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April 2, 2012

All of It, and None

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Joanne Rocklin is the critically acclaimed author of several books, including One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, which earned starred reviews and which School Library Journal called "sweet and tart and sure to satisfy." She's also the author of Strudel Stories, which was a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and an American Library Association Notable Book, and For YOUR Eyes Only!, which was a School Library Journal Best Book and a Bank Street Best Book. She lives in Oakland, California. For more information, visit her website at  http://www.joannerocklin.com/, where you can find a link to a fun activity kit, a sample chapter, and the book trailer.

Four years ago my husband and I, along with our giant golden retriever, Zoe, and feisty cat, Mini, moved to Oakland to be closer to our kids and four grandchildren. I like to think of us as cool, interesting grandparents, but the fact is, Zoe and Mini were the main attractions at our new home.

Mini’s kidney failure happened suddenly and her suffering was so intense we had to put her down. The younger grandkids were somber for not more than a day or two; the older two took it much harder, whispering consoling messages to Mini’s ashes under the camellia tree, pondering out loud the meaning of life. And death.

After a respectful mourning period, we decided to adopt another cat from a shelter. We like cats; love them, actually. Their elegance and shy but fierce friendship bring joy to our lives. But as we were leaving our favorite Thai restaurant one evening, there was Mitzie, scrounging around a garbage can. She sniffed my hand and followed us happily into our car. She didn’t know she was Mitzie, of course, a shortened form of Mitzvah, the Hebrew word for kind deed. She was collar-less and starving and half-bald, having plucked out her fur with the fleas. The vet found a BB gun pellet buried in her right flank. But now, she’s fat and beautiful. I often wonder how long Mitzie would have survived on the street, if Gerry and I had ordered fried bananas and ice cream instead of leaving the restaurant when we did.

My new novel, THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK, grew out of that experience. Many of the children’s books dealing with the loss of a pet are written as picture books. But it is the older child who truly mourns the loss of that family member, and struggles longer to understand its meaning. My novel is about Oona, a smart and inquisitive ten-year-old girl, and her five-year-old brother Fred, both dealing with the illness of their beloved cat Zook. To make her brother feel better, Oona tells Fred a big whopper, which Fred readily believes. Cats have nine lives, she says. Zook has lived five of them, and has four more to go. She tells him the stories of Zook’s other lives, stories based on the tales their deceased father used to tell, at the same time inserting her own feelings and fears and the details of her own life.

The novelist Sue Miller was once asked how much her novel reflected her own life. “All of it. None,” she answered.

I completely understand her response.

This novel contains everything that is vital to me --- the joy and necessity of story-making, family love, animals, true love, good pizza, gardens, compassion, the importance of saying good-bye while embracing new beginnings, a kinda-sorta belief in magic. All of it.

Yet Oona’s and Fred’s and Zook’s world is new, and that’s the wonder of writing. All the bits and pieces of my world went into their story, but none of it really happened. 

Except for one part: an orphaned cat survives hardship and finds a loving home.  That’s Mitzie’s story. In return, she has given me the gift of my novel.