Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Nick Bruel

Posted on: October 28, 2014

NickBruelAuthor and illustrator of the Bad Kitty series and other best-selling books, Nick Bruel started out as a cartoonist. According to International Reading Association, He had some moderate success sending cartoons out to trade magazines and even managed to self-syndicate a weekly comic strip for two years. Although he never earned enough to support himself, he loved the work.

When Bruel gained employment in a small children’s bookstore in Manhattan, he discovered how much picture books and comics shared a similar language in the way text and illustrations work together to tell a story. Bruel had previously tried to publish children’s books and failed. While working in the Manhattan bookstore, Bruel became so saturated and educated in the picture book literary form that he tried again. This time it worked.

The idea for Bruel’s first Bad Kitty book came to Bruel much like all of his ideas, from the title. As for her personality, Bruel drew upon all of the different cats he has known throughout my life. He told Secret Files of Fair Day Morrow: “Cats are quite cool and aloof on the outside. But inside they are a neurotic mess. I can relate to that.”

The Bad Kitty books take between six and nine months to create. Bruel uses pencil, crow quill pen with waterproof ink, watercolor, and gouache paints for the illustrations.

Later in the week, I’ll share more about the creative device Bruel uses involving titles and review two of his other Bad Kitty books. Save the dates: October 29-31.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

NICK: I’ve said this many times before, so I’ll say it here as well. I have two regrets in life–that my father never lived to see any of my books published, and that Shel Silverstein never lived to see any of my books published.

My father was a good guy and encouraged the radical lifestyle that I had been developing for myself as a cartoonist. He had a marvelous sense of humor that I definitely inherited.

Shelly, as I knew him, was a regular customer at a store where I worked, and he as well was a marvelous man. Oddly enough, I did not read his poetry collections as a child, but “The Giving Tree” was a book that both haunted and perplexed me in the most marvelous way when I was young. It still does today.

ALLISON: If you were to draw on an episode from your childhood to inspire a Bad Kitty story, what memory would you use?

NICK: I don’t know if there is a particular episode from my childhood that I can draw upon, but Bad Kitty herself is physically modeled after a cat we had when I was young named Zou-zou. She was actually the first cat I ever lived with, a stray that appeared in our back yard one day and decided to stay with us. She was small, even for a cat, and very feisty. And Zou-zou had the most marvelous design for a pussycat; she was black all over, blacker than midnight, all except for this single, elegant tuft of white fur on her upper chest. When I first contemplated what I wanted Bad Kitty to look like, I immediately thought of Zou-zou and her wonderful design.

ALLISON: When not creating books for young people, how do you like to spend your time?

NICK: I mostly think of this whole children’s-book-author-and-illustrator gig as a part-time job. My full-time job, the one that takes up most of my time, is that of Daddy for my daughter Izzy. I really do enjoy our one-on-one time together. So, really, making these books is what I do when I have spare time from being with Izzy.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: Besides the cats you have known, who most inspires your ideas for Bad Kitty?

NICK: Actually, cats don’t inspire the stories for my books as much as you might think. I really don’t think of Kitty as a cat so much as I think of her as a little kid who happens to be shaped like a cat.

I don’t think there is any one thing that inspires my ideas. Mostly, when I’m in need of ideas, I find myself just sitting back and contemplating anything and everything that comes to mind. Not the most provocative answer, I know, but an honest one.

ALLISON: What do you think is the appeal of Bad Kitty to those kids who have autism or aspergers?

NICK: Starting about 5 years ago, I started received multiple emails from parents and teachers of kids on the Asperger’s end of the Autism spectrum. Simultaneously, I began meeting those same kinds of kids at public events. A pattern was beginning to develop, so I decided to correspond with those parents who were open to it and find out what they thought Bad Kitty’s appeal was to those kids. I received two answers from them, both of which surprise me.

First, they told me that their kids really responded to Kitty’s facial features and expressions. This surprised me because it was counterintuitive to what people think about autistic kids, that they do not interpret or respond to facial expressions, that they find them too subtle and confusing. All of this is true, but apparently with Kitty’s face this was not the case. Kitty’s face is static on the page.

Her face usually takes on extreme expressions, so there is little doubt about what emotion she’s trying to convey. And it probably helps that her face is depicted in black and white to further make her expressions distinct.

The second thing I learned, and apparently this came from the kids themselves, was that they thought Bad Kitty herself was autistic. I think it’s natural for readers to identify with characters that appeal to them, but there was some real reasoning behind their thoughts. Kitty does not like change. Kitty often takes things quite literally. What may be obvious to others, is not obvious to Kitty. I certainly was not conscious of having created an autistic character, but if this is how she is interpreted, then it’s an interpretation I will embrace.

ALLISON: Obviously your Bad Kitty books are designed to entertain. Do you think there are also lessons which young people might gain from them?

NICK: I think children’s book authors tread on a slippery slope when they become conscious of trying to convey a lesson in their work. More often than not, the lesson can distract from the story itself. Having said that, the only book I’ve written in which I was conscious of conveying a lesson would be Bad Kitty: Drawn To Trouble. This Bad Kitty book about how to write a Bad Kitty book is my attempt to encourage kids to write their own stories. In many ways, I do consider this one to be the most important book I’ve ever made.

ALLISON: If readers were to search out books of yours beyond Bad Kitty, which one would you most like them to find?

NICK: I think my book A Wonderful Year which comes out in early January would be the book I’d suggest. It’s my first non-Bad Kitty book in about five years, and it’s one that I’m extremely proud of. The notion for this book came to me one morning when I contemplated what I might have done had I been asked to create a Nutshell Library much like Maurice Sendak and Hilary Knight had once been asked to do. The result is this book, four short stories inside one picture book about a girl and the wonderful things that happen to her during each season of the year.

Thank you for the great questions.

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