The Cat Who Went to Heaven

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

Paperback, 1987



Local notes

PB Coa


Scholastic Inc (1987), Edition: PF, 54 pages


A little cat comes to the home of a poor Japanese artist and, by humility and devotion, brings him good fortune.


Original publication date


Physical description

54 p.; 7.6 inches


0590409182 / 9780590409186



Media reviews

From all this, I would say Coatsworth’s book is well-researched and true to the cultures it is trying to portray, blending Buddhist folklore and Japanese legend she first learned about on her own travels. Perhaps calling it “The Cat Who Went to Nirvana” would have been more politically correct, but I believe the book is more accessible to children with its present title.
3 more
School Library Journal, October 1997, Vol. 43, p108
Cat Heaven sounds like paradise. A rhyming text describes a realm in which felines are fed from God's countertop, a place where they no longer get stuck in trees because now they can fly. There are thousands of toys, and soft angel laps in which to cuddle. There is even a quiet time to look back on former homes and loving people. The primitive, childlike painting style is similar to Rylant's work in Dog Heaven (Scholastic, 1995). Both books serve the same purpose of comforting anyone mourning a lost pet, but the writing flows more easily and the pictures are more mature in Cat Heaven. The story has spiritualism and reverence but not in a traditional manner. God is depicted as a kindly older man who washes the cats' bowls and "walks in His garden with a good black book and a kitty asleep on His head." His coloring varies from pink to brown to yellowish tan. The visual impact of the book is stunning. Cats of all colors frolic through the exuberantly hued pages. Vibrant yellows, blues, reds, purples, and greens create a feast for the eyes. Even the color of the text changes to contrast with the background. Whether read as a story to younger children or used in a discussion of the nature of heaven with older ones, this deceptively simple, sweet book is rewarding.
Most of Coatsworth's stories are quiet tales, some of them disappointingly flat to today's children, and others are filled with mystery and a sense of mythic time. Her prizewinning story, The Cat Who Went to Heaven , captures the mystery and the compassion of the Buddha--a figure being painted by the artist in the book. As the artist recalls traditional Buddhist stories about the sacrifices of the snail and the elephant, the heroism of the horse, the dreamlike beauty of the swan, the honesty and dignity of the buffalo, the compassion of the monkey, and the petitions for mercy spoken by the doe, he paints them all into his picture. Because, of all the animals, the cat had refused homage to Buddha, tradition requires the artist to omit the cat. However, since the artist had so often seen his cat praying to Buddha, he violates this tradition. Offended by the presence of the cat in the picture, the priests take the artist's picture to burn it. Overnight, however, a miraculous change in the picture occurs: "the Buddha whom he had painted ... had stretched out an arm in blessing, and under the holy hand-knelt the figure of a tiny cat, with pretty white head bowed in adoration." The interweaving of Buddhist myth and legend with observations of the cat and the artist creates a story with mystery and reverence for all life. The story's strength lies in its economy and its mythic power.
Lynd (Kendall) Ward. American Writers for Children, 1900-1960. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22.
In 1930 Ward did the original woodcuts for Elizabeth Coatsworth's The Cat Who Went to Heaven, the Newbery Medal winner. The story concerns a poor artist who was commissioned by a priest to make a drawing of the last days of the Lord God Buddha. Incorporated into the narrative are details of the life-style of Buddha, touching on his humanity and sacrifices for others. For each quality—such as courage, nobility, honesty, and fidelity—an animal is put into the artist's composite painting. Only the cat is omitted, because of his supposed unworthiness; yet in the end, the artist relents and to represent love and tenderness draws a cat into the picture. Lynd Ward's illustrations for the original 1930 edition of The Cat Who Went to Heaven are done in shades of black and gray, starkly simple yet in perfect harmony with the oriental mood of the text.

Coatsworth's book was republished in 1958, and he was again asked to do the illustrations. The beautiful pictures for this edition were prepared on Japanese rice paper, printed in two colors, buff and gray, with a sepia background. Still suggesting the feel of the Orient, they are more detailed, more numerous, but equally effective as an interpretation of the text.

