Allison's Book Bag

Bad Kitty Story Exercise

Posted on: October 30, 2014

Once I have selected all of the Plum Creek Literacy Children’s Festival authors with whom I am familiar, I face the pleasure of picking which others I can squeeze in during the day. Nick Bruel is one  author attracted me, because of his Bad Kitty books. Myself being a cat lover since 2006, I seek out all things cat. His presentation topic, how to tell stories, also seemed potentially beneficial to me both as a teacher and as an author. What follows are the highlights of his talk, which includes two story-telling exercises.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABruel met a student who was distressed. Coming up with ideas for stories can be difficult. To help out, his teacher had assigned him to include a giraffe, a fence, and the action of running. The boy had no idea what to do with these elements.

The problem is the teacher had confused tools with parameters. Bruel talked to her about an idea of his that might work.

He does a lot of presentations. However, he is a writer who happens to draw, unlike illustrators who create art. To present, he must dig into his brain and figure out how he writes.

When it comes time for Bruel to write, it’s hard for him to come up with an idea. Really, it’s difficult for anyone to sit with a blank paper or in front of a screen and to start. The mind becomes a really big blank. So, Bruel likes to use jumpstart exercises.

First, he thinks of titles first. Take for example his book Boing! He thought about where would this sound come from, kept his mind open, and eventually the idea came along for a kangaroo book.

Bruel also likes names. Take for example the name Stanley Yelnats. It’s catchy, because the second name is backwards. Bruel began to wonder what adventures he might have, kept his mind open, and eventually an idea developed.

One day, he came up with the title of Bad Kitty. He liked it. Right away, he knew the cat would be bad. Living with cats, it was also easy brainstorm ideas. He started with foods his cats doesn’t like and began alphabetizing those foods.

While Bruel was contemplating Bad Kitty sequels, not even sure if he would write another one, his wife happened to be taking care of a neighbor’s son. She’d cradle him by saying, “Poor Puppy.” Bruel decided that would make a good title, he could be the puppy which had appeared in the first Bad Kitty book, and that he could be in the next kitty book.


After this lead-in, Bruel takes his audience of adults through an activity which he’s also used with students.

  • First, name an animal!
  • Second, name a feeling!

Now put those two together and…. You have  title! At the presentation, we came up with Mad Kitna.

The secret Bruel tells us to this activity is: Always Ask Questions!  What follows is a summary of the questions and answers that we came up at Bruel’s presentation.

Q. Where is Mad Kitna?

A. He is in a laboratory and experimenting with making a human being. The theory is no one wants him as a pet and so he can be this human being’s pet.

Q. What ingredients is Mad Kitna getting?

A. He steals a head from someone’s doll. She feels sad about the doll. He doesn’t care because he is a mad scientist.

Q. How does the girl find out?

A. The girl finds out because he takes it from her arms. The lab is in a treehouse.

Q. Is he able to create the human being?

A. No, the doll is plastic.

Q. What else can he do?

A. Maybe he tries to return the doll back to the girl.

Q. Why would he return the doll?

A. He realizes there’s more to the person than just a head. The girl is happy and now wants the Kitna to be a pet.

Q. What does the girl say?

A. She asks why did you take the head? The Kitna tells her that he wants a human. The two make a deal: I’ll give you more info about being a human if you’ll be my pet.

Q. How does the story end?

A. At bedtime, the girl tells a story to him. Kitna’s prickles aren’t out anymore. They fall back in on him as he falls asleep. He’s a pet!

At this point, Bruel retells the story. He emphasizes that WE made up all the details. The one thing he did was ASK questions. And this is the secret to writing stories. The more questions one asks, the more interesting a story will be.

For a variation on this activity, click on the LINK to open a Microsoft Word document.

As many authors seem to these days, Bruel also took time to comment on the education system. We have kids who go to school now and learn so much about testing that we’re raising kids who feel compelled only to find the right answer. They don’t answer questions anymore. But that is what’s at the heart of creativity. Asking questions is behind everything one does.


Time left to spare after the activity, Bruel answered questions from the audience. Most of those questions evolved around the writing process. What follows is a summary of Bruel’s answers.

Nick Bruel and Bad Kitty,

Nick Bruel and Bad Kitty,

He starts with an outline. This technique is best for older writers. An outline is a map. Bruel needs to know where he is going in the story, where he will start and end. He can’t just write. After that, he writes and draws. For him, illustrations tell the story as much as the words. With the Bad Kitty books, Bruel has to sketch because kitty doesn’t talk and so his artwork shows what she feels.

Bruel works at home in a fairly large messy office in a house which the family moved into about a year ago. They still haven’t even unpacked everything. There are papers everywhere. He needs a place without distractions. That means no TV or stereo in the background.

Now that he has the process streamlined, Bruel takes about six months to create a chapter book. Sketching is part of the writing process and can be laborious. The final art can take a couple of months. The only reason he doesn’t publish more often than once a year is because there are other projects. For example, Bad Kitty Makes Comics is coming out in spring! He was asked to create an activity book, but didn’t feel those added much to children’s lives, and so instead he wrote about comics.

While Bruel has tried to use a notebook, he has never been successful with the tool. Even in high school, he couldn’t retain the habit. He does keep little notations on my computer, essentially a list of titles. Bruel explains he is not an organized thinker. His papers are all over the place. He would lose a journal. His notebook is inside his head.

One answer intrigued me, which is the one about why is books are so popular with primary-school boys. Bruel acknowledged that he admires those who target boys, but said it isn’t a goal he has. He doesn’t even target his books to pets. 🙂 In fact, not targeting boys was a conscious choice. Having a wife and a  daughter, he knows boy grow up to rule. Bruel guessed maybe it is the humor. He tries to appeal to a broad populace. As a kid, he wasn’t the smartest or most athletic. Humor was his way of making friends. And that’s what he is still doing!

Preschool readers are also apparently sparked with curiosity by his books…. To do this observation, Bruel said that he is an advantage in that he writes and he draws. This means he decides where the art will be. He can place the big surprise on the subsequent pages. A person who writes novels doesn’t have that luck. But it works for Bruel’s books.

When asked about if he himself was a reader when young, Bruel answered in the affirmative. He went to private schools where there was lots of books. The genre which most appealed to him was comics, aka graphic novels today. He grew up being a good reader. After college, he worked in a bookstore and discovered that he like books for young people. Adult books are well written but have themes and layers that he doesn’t always understand. Young adult books are centered around characters and settings. A favorite adult novel is Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. This reminds Bruel how great writing is. It’s like going to a museum and seeing a beautiful painting and wanting to create it.

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