Iowa author Wendy Henrichs debuted two children’s picture books in 2011. Released by Peachtree Publishers, I Am Tama, Lucky Cat pairs Wendy’s often lyrical text with soft, stunning watercolors by award-winning illustrator Yoshiko Jaeggi. In When Anju Loved Being an Elephant, published by Sleeping Bear Press, John Butler’s majestic, uncluttered paintings shift from gray to amber tones as the title character transitions from lonely solitude to companionship and elation. In both books, a beleaguered animal eventually achieves a better life thanks to the belated kindness of strangers. Generosity, patience, and friendship play a large part in both books, as well.
After adopting two cats, Wendy noticed one often raised a paw while sitting, just like the Lucky Cat figurines displayed in Japanese restaurants. Curious, she did some research. In an afterward, Wendy explains she based I Am Tama, Lucky Cat on a popular version of the Lucky Cat legend, which probably originated over 350 years ago.
Concise, vivid details clearly establish this book’s exotic, ancient setting. In the opening, a cold, hungry cat stumbles upon “a rundown temple at the foot of a majestic snowcapped mountain.” Inside lives a kind, impoverished monk who names the cat Tama after a river, where “brilliant, blue-backed kingfishers fly.”
Tama offers the monk “a touch of fur to keep him warm, a mouse caught to protect our meager rice supply, and a happy companionship.” Together the new friends watch “carp swim between the plum petals floating on the pond” of “the overgrown garden of the temple.” Later—when thunder “barreled down the mountain. Boom! Clap! Crash!”—Tama brings good fortune to the monk, his hollow-cheeked followers, and a weary samurai warlord.
Concisely establishing lyrical settings contributes to the success of When Anju Loved Being an Elephant, too. Wendy created a fictional elephant, Anju, after reading about real elephant friends separated during their youth, then accidentally and ecstatically reunited decades later. This picture book covers Anju’s travels from Sumatra, where long ago she “romped and rolled in rivers and mudholes” with her best friend Lali, to present time and the “hard floor of the trailer truck” where “the chain clinks and clanks at her ankle.”
After many lonely years, Anju is leaving a small zoo: “Through the trailer window, she sees the tall spindly Carolina pines, rooted in their rusty-red soil, for the last time.” En route, Anju remembers that 50 years earlier she and Lali slept in “tall, ticklish grasses, heartbeat-to-heartbeat.” When the trailer truck stops, Anju rediscovers joy.
Embodying kindness, generosity, patience, and friendship, both Wendy’s animal tales entertain readers while subtly directing them towards better behavior. That’s why one online reviewer compares the comfort of reading Wendy’s books to the happiness she feels eating Granny’s soothing chicken soup.