The Old Man and the Cat

By Anthony Holcroft, illustrated by Leah Palmer Preiss

Penguin Group: Auckland NZ, 2012

ISBN 9780143504641

An old man makes himself a wooden flute and is delighted to discover that its magical song charms all the creatures living in the forest. But a black cat is watching from the shadows, and one day the flute mysteriously disappears ...

This is a new edition of Anthony Holcroft’s classic story, superbly illustrated by Leah Palmer Preiss.

Other editions

The Old Man and the Cat, Illustrated by Fifi Colston
“The Old Man and the Cat” in The Magpies Said (collection editor, Dorothy Butler)

Tony Fomison illustrations (unpublished)

In 1974, Tony Fomison agreed to illustrate “The Old Man and the Cat” after an approach from Anthony Holcroft. While several publishers expressed interest in the picture book, a contract was never secured, and the illustrations were not completed. Tony Fomison finished one pencil drawing, “The Cat”, and produced two incomplete sketches, which survive as photocopies, the originals either having been lost or destroyed.

Read more about Tony Fomison's illustrations


  • The old man admiring the flute he has carved — illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss

  • “But no sooner had he put the flute to his lips than the sky was black with birds” — illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss

  • “From dawn to dusk no birds sang” — illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss

  • Cat devouring creatures of the forest — illustration by Tony Fomison (unpublished edition), pencil, 1974, reproduced by permission of Mary Fomison, copyright assignee

Reader comment

“The classic The Old Man and the Cat (1984) by Canterbury writer Anthony Holcroft has been republished, with handsome illustrations by Leah Palmer Preiss ... Holcroft’s pared-down text is perfectly matched by the beautiful, stylised colour pictures.”

Trevor Agnew, The Press, “Tales to Treasure” (13 April 2013)

“Anthony Holcroft’s 1984 morality tale about a magic flute is beautifully realised by Leah Palmer Preiss in glowing golden tones that complement the lyrical text. The dangers of enchantment are spelled out in the story of the creation, theft and subsequent destruction of the flute.”

Anne Packer, NZ Listener, “50 Best Children's Books of 2012” (15 December 2012)

From the 1984 edition

“A most beautiful and evocative picture book ...”

Bruce Morris, The Dominion Post (2 May 1987)

“Holcroft’s fable of how the birds are lured to their deaths by a cat with a magic flute is the story of New Zealand’s past ... a magnificent little book.”

Dave Leggett, Waikato Times (19 January 1985)

“While keeping to the traditional qualities of children’s stories, author Anthony Holcroft and illustrator Fifi Colston have managed to blend in a very distinctive and rural New Zealand setting. It is a stunning picture book, with an elegant gentle text, and superbly dramatic and detailed illustrations.”

Suzanne Grant, Wairarapa Times-Age (3 November 1984)

“This dramatic story, with its tenderness towards the world of creatures, has mythic elements; it reminded me a little of some Buddha re-birth stories. Fifi Colston’s cat is a splendidly ominous creature.”

Dorothy Neal White, NZ Listener (December 1984)

Other comments

“... When the old man had made the magic flute and played it, birds would flock around him. I think that would be a dream come true.”

Siri, age 12, Colorado, USA

“The Old Man and the Cat is a very nice story — structurally nice, and with its quiet presentation of bird images and the old man's willing surrender of power a very New Zealand story in feeling and flavour.”

Margaret Mahy, undated letter (c 1977)

“... It is truly delightful — exciting, fantastic but without a whiff of whimsy: the old man is a splendid person, and so is the cat — both utterly credible. To me, you have a new talent — original and yet in the true tradition.”

Marion Lochhead, critic and author of Renaissance of Wonder

Author’s notes

Beginnings: The Old Man and the Cat

It was in the 1970s, when our children were growing up, that I first began to think seriously about writing for children. We lived — Julia and I still do — on a few acres of land with a stream, an orchard of apples, pears, plums, peaches and walnuts, and a few very old white poplar trees, in whose topmost branches paradise ducks have nested every spring for many years. Sometimes when one or other of the children was keeping me company in the orchard, I would make up stories to amuse us both. Picking Pears in the Witchs Garden was a somewhat gruesome tale I told my daughter one autumn evening as the mist was starting to drift in among the orchard trees. “Are these really the witch's pears, Daddy?” she asked. “Are they poisoned pears?” “Oh no, they’re delicious — like honey; and the witch gets very, very angry if she catches anyone picking them. At dusk she steals through the orchard, waiting to leap out and snatch them and drag them away to her lair. Listen: you can hear her teeth grinding as she creeps along — clicketty clack, clicketty clack, like this ...”