User reviews

LibraryThing member SHARONTHEIL
This story is set in ancient Japan. On one level it is the tale of a starving artist whose housekeeper uses the last of their food money to purchase a tri-colored cat for good luck. On another level, it is the story of the Buddha's life. The author uses, to good effect, the story within a story, or "frame" story, the same strategy used in The Arabian Nights. It is an allegorical tale about both the Buddha's life and the importance of extending compassion to all. Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893–1986) was an author, poet, and artist who spent her childhood traveling around Egypt, Mexico, China, Korea, and Japan. Her own illustrations grace the book's cover and her poems are found between its chapters.… (more)
LibraryThing member lilithcat
A poor artist's housekeeper comes home one day with a little cat. Against his better judgment, the artist keeps her, calling her "Good Fortune". When he is chosen to paint a scroll of the death of Buddha for the temple, Good Fortune sits with him as he paints all the animals who were blessed by Buddha, finding the Buddha-nature in each, (though she doesn't think much of the dog). But the artist cannot include a cat in his painting, because cats, being independent creatures, had refused homage to Buddha. Nevertheless, in the end, he risks it, and a miracle occurs.

I don't mind saying I cried at the end of this book.
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LibraryThing member debnance
This story was a lovely little folk tale that reminded me of all the best of the Newbery books. A young man has been commissioned by the temple to paint a picture of Buddha as he blesses the animals. He slowly adds animals, telling the tale and the strength of each. Then the artist comes to the cat, an animal which had, by tradition, rejected the Buddha and thus was excluded from heaven. But it is the artist's cat that has inspired him in his work and the artist knows it is the cat's greatest wish to be included in the painting. At last, the artist makes the difficult decision to include the cat in the painting. The ending is surprising and lovely.… (more)
LibraryThing member rdg301library
This 1931 Newbery winner is a short novella about a poor Japanese artist who adopts a cat. The artist is commissioned to paint a picture of the death of Buddha. The cat, named Good Fortune, brings the same to the artist and in the end is rewarded by becoming a part of the painting.

Elizabeth Coatsworth was inspired to write this book by her travels in Asia. According to her editor and Vassar classmate, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in her essay “From Java to Maine with Elizabeth Coatsworth” in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Boston, Horn Book Inc., 1955, pp. 94-98), Coatsworth said: "Its main inspiration was the Buddhist temples of Borobodur, in Java, a magnificent carved stupa, standing, scarcely in ruins, in a plain surrounded by volcanoes. Among the many carvings on its terraces are some of the animal rebirths of Buddha, which very much took my imagination. Many years later, in the Pasadena Library, I was to read translations of the rebirths and string them together on the thread of a Japanese legend which we had been told in a Kyoto temple, one day in the enchanted October of 1916. Later, Tom Handforth [an American artist and etcher who wrote and illustrated the 1939 Caldecott Medalist Mei Li about his personal experiences in China] sent me a print, which, like the temple scroll, showed a cat coming to mourn the death of Buddha. It was unusual to see a cat among the other animals. These things lay, with a thousand other impressions, long in my mind, and happened to be the ones I could use."

The animal rebirth stories would be the Jataka, fables Buddha originally told to his disciples to illustrate his teachings. Like Aesop, each tale features animal characters, as well as an incarnation of the Buddha from an earlier life, usually as an animal himself. These amusing parables embody some of the central tenets of Buddhist principles of wisdom, heroic action, nonviolence and compassion. Other stories are from the Buddha’s life or other sources.

The Japanese legend referred to is that of Cho Densu. For more details on this as well as the Jataka stories used in this book, see my blog.

From all this, I would say Coatsworth’s book is well-researched and true to the culture it is trying to portray, blending Buddhist folklore and Japanese legend she first learned about on her own travels. Perhaps calling it “The Cat Who Went to Nirvana” would have been more politically correct, but I believe the book is more accessible to children with its present title.
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LibraryThing member ingahatch
This creative Newberry award winning story lends insight into the beliefs of the Buddhist religion. A struggling Japanese artist finds a break when his housekeeper uses their last bit of money to buy a cat named “Good Fortune”. This cat seems to bring just that “good fortune”. The artist is soon commissioned to paint a mural of the memory of Buddha and include all the animals of importance. The only problem is that the cat was not an important animal to Buddha, but the artist decides to include the cat. The cat is so excited and dies from happiness.

