BOOKS: The Legacy of the Small-Town Library Cat Who Inspired Millions
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2011:
Dewey’s Nine Lives:
The Legacy of the Small-Town Library Cat Who Inspired Millions
by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
Penguin USA (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2010.
320 pages, hardcover. $19.95.
Dewey the library cat, formally named Dewey Readmore Books,
is famous worldwide. Dumped in the book return chute at the Spencer
Public Library in Spencer, Iowa, on a blustery winter night in
January 1988, the fluffy red and white kitten was adopted by the
library staff. Reeling from unemployment, factory closures, and
depressed property values, Spencer found in Dewey a symbol of
resilience. People came to the library just to meet and greet Dewey.
“The cat’s celebrity brought him pen pals in England,
Canada, South Africa, Belgium and France,” recalled Sioux City
Journal correspondent Russ Oechslin. A film crew from Tokyo came to
profile him. At least 275 newspapers and television stations
reported Dewey’s death in 2006.
I read the original book, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat
Who Touched the World, the 2008 first collaboration by retired
Spencer librarian Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, and Dewey’s daily
adventures tickled me. Since then, however, Myron and Witter have
cranked out Dewey: There’s A Cat in the Library! (2009); Dewey the
Library Cat: A True Story (2010); Dewey’s Christmas at the Library
(2010); and now Dewey’s Nine Lives: The Legacy of the Small-Town
Library Cat Who Inspired Millions, anthologizing nine of the stories
that Myron received from readers about their own pets, after
publication of her first book with Witter.
This latest is a weak effort to keep the Dewey magic alive
when it should be left at rest, like the cat. Dewey was
sensational. Every day he charmed residents and visitors. Playful
and gentle, Dewey brought smiles to haggard old factory workers
looking for jobs, calmed agitated children dealing with
hyperactivity, and made the library a more pleasant place to work.
But Dewey is gone now.
The cats in Dewey’s Nine Lives help lonely people, cancer
patients, and in one case, help to bring together an entire church
congregation, but–as described–they are not as charismatic or
unique as was Dewey. Anecdotes which might have entertained for a
few pages become tedious at book length.
The Dewey books have cumulatively gone through 88 printings.
A Dewey film is reportedly in the works. Dewey merchandise,
including t-shirts, postcards, and puzzles, appears to be selling
well. Thus it is no surprise that Myron and Witter continue to
exploit Dewey’s fame and their own past success.
But there are relevant issues that they have not addressed
that might fill a more interesting sequel.
For example, Dewey was declawed, front and back. At the
time, more than 20 years ago, this was not yet widely recognized as
inhumane. Has Myron changed her perspective about declawing?
The Dewey story has reportedly helped to inspire many other
rescues of kittens who were similarly abandoned, including at other
libraries, but has publicity about the rescues contributed to
abandonment, too, with the notion of dumping kittens at a public
building perhaps superseding the idea of dumping them in the
countryside to “give them a chance,” instead of taking them to an
animal shelter where they might be killed?
What does the Dewey story and the similar stories of other
kittens, including Myron’s current cat, say about the public image
of humane work and the need to extend free and low-cost pet
Is Myron herself involved in organized humane work? Is she a
donor to any humane society? What is Myron’s view of neuter/return
feral cat population control?
Dewey’s legacy could and should extend to much more than
successful exploitation of a popular “brand.” –Debra J. White