Around the same time, while looking through a box of old manuscripts, I came across a story that had been handwritten neatly in red ink when I was fourteen years old. It was called, simply, The Cat, and I can still remember the awed astonishment I felt after completing it in a sudden rush of inspiration. It was, I believed, unlike anything I had ever written before — complete and perfect, like a gift miraculously dropped from the heavens! In fact, the idea for the story had been inspired by my memories of a stray black cat that adopted us when I was a child. It used to stare fixedly at our old wind-up gramophone whenever my father played one of his records, as he often did, in the evenings. It was as if, strangely, it was actually listening to the music. The manuscript also showed the influence on my imagination of the collections of fairy and folk tales from the Invercargill Children's Library that I’d read when I was seven or eight. It was there, too, that I discovered and read all of the Dr Doolittle novels, Enid Blyton’s homely tales, Edith Nesbit’s domestic fantasies, the “Boys’ Own” adventure stories of Major Charles Gilson, and any of Richmal Crompton’s enormously popular “William” books that I could get hold of. But it was the simple rhythmic style and enchanted worlds of the old folk tales that had chosen that moment to float up to shape my first very own fairy tale.

In the story, an emaciated black cat is drawn by the sound of beautiful music to a cottage in the bush, where a lonely old man is playing on a violin. This, however, is no ordinary moggy with simple expectations of a warm hearth, food, and a lap to curl up on at night, but a supernatural visitant with an obsessive hunger for music, the reason for which is not actually explained. Despite its weird ways, the old man eventually comes to accept and cherish the cat, but when one day thieves break into the cottage and smash his precious violin into pieces, their strange companionship is broken forever: the cat disappears, never to return.

Among the manuscripts in the box was a reworking of The Cat, written several years later. This time, the magic is darker: the cat has transmogrified into an evil creature who steals the enchanted guitar which the old man has made out of a fallen tree trunk, and like a feline pied piper, charms the creatures away from his forest home, leaving him alone and bereft. I liked the tale, but could see at once that this was only half a story, left in mid-air as it were, without a proper resolution. So I sat down and wrote a new version, rewriting the existing text and adding a final section to provide the story with a more satisfying conclusion. Retitled The Old Man and the Cat, the story was eventually accepted by Dorothy Butler for inclusion in her 1980 anthology of New Zealand stories for children, The Magpies Said. Since then it has been republished in magazines, anthologies and in two picture book editions.

The Fomison illustrations

Pencil illustration "The Cat" by Tony Fomison Pencil illustration "Man and cat" by Tony FomisonPencil illustration "Man and carrying log" by Tony Fomison

Illustrations by Tony Fomison, in pencil, reproduced by permission of Mary Fomison, copyright assignee (note: the second two panels are photocopies — the whereabouts of the originals are unknown)

It was in 1974 that I first thought of approaching a local artist to illustrate The Old Man and the Cat for a picture book project. As a child I had been captivated by the black and white illustrations in the folk and fairy tale collections housed in the excellent Invercargill children’s library. The hobgoblins and mysterious woodland interiors haunting the pictures of Arthur Hughes, Laurence Housman, J D Batten and other Victorian and Edwardian illustrators drew me down shadowy tunnels into an enthralling “otherworld” of the imagination. And now, many years later, I was making new discoveries. Maurice Sendak’s pen-and-ink line drawings for the fairy tales of George Macdonald and Randall Jarrell, as well as the gothic imaginings of Sidney Sime and Harry Clarke (illustrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination), had renewed and extended my early fascination with the medium. I had also recently viewed a local gallery exhibition of Tony Fomison’s paintings and drawings, and recognised in them a similar quality of imagination that I felt could evoke — and enrich — the darkish mood of my folk-like tale in a unique way. All these things inspired me to write to Tony, whom I’d never met, asking if he would be interested in illustrating the enclosed story for a picture book. To my delight, he replied that he was “most keen”, commenting that he found the story “capable of so many levels of meaning.”

Some weeks later, Tony had completed a pencil drawing, which I forwarded with the story, and photocopies of two other drawings still in draft, to the UK publisher, Macdonald and Jane. The editor showed interest, and agreed to consider the proposal on receipt of more completed samples. But after some months, with no further finished work on hand, he wrote to advise us that, since we had last been in touch, conditions in the picture book market had deteriorated considerably, and the chance of succeeding with a picture book illustrated in black and white, unless of a very popular nature, had become extremely slight. “Mr Fomison’s work,” he agreed, “is very beautifully done and highly imaginative but I have some doubts as to whether it would have a strong appeal for more than a small minority of children (or of those adult teachers, librarians and booksellers who buy largely for them). I must therefore, with genuine regret return the material you have sent me.”

It was a fair if sobering assessment; nevertheless, we decided to carry on. We did manage to achieve dialogue over the next few months with the local branch of one other UK publisher, but in the end our negotiations came to nothing, and the project was abandoned.

Arguably, given that two years down the track Tony had still only completed one drawing to his complete satisfaction, it does seem unlikely that we would ever have managed to meet a publisher’s market-oriented expectations. That said, I’ve always felt grateful for Tony’s cat: a feline embodiment of rapacious evil, recalling in its emotional power and mastery of the black and white medium those mysterious “otherworlds” that had so stimulated my childhood imagination.