If you have kids, you’ve likely been introduced to Grumpy Cat’s fictional counterpart Bad Kitty. You’ve probably attended Bad Kitty’s birthday and maybe even voted for the surly feline when he ran for president. But if you and your kids fancy a more congenial canine or a whimsical little girl, you’re in luck.
This January Bad Kitty’s author and illustrator Nick Bruel brings young readers two new titles. The first, Puppy’s Big Day, features Bad Kitty’s happy-go-lucky friend Puppy out on an adventure with their Uncle Murray. Then there’s A Wonderful Year, a silly and imaginative tale of the troubles and adventures one girl gets into over the course of the four seasons. Here, we chat with Bruel about what it takes to be a writer and what inspired his latest books.
Bookish: Kitty’s kind of in the doghouse in Puppy’s Big Day, left at home while Puppy and Uncle Murray go off on an adventure. What was it like having Puppy star in this book?
Nick Bruel: This was a very refreshing change in tone for me. And much of this tone comes not only from telling Puppy’s story but also from telling Uncle Murray’s. I don’t think that Puppy all by himself can sustain an entire chapter book novel. Even his first picture book Poor Puppy is just as much a narrative about Kitty’s life as it is Puppy’s. So this was an opportunity for me to really flesh out Uncle Murray’s character by way of this partnership with Puppy.
Bookish: Kitty lists “Horrible But True Facts” about dogs throughout the book. What are some horrible but true facts about being a writer?
NB: There is only one prerequisite anyone needs to being a writer: You have to be comfortable with the notion that you may spend long periods of time, sometimes days, working entirely by yourself with possibly no human interaction at all. Not everyone can do this. We’re the kind of people who can watch a movie like Cast Away and think to ourselves, ”Hang on… that doesn’t look so bad.”
Bookish: Kitty starts this book in a FOUL mood. What can put you in a bad mood? What can take you out of it?
NB: This will probably get me into trouble, but the one thing that can really put me into a lousy mood is witnessing political buffoonery. I have an unfortunate obsession with our country’s political process, and like most obsessions it is not a healthy one. When something drives me completely nutso, my only recourse is to sometimes donate money to causes and foundations I believe in and then go on a wide sweeping media hiatus.
That’s when I avoid the news at all costs—newspapers, television, radio, internet, you name it—and devote all of my attention to writing and illustrating stories about an ornery pussycat. These Bad Kitty books can be pretty good therapy sometimes.
Bookish: Puppy’s Big Day is hilarious but also comes with a warm message about how wonderful pet adoption is. Why was it important for you to include that in the story?
NB: I do feel pretty strongly that if anyone is going to look for a new pet, then the ideal way to find one is through a shelter. Just a few seconds of research will reveal that there are thousands and thousands of perfectly suitable cats and dogs out there that need homes. Another message I’m trying to put out there in this book is that all of these dogs and cats are homeless through no fault of their own. I personally have an odd history of capturing stray cats who appear in my backyard, getting them checked out by a doctor, and making the effort myself to find them homes if only so that I am not adding to the already overcrowded conditions in the shelters. I’ve done this with six cats in recent years. One of those cats, a gray, puffy little feline that tends to squeak instead of “meow,” now belongs to my editor Neal Porter.
Bookish: Your wife inspired Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty. What inspired your newest picture book A Wonderful Year?
NB: Carina did come up with the idea for Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty, which in many ways launched the series as a whole. But the idea for A Wonderful Year came to me one morning as I woke up contemplating what it would have been like if I had been asked to put together my own Nutshell Library. Most people know about the masterpiece that Maurice Sendak put together, but many of us forget that there used to be several Nutshell Libraries. Hilary Knight created A Christmas Nutshell Library. There was even A Rabbit’s Nutshell Library once. This book was the result of that contemplation: four very short stories that act independently of each other, but are stronger when read as a group. As I thought about this and simple scenarios began to filter into my brain, I realized that I could set each of these stories very comfortably in each season of the year.
Bookish: A Wonderful Year is filled with silly characters: a hippo named Louise, a talking tree, a can of beans. Were there any other characters that you originally included but eventually cut out?
NB: I don’t think so. This entire book was such an stream of consciousness exercise that most of it remains identical to the way I first wrote it down that morning.
I will say that the fourth story, the fall story featuring the tree, is very different from what I originally created. I knew I wanted to tell a tale about a tree that is undergoing a change, but my original draft took on a much sillier tone. The tree originally not only changed colors, but patterns as well by turning plaid and paisley and so forth. I was never really content with the silliness I had instilled in this story, feeling that so many other portions of this book were already sufficiently silly. It wasn’t until I was reading some quieter books to my daughter at bedtime, stories written by Ezra Jack Keats and Phil and Erin Stead and Julie Fogliano, that I found the quieter mood I wanted for my own book.
This was also when I realized that the focus in this part of the book should not be on the relationship between the girl and the tree but on the theme of change. The tree is very anxious about its impending changes, and the girl calmly comforts it. But the girl herself is changing. I reveal this very subtly in this book, perhaps too subtly. If you examine how this girl looks and behaves in this last portion of the book, you’ll see that she is slightly older and more mature than in the first portion. A year has passed, after all, since this book began.
Bookish: What’s your favorite thing to do in each season of the year?
NB: Winter: Sledding with my daughter in the backyard.
Spring: Walking through New York City with my daughter.
Summer: Tossing my daughter in the water at the public pool.
Fall: Seeing my daughter off to a new year at school.
All Year: Sleeping in. Never happens. I have a six year old daughter.