Kitten Construction Company is a Sure Hit for Reluctant Readers

Kitten Construction Company: A Bridge Too Fur

John Patrick Green
First Second
October 1, 2019

Welcome back to another edition of Melissa and Alenka Review a Comic about Cats! In past installations we talked about cats and identity in Finding Molly from Emet Comics and the delightful strangeness of Benji Nate’s Catboy. This time we leaned on our histories working with kids to chat about Kitten Construction Company: A Bridge Too Fur, the second book in an adorable series by John Patrick Green. Did I initially think John Patrick Green was THAT John Green and feel amused and confused? Yes! Is he a whole separate person? Yes, yes he is, and if you ever read this JPG, I’m so sorry. I know you must get that all the time.

Embarrassing assumptions aside, let’s dive in (or not, sorry Marmalade!) to this comic about some cats with a very important job.

Kitten Construction Company Cover by John Patrick Green, image from MacMillan publishing

Alenka Figa: Welcome back! Welcome … cat? I’m not great with cat puns, but this comic did a pretty good job! Why don’t we start off with our general feelings about cats and why we are interested in a cat comic for kids?

Melissa Brinks: I love cats. Does that need to be said at this point? I don’t know why I’m a cat person, but I am (dogs are great too, I feel the need to add, because if you don’t people think you’re like, soulless or something?) I don’t have children, but I was a tutor for a few years, and getting kids to read is, uh, hard. Especially when the selection of books is limited. Especially when the selection of books is boring. But Kitten Construction Company has a bit of everything—it’s got jokes, it’s got cats, it’s got (spoiler alert) dogs, it’s got construction, it’s got a heartwarming message about working together. I could definitely see myself using this to get reluctant kids to read. How about you? Tell me about your cat feelings, and also your librarian feelings.

Alenka: I suppose if this is the very first article someone reads from WWAC, or by either of us, it needs to be said that we both love cats? (I also am cool with dogs.) As hinted, I’m a Children’s Librarian, and we also are often asked for books that will pull in reluctant readers! I agree that this is a great title for that purpose, especially for a kid who loves animals and really just wants to read books with animal protagonists. I’d love to break down why it’s a great reluctant reader suggestion, and it’s always best to start with the plot.

Marmalade from Kitten Construction Company by John Patrick Green via MacMillan

Melissa: Cats are such an essential part of my life that I just assume I radiate big Cat Mom energy wherever I go. The plot of Kitten Construction Company: A Bridge Too Fur is pretty simple—the titular construction company, comprised entirely of cats, is honored with a big project: constructing a large bridge for the city of Mewberg. This presents a bit of a problem, because Marmalade, our central adorable orange cat, hasn’t really built a bridge before, and it isn’t her area of expertise as an architect. Also, cats famously don’t like water (except the plumber cat, Bubbles, who I love very much), which makes building a bridge pretty difficult. The cats have to look outside of their usual companions to find the help they need to get this project finished, which involves … dogs.

Alenka: I love that the central plot to this story involves a main character needing to face their fear. Marmalade is so scared of working in the water that she refuses to get on a boat and supervise, and without her help, the construction process falls behind schedule. I kept expecting Marmalade to face that fear directly and finally get on the boat—perhaps even falling into the water in a funny scene—but she doesn’t. She has to learn to admit that fear is holding her back, and ask for help. The question of how Marmalade will deal with her fear is part of what makes the comic compelling, and will appeal to young readers who have to deal with scary things! Learning to cope with fear is a big part of being a kid.

Melissa, are there any plot points that stood out to you?

Introducing Bubbles from Kitten Construction by John Patrick Green image via Macmillan

Melissa: I really liked how clear Marmalade’s flaws were. One of the biggest lessons I tried to get through to my students was that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes—that’s how we learn! There’s no shame in not knowing something, and when we see people (or cats) who have flaws like we do, it’s sometimes easier to recognize them and deal with them ourselves. Marmalade is clearly wrong with how she thinks about dogs, and, as you mentioned, she has to learn to ask for help even though she super doesn’t want to. I love that we get to see her grow through the resistance and fear and come out stronger for it! I also love that she makes a heartfelt apology for her bad behavior, because that’s another huge skill we should all strive to do better at. Here’s a thing I didn’t notice until I went to look up credits for the book: this is actually book two in the series! I had no idea. Do you think it matters to kids or anybody else who might be reading Kitten Construction Company that this isn’t part one?

