One of the most interesting parts of picture books are the clues and messages that arise in the moments when the text and illustrations seem to spar with one another.
Readers are often taken aback by the combination of the cover illustration and the title Cheetah 57 scrawled across the image in large letters. The animal in the image is clearly a cheetah but it’s difficult for us to reconcile his chubby body, his innocently wide eyes and his docile stance lounging on a giant piece of meat with our standard image of a cheetah. What exactly does this so-called cheetah look like?
Our preconceived notions often affect our judgement. As expected, Cheetah 57 is swayed by peer pressure to look more like a typical cheetah and he embarks on a sinister plot reminiscent of “Aunt Tiger” (a Taiwanese legend similar to “Little Red Riding Hood” that features a tiger who disguises himself as an aunt in an attempt to eat three children). Illustrator Fu Hsinyi uses a dull green color to show that if Cheetah 57 can’t live up to these expectations then this might be “the end” for him and shows the cheetah looking heavy and out of breath. After this, Cheetah 57 starts to exercise and practice howling. For these scenes, Fu has a few small, bright illustrations which show Cheetah 57’s determination but in the end he’s shown helplessly giving in to the huge black shadow on the wall and choosing to hide. Seeing him crying in the corner, you can’t help but feel sad about everything that’s happened so far in the book. Surely it can’t be so important to look like a cheetah that he’d shed this many tears over it?
He starts to dig a tunnel but is shocked when he ends up out in broad daylight and two children think he’s the son of a large Bengal cat. The image is from Cheetah 57’s perspective so we see the innocence in the children’s eyes as they’re filled with surprise. He spends the day living among humans and feels the kind of warmth he has never had the chance to experience before. The little boy tries to drag Cheetah 57 around in an upturned umbrella and his older sister persuades their parents to be thrilled about it all, then they tell stories together, they give Cheetah 57 a bath, and he even eats cat food!
Then the story turns to another challenge: deception. Cheetah 57 senses that his human friends feel like he is family to them and this is something he craves so he pretends to be what he hopes they will like. However, he also worries that one day they will discover that he doesn’t just look like a cheetah but actually is one, and then he’ll have to deal with the unimaginable consequences. Those deep-rooted fears push against his longing to be looked after by his human friends, so he lives in fear of being exposed. The projected stereotypes and various threats, meaningful or otherwise, gnaw away at his self-confidence and leave him feeling panic-stricken like he’s walking a tightrope.
No one could have guessed that being exposed would actually turn out to be a liberating moment for him. The siblings look at their Bengal cat and realize that he’s actually Cheetah 57. The incident makes the news and the public feel a lot of love for this cheetah who looks like a big cat, so by the end of the story he has thousands of fans! It turns out that his distinctive “look” means that he can be both: he can eat a lot of meat and be a gentle house cat, it’s these differences that make him multifaceted and full of surprises. Even though the children decide that they can’t tell their parents, maybe we as readers can try to be the kind of adults where if we found out that our new cat was actually a cheetah we could still appreciate him all the same, then give him a piece of meat. The unique American-style illustrations feature flexible, unrestrained lines that hint at the possibility of freedom for Cheetah 57 and the kind of brilliance that arises when you dismantle limiting framework.
- Tina Kuo: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=364
- Fu Hsinyi: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=365
- Cheetah 57: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=379