I felt this book was creatively written. It covers the basic concepts of the Buddhist religion and their belief in reincarnation, but subtle enough not to offend the reader. This is definitely a book that one should re-read. There are many hidden messages that would make better sense if read additional times.

For classroom extension ideas I would have students compare and contrast different religions. And then also explore more in detail what each animal brought to Buddha.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
This is a sweet fable-like story. There is a nice introduction to the life of Buddha and a pleasing resolution to the problem of the cat. I also enjoyed the setting - it was believable without hitting me over the head that this was a foreign country. The illustrations for this version were also beautiful - particularly the animals.… (more)
LibraryThing member matinicuselementary
This is a great book about a smart and charming female cat and a poor artist. It all started in old Japan. But when the artist includes his cat in a painting the person who asked him to paint it gets outraged. I think it's not fair. I think people who are 10 and up should read this great book. Reviewed by Isabella Bryant.
LibraryThing member whitnihatfield
This is the story of a starving artist who is given a cat from his housekeeper instead of food. He is angry at first, but then thinks that the cat is lucky and names him Good Fortune. A high priest from their town came to him soon after he decided to keep Good Fortune. He wanted the artist to paint the death of Buddha. There were many animals that were present at the time of his death, all except the cat. Good Fortune seems to ask if he would put a cat in the picture, but the cat is the only animal that Buddha did not allow into heaven. Will the artist risk losing his much needed money to help his new friend enter the picture and possibly heaven?

This is a cute story and it is very visual. I don't know how parents would react to the students learn about Buddha. It was a cute story with a lot of visual aids and wonderful descriptions. I enjoyed the book overall, but I didn't know how some parents would react to the Buddha aspect in the story.

I would use this story if we were doing a unit on different countries, such as Japan. If we cover different religions and different regions, this would be a good story to read while we study the regions or religions and customs.
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LibraryThing member t1bclasslibrary
I have two main objections to this book: the first is the fact that cats are repeatedly villified in it, and the second is that Good Fortune gets so excited he dies. Not the cat lover book you might guess it to be. Anyway, a poor artist adopts a highly religious cat, and the temple gives him an assignment. He tells lots and lots of stories about Buddha as he draws his picture, but his cat is sad until she is included (then she dies from happiness). The temple is going to burn the picture because of the inclusion, but a miracle happens and they realize the cat is meant to be there.… (more)
LibraryThing member dknapp
This book is about a little cat that came to live with an old Japanese artist and his housekeeper. They are very poor but happy. One day the village priest comes to visit and request that the artist paint a picture of the death of Buddha. The old man spends days and nights reliving the life of Buddha. Each time he relives Buddha’s transformation into an animal and then paints that animal on the silk. The cat, named Good Fortune, comes in to inspect each animal with growing dismay. The story goes that the cat was the only animal too proud to come visit Buddha as he was ascending into heaven. At last the artist is so overcome with sadness that Good Fortune is so hurt that he paints her into the painting. The cat comes to view it and is so happy she falls over dead. The priest comes to view the painting and tells him that the cat cannot be in the painting so it will be burned the next day....

I am going to stop right there as the ending is so amazing that I want everyone to read this book and find out for yourself. I actually cried at the end of this book. It was a very good book.

This book is for children 10 and older so it might be fine to read aloud to younger children but the element of religion might be a hot topic with the parents. I would probably not want to create problems so I would leave this for older children to read on their own.
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LibraryThing member cricket2574
This book is about a cat who came to belong a poor Japanese artist. The artist painted the death of Buddah and in the end when the artist painted the cat Good Fortune in the painting, the cat fell over dead.

I would definately not read this book to any age group. In my opinion, it is kind of strange.

