. Before she was captured and shipped away for circus work, Indian Ocean and South China Sea waters lulled her and Lali to sleep: “Closing their long-lashed eyelids and lying together with their families, Anju and Lali slept in the tall, ticklish grasses, heartbeat-to-heartbeat.” When the trailer truck stops, Anju finds happiness again.
At the end of the book, Wendy provides “Elephant Facts” and suggestions on “Ways You Can Help Elephants.” This back matter extends learning opportunities already replete in a book with diverse geographic settings and lyrical descriptions of elephant behavior.
Both Wendy’s animal tales entertain readers while subtly directing them towards better behavior. No wonder one online reviewer compares the comfort of reading Wendy’s books to the happiness she feels eating Granny’s soothing chicken soup.
© 2011 Cheryl Fusco Johnson
On Friday, November 4, 2011, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Wendy Henrichs will read at the At Home Store in Fairfield during 1st Fridays Art Walk.