Bad Kitty Author Nick Bruel on Politics, Writing & Illustrating

By Maryann Yin Comment

Forget Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich! Children’s author Nick Bruel has cast the “purrfect” candidate in his latest chapter book: Bad Kitty for President. We’ve embedded the book trailer above.

We caught up with Bruel to ask a few questions about politics, writing and illustrating.

Q: With your latest title, Bad Kitty for President, why did you decide to touch on such a
topical event?
A: I find politics in general to be a very weird, absurd, and sort of wonderful creature in this country. As Americans I think we have a propensity to take politics too seriously (myself included), but at the same time I don’t think many Americans understand our political system as much as they should. It’s a bit like watching a full season of baseball but never really understanding the rules of the game.

And over the next year, even kids won’t be able to escape the daily permutations of our current presidential race whether it be discussions at the dinner table, lessons in school, or the saturation of campaign commercials no one is going to be able to avoid for the next 10 months. They’re going to hear words like ‘PAC’ and ‘nominee’ and ‘debate’ but without necessarily hearing the context in which they belong. This was my way of creating a manual of sorts that kids can use in a fun, goofy, and hopefully informative format.

Q: Did you do any research for Bad Kitty for President?
A: More than I had to for any other book previous. I myself learned a lot of nuances to the process that I did not know beforehand. For instance, I had no idea that you don’t have to register to vote in North Dakota. That was important because I didn’t want to pass on false information based on my previous assumption that you had to register to vote in ALL states. Also, the PAC process is very complicated, and I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that everything I tell in this book about it is correct, even though the section is quite short. But seriously, what better way to explain how and why this cat can create campaign commercials for herself and attack ad for her opponent.

Q: How did you find your literary agent?
A: I wish I could tell people the surefire way to find a literary agent, but I can’t. Essentially, I got lucky. My agent Jennie Dunham was actually a regular customer of mine back in the days when I worked full time at a children’s bookstore in New York called Books of Wonder. Jennie and I spoke a few times, and at one point I must have mentioned that I was working on some manuscripts. I don’t even remember mentioning these manuscripts to her, but she did. She asked to see them, and I think I was as shocked as she was when she offered to represent me.

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: Two different publishers actually made offers for my first book Boing – Candlewick and Roaring Brook. Candlewick offered first but I asked my agent to wait before accepting the offer because I was very anxious to work with Roaring Brook from my knowledge of the kinds of books they put out. I can clearly remember the day when the store manager and buyer at Books of Wonder came out onto the sales floor to show me the catalog from this dynamic new publisher who opened up with the kind of list you usually see from longstanding, veteran publishers. I was floored, and not at all surprised when they won the Caldecott Medal their first two years in existence. So, I was insistent that Jennie submit to Roaring Brook. As much as I respect Candlewick, I clearly have no regrets holding out for Roaring Brook. Every single one of my books has been published by Roaring Brook and edited by the magnificent Neal Porter.

Q: What comes first, the words or the pictures?
A: The words… sort of. Generally, my process is to come up with the story first, which means outlining it in some way. But because I have the luxury of illustrating my books as well as writing them, I typically sketch them out while writing them. This is especially true with the chapter books. I use my illustrations as part of the story telling. The words in a Bad Kitty book may be saying one thing, but often Kitty’s expression is telling us something entirely the opposite.

Q: Do you have different processes for writing versus illustrating?
A: When I’m writing a story, I need to put myself into something akin to a sensory deprivation tank. I really can’t have any distractions of any kind. Even music on the radio is too much. The process of coming up with the story out of thin air requires as much focus on my part as I can muster.

However, when I’m creating the final artwork for my books, I can even have the TV on and I’ll be just as productive. At that point I feel in control enough with the book that I can relax and focus on the art is not compromised. Typically, I listen to NPR.

Q: Is it a different process for creating a picture book versus a chapter book?
A: I find the chapter book format much more liberating. A picture book can only be 32 or 40 pages, so I really need to calculate the way I’m going to tell the complete story very carefully. But with chapter books, I don’t have this obstacle, which means that I can just keep writing and writing until I think the story is complete. Plus, with chapter books I’m writing for an older audience that often demands to be challenged, so I can be a little more liberated with my vocabulary as well.

Q: How do you self-edit? For the writing? For the illustrations?
A: In both instances, I try to be as honest with myself as possible. I need to constantly ask myself questions about what I’m working on. ‘Is this funny?’ If I don’t think it’s so funny, then I can guarantee that my readers won’t either. Likewise, I always ask myself if something can be FUNNIER. Just a simple word change or adjustment of Kitty’s eyes can make a big difference in how a gag can work.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring children’s books creators?
A: It’s cliché, but try not to compromise your work. If someone tells you to make a significant change to your manuscript that you just don’t think is honest to your voice, then don’t change it. Meanwhile, spend as much time as you can reading as many children’s books as you can… not just in the bookstores but in the libraries as well where many of the books in their collection have been long out of print.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Bad Kitty: School Daze should be coming out sometime in Winter, 2013. It’s the first time I’ve written a book by popular demand. Every time I visited a school, kids invariably wanted to see Kitty in the same environment they spend each and every day in. I just needed to come up with a good enough idea of how to tell the story. After a while, I came up with the concept of what would happen if that cat did something so heinous in the beginning of the book that both she and Puppy would have to be sent to a pet obedience school. It will feature some new characters including a rabbit, a bull dog, and a teacher – the first significant human being to appear in one of these books since Uncle Murray. After that, if all goes according to plan… Bad Kitty Writes A Book.