As an extension, I would let my children paint on rice paper, eat with chop sticks and put kimonos in the house area.
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LibraryThing member avcr
A Japanese housekeeper goes to market but instead of bringing back food she returns with a beautiful little white cat, with a tail like a bunny and yellow and black spots on her sides. She is gentle, good mannered and prays to Buddha and appears to truly bring good luck. Soon after her arrival, one of the local Priests comes to the artist’s house and commissions a portrait of Buddha (his name was the only one left in the basket). The artist transcends through the life of Siddhartha/Buddha and as he contemplates the animal forms Buddha has taken he learns sympathy, compassion, and sacrifice for others. The cat blesses the artist and in return the cat is blessed.
If You Liked This, Try: The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes, Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Smoky The Cow Horse by Will James, Hitty Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey.
If You Liked This, Try: The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes, Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Smoky The Cow Horse by Will James, Hitty Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey.
Awards: Newbery, 1931
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LibraryThing member mary6
LibraryThing member malinacoulter
A artist who is down on his luck comes across a cat. Once the cat arrives his luck changes and he is asked to paint a picture of the dead Buddha. In his challenge to paint the important painting the cat offers its opinion.

This book seems to drag on. It is also not very easy to follow. As the artist is painting the picture he adds in all the animals that were “blessed” by the Buddha.

I would like the children to make their own painting of the Buddha and his animals. I would also like to write a continuation of the story with the students Ideas since the book, I believe, had a silly ending.
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LibraryThing member RhondaKillian
This book wasn't as grand as I expected it to be for a Newberry Award. It brought to life different moral strengths possessed by various animals, and showed how some animals with poor characteristics or traits could be forgiven and easily changed from being poorly thought of to being highly favored.
LibraryThing member miketroll
A charming children's story of some depth, to be savoured and re-read. Many thanks, Seanan, for introducing me to this book. I will send it on its way and get my own copy to keep.
LibraryThing member YasminAlder
This story is about a man who has to paint a picture of Buddha's death. His pet cat wants to be in the picture but in the legend cats never came to Buddha to get blessed. the artist finally puts the cat in the picture, but then the priests don't want it. then a miracle happens and they change their minds.
i didn't know i owned this book until i panicked and realized i needed to do another Newbery award winner for my class. i quickly read it and fell in love. it really is a fantastic book, except the copy i have is so old i'm not sure how long the cover is going to stay on. (it's an eight printing, 1970)
I would use this book to help children understand Buddhism.
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LibraryThing member MissTeacher
A very sweet and educational story about a cat who blesses the life of a poor Japanese artist. Full of stories about the connections between the Buddha and the animals of the world, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is also a charming tale about the ability to redeem oneself no matter what. Children will like it's sweet message and repetitive, story-book air; older students will benefit from its message. A great tool to teach about Buddhist principles, history, or simply the qualities of compassion, redemption, humility and correct thought.… (more)
LibraryThing member klburnside
The Cat Who Went to Heaven is another Newbery winner. It is about a struggling artist in Japan who is on the brink of starvation when his housekeeper brings home a cat for a pet. They name the cat Good Fortune and soon realize the cat is something special, and indeed brings good fortune to the household. The king soon arrives at the house of the artist and commissions him to paint the Buddha.

The rest of the book consists of the artist's reflections as he is painting. His painting contains all the animals that were important in the life of the Buddha, so the artist reflects upon each animal and its significance the the Buddha's life. Although the cat is not highly regarded by Buddhism in this story, Good Fortune and the painter are able to change this perception.

I found the book to be rather boring.
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LibraryThing member jjvors
A 1931 Newberry Award winner and well deserving of it. The book describes and poor artist in Japan who adopts a very well mannered cat--who turns out to be very lucky. The cat prays before the statue of Buddha--and the artist is visited by the Buddhist priest to perform a commision--at painting of Buddha at his death.

