Da Vinci's Cat
⚈ "An arresting blend of speculative time travel and art mystery." Publisher's Weekly >>
⚈ "A cat's-cradle of a book." Wall Street Journal >>
From the book:
“Another cup of grain and she wouldn’t make it.” The gate man laughed. But Federico did not reply, for already he was swinging himself into the saddle--
And already Bathsheba was running. She reached full gallop before he even sat down, her hoofs pounding over the drawbridge. A lesser horseman would have ended up in the ditch. As it was, Federico clutched her mane for dear life. Oh, she was fast. She let out one triumphant snort and shook her ears and she flew.
The men behind him cheered, but Federico could not hear their words for the thunder of hoofbeats. He clung like a flea, his cheek pressed to Bathsheba’s neck. Her mane whipped his face; the wind clawed tears from his eyes. The road lay before them, every stone bright in the moonlight. “Run, Bathsheba,” he whispered. “Find him.”
Federico doesn’t mind being a political hostage in the Pope’s palace, especially now that he has Juno. But he must admit that a kitten walking into a wardrobe and returning a minute later as a full-grown cat is more than a little odd. Even weirder is an art collector who emerges from the wardrobe the next night. He barters with Federico for pictures, but their plans take a dangerous turn when they attempt to save a dying girl.
Bee never wanted to move to New Jersey. When a neighbor shows Bee a sketch that uncannily resembles her, Bee solidifies her resolve to keep to herself. But then she discovers a friendly cat and a mysterious cabinet that deposits her in Renaissance Rome. There she meets Federico and the great Michelangelo . . . and proceeds to ruin their lives. Can she save them, her neighbor—and herself?
Truth and art in Da Vinci's Cat >>
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A handful of reviews
"In an original combination of portal fantasy, historical fiction, and time-travel with a hint of alt-history, this story, set 1511, centers on (real-life historical figure) Federico II Gonzaga. When [he] discovers a time-travel wardrobe constructed by Leonardo da Vinci, the fun begins." Horn Book
★ "Murdock gives readers plenty to puzzle over as Bee and Federico work to fulfill promises and reshape events for the better." Booklist (starred review)
★ "Bee and Federico manage to colossally mess with history, leading to adventures as they try to get things back on track." Kirkus (starred review)
"This time-traveling friendship book will be a hit for fans of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lloyd Alexander's Time Cat." School Library Journal
"Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly." Bookends blog
Questions from Deborah Kalb
What inspired you to write Da Vinci's Cat, and how did you create your characters Federico and Bee?
The idea for Da Vinci’s Cat actually began on a 2008 family trip to Rome, on a day the kids weren’t having much fun. We were seated outside waiting for lunch, sweaty and exhausted and testy, and to kill time I told them about Michelangelo and Raphael, how jealous Michelangelo was, and how Raphael snuck into the Sistine Chapel at midnight to see his work. The kids loved hearing that such amazing artists acted like middle schoolers. Over the years I tried to turn this anecdote into a children’s book but didn’t get anywhere until I discovered real-life Federico Gonzaga, who spent three years in Rome as a hostage to the pope. I wanted a modern kid to watch Raphael’s reaction to the Sistine ceiling, and to play off of Federico's snobby little duke. And since Leonardo da Vinci loved cats and **could** have invented a time machine, why not include a cat to bring Bee and Federico together?
What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
I did so much research—about Federico and the artists and the art, but also dress and food because these provide such a sense of the period, and because the real Federico was very fussy about his clothes. So many details are based on real events, like Michelangelo losing his temper and storming off to Florence in the middle of the night. In reality he was chased by four of the pope’s spies, not Federico, but Michelangelo was just as rude to them as he is in the book. (In real life he threatened to have the spies murdered.) My biggest surprise was realizing that modern kids have no experience with rotary phones. The old-fashioned phone is a critical moment in the story, and I had to figure out how to teach Bee to use one. I’ve never felt so ancient.
Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
From the very beginning—like, even before I knew about Federico—I wanted the modern character to screw up the future and then have to save it. I even had art-collector Herbert and his penniless daughter Miss Bother. This meant a lot of time thinking about what the world today would be like without Michelangelo. Once Federico arrived in the story with all his family obligations and loneliness, the ending became even clearer—which is to say the feeling of the ending. I wanted both Bee and Federico to finish happy, and the reader to close the book going “oh, wow,” maybe shedding a tear. That said, the details of the climax took forever. I had to repeatedly break each chapter down almost to the sentence level, and then organize and reorganize my notecards. I’ve never put so much labor into a story. Note to self: next time use only one narrator.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
Delight! I want them to feel that everything works out in the end, even if . . . well, you’ll have to read it to discover the if. Hopefully readers will learn a little bit more about art, but more than that I want kids to understand that the world is made of weird, imperfect people, even if they’re famous. Even if they make history.
What are you working on now?
Nothing! I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve never worked so hard. I’m still in recovery. That said, I’m poking at a couple of ideas. . . .
Anything else we should know?
That the book is true! Except, you know, the time travel. But the food comes from actual cookbooks and descriptions of banquets. Federico has a sweet tooth, so I now know more about Renaissance candy than probably anyone in Pennsylvania, and thanks to him I’ve developed a taste for candied ginger and sugared almonds. I always had a taste for chocolate.