Alenka: IT DOESN’T, AND THAT’S GREAT! From a library perspective, series where you can jump in at any volume are fantastic, because a lot of kids don’t want to wait for a hold to arrive. If they don’t NEED to read volume 1 of something, and only part of the series is on the shelf, you still have a book to give them! I always feel bad if, at the end of a reference interview, I haven’t give a family an actual, physical book they can take home, even if I placed ten books on hold for them. Plus, at least in my experience, elementary school-aged kids don’t care very much about reading every volume of a series in order. I’m curious, was this ever an issue for you as a tutor? Also, did you work with lots of kids who were specifically interested in reading about animals?

Kitten Planning Panel from Kitten Construction Company by John Patrick Green via MacMillan
The kittens look at the old bridge design.

Melissa: When I was tutoring, we mostly worked with an iPad program that chose a bunch of very boring passages for us. But I can say that when I got to work with kids on books they chose, their engagement went way up, and animals (or Pokemon, which are also animals) were always a big hit. Cats were an especially big hit for one of my students. It makes me wish I was still tutoring because I think she’d get a real kick out of Kitten Construction Company!

Order never really seemed to matter until they were onto chapter books like Junie B. Jones or Dork Diaries. Thinking back, I definitely read most of the long series that I was into (Boxcar Children, Goosebumps, etc.) without any regard for what order I picked them up in. Simpler times, I guess!

I could definitely see myself using this in a teaching setting. It has a lot of potential for talking about appreciating unique skills, overcoming fears, and understanding how judging someone before we know them says more about us than it does about them. Plus it’s cute! Do you think you’ll be recommending this one for kids who come into your library branch?

Alenka: Definitely—I’ll have to add it to my cat comics repertoire! I’m also a fan of Catstronauts, another comic series with anthropomorphic cats that are fond of puns. Kitten Construction Company and Catstronauts hit on two themes that are very popular among younger readers: space and BIG MACHINES. They also have very distinct art styles; Catstronauts has very simple art and clean lines, but Kitten Construction Company is at least partially watercolor, and has some very beautiful, lightly textured backgrounds that give a strong sense of time of day and time passing as the construction project is underway. In libraries we talk a lot about how comics are great for reluctant readers, but we don’t often go into specifics. The level of detail in Kitten Construction Company makes it more immersive, which could help pull in a reader who needs to fall more easily into the story, even if it is a really silly story. What did you think of the art?

CatStronauts Mission Moon cover by Drew Brockington via Little Brown Young Readers

Melissa: It’s really cute and expressive! It has a distinctly storybook feeling to me, in part because of the large, round eyes on the cats and the smaller, less detailed eyes on the people. It helps convey the cats’ emotions without giving it an uncanny valley feeling. Humans have a lot of features we can use to express emotions; cats, not so much, so I appreciate how the comic plays with cat facial features infused with a bit of humanity without going like, full CATS trailer on us.

I also really love the colors; they’re cheerful and fun, but not so bright that I feel like the color is screaming at me. The watercolors really work nicely for that, and overall give the comic this very sweet, almost nostalgic feeling that I really enjoyed. It’s very cohesive, and both the words and the art work together to tell the story; it wouldn’t be as much fun as it is without the art, and the dialog gives us the story beats and character traits that flesh it out.

Alenka: The best way to wrap up my feelings about this comic is that it’s a silly, sweet story about reasonably managing fears that stands out from the sizeable array of cat comics for kids. Melissa, do you have any final thoughts?

Melissa: I agree! I haven’t read a whole lot of recent children’s books, but I can totally see this appealing to a lot of my former students. I think the combination of humor, charming artwork, and genuine thought put into the story make it a great choice for kids, both because it’ll entertain them and be a potential place for adults to talk about fear and distrust with concrete examples. I might even pick it up for my niece when she’s old enough!

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.