The book describes how the artist reviewed the life of Buddha and paints the animals who came to visit Buddha--with the cat last. A surprise twist at the end completes the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member Whisper1
An early Newbery Medal winner -- 1931. I wasn't drawn into this story. While it provided knowledge of Budda, and I learned some things, the story fell flat for me. Once again I find some of the early Newbery winners simply lack the depth of more recent Newbery medal and honor books.
LibraryThing member AbigailAdams26
Originally published in 1930, Elizabeth Coatsworth's The Cat Who Went to Heaven was the Newbery Medal winner in 1931, and relates the story of a poor Japanese artist, his devoted housekeeper, and the gentle cat that comes into their lives. Angry at first, when his housekeeper brings home a little white kitten, rather than the dinner he had been expecting, the artist is reconciled to his new pet - soon named "Good Fortune" - by her quiet good manners, and by her obvious devotion to him, to the housekeeper, and to the Buddha. When the village priest commissions a painting of the Buddha for the temple, the artist immerses himself in the life of his subject, "living" the Enlightened One's life, and becoming each animal that visited him upon his deathbed. But although Good Fortune keeps faithful watch with him, as he begins his great work, and obviously longs to be included, the artist can not include her in the painting. After all, the cat was the only animal to refuse the Buddha's teaching, and the only animal not blessed by him...

This brief chapter-book (sixty-three pages, in my edition), which alternates between the main prose narrative, and short poems ostensibly written by the housekeeper, has the feeling of folklore to it. The author references the classic Japanese tale of The Boy Who Drew Cats in her text, as well as many different stories about the life of the Buddha, and his reincarnated lives in various animal forms. I found myself wondering how accurate Coatsworth's depiction was of some of these traditions, particularly as it related to Buddhist beliefs about cats. Are they really considered the only animal that is barred from heaven? Did the Japanese truly regard them as demonic? What about the lucky Beckoning Cat? Leaving this issue aside, I found the story itself very engaging, and I think young readers who enjoy animal stories will as well.

There is an incredibly poignant quality to this story, and while Good Fortune's death from pure joy, when the artist relents, and includes her in the painting, sets up the concluding miracle very well - from a storytelling perspective, happy endings often work best when they follow upon terrible tragedy - this aspect of the tale is still troubling. Troubling in a good way... a haunting way. I am reminded of Tomi DePaola's The Clown of God, which was a childhood favorite of mine, and which also tells the story of a miracle. A miracle that, like this one, requires a joyful sacrifice. Perhaps all miracles do? Something I'll have to think about...
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LibraryThing member Yona
I thought this was wonderful. I absolutely plan to share this. I wonder very much what the chances are of this opinion being shared by a child in the age group. I'm thinking this could be found very interesting and spur a curiosity of the culture by some and be found very boring and unliked by others. I hope I get a chance to find out.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lisa.Johnson.James
OMG, one of my earliest memories is of Mom taking me to the library in Newark, DE, or somewhere up there I guess :) It was a HUGE place, filled with light, & books that went on for what to my young & amazed eyes seemed like MILES. This was either the one I was allowed to check out, or one of the books I was allowed to check out. It has stuck with me ever since. This is a BEAUTIFUL story that every cat lover &/or lover should read. It takes place in Japan, & is the story of an artist & his cat, & it is the singular MOST beloved book of my childhood. I dearly loved a LOT of books over the years, about all sorts of things, mostly horses & dogs, but this...there are no words I can say to convey how powerfully this one touched me.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tarakalynn
A starving artist and his housekeeper can barely spare pennies to buy rice to eat. One day the housekeeper brings home a cat. Reluctantly the artist become very attached. He names him Good Fortune. To the artist surprise a priest comes to visit the artist. He tells him that he has been selected by Buddha to paint a masterpiece depicting the death of Buddha. Everyday he meditate and sees images of Buddha's life. And it shows him what to put on the painting. To his disappointment he discovers that cats will not go to heaven. As he paints his cat is very impressed at his talent, but wishes he could see a cat. Finally, knowing he will probably not get paid for the painting he paints a cat. Good Fortune is so happy he dies right then and there. To the towns amazement, the painting changes overnight and Buddhas arms are reached out to the cat.

Personal Reaction:
I didn't understand much about this book. I am not very familiar with Buddhist religion. I learned a little about it, through this book. But the book wasn't one of my favorites, by far.

Classroom Extension:
This isn't a book I would use in class. To controversial with religious beliefs. But here are examples anyways.
1. Each chapter has a song that the housekeeper would sing. You could have the class break up in groups and sing a song they liked.
2. Write a reflection on why they think the artist named his cat Good Fortune. Was it because it was good fortune that he got the cat, or what he hoping the cat would bring good fortune.
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(178 ratings; 3.8)
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