Thanks for stopping by Twenty by Jenny, Brendan! I have loved your illustration work so far, and I’m excited to talk about They All Saw A Cat, a book you both wrote and illustrated. Congrats on this accomplishment!
Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you do anything else in addition to writing great books?
Hello Clara! Thanks for the congrats and for the opportunity to chat about the book. I grew up in Connecticut, but now I jump back and forth between upstate New York and Brooklyn.
Though the majority of my time these days is devoted to the book making process, I do my best to make a bit of time for collaborations with groups working in wildlife conservation, which is an interest of mine. I also sometimes watch birds.
When did you get your start as a writer and/or illustrator? How long have you been writing and illustrating?
Both of my parents are artists, so I started drawing when I was very young—probably while still crawling. I graduated from Pratt Institute in 2003, but for the first ten years of my career I jumped around doing lots of creative odd jobs: storyboarding, animating, even puppet making. The whole time I was developing book ideas and submitting dummies. My break in the picture book world came in 2013, some years later, when Angela DiTerlizzi reached out to me about collaborating with her on Some Bugs. It was definitely a lucky day, and we actually just finished a second collaboration on the follow up, Some Pets.
What were some of your favorite books as a child? Authors, illustrators, you name them.
It's such a tough question. I'm sure I'm not the first one to say this, but the list goes on and on. A few that I feel really left a mark on me, Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (still one of my absolute favorites), Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen and pretty much everything illustrated by the incredible Quentin Blake.
Top 3 favorite authors and illustrators that inspire you today?
1.Carson Ellis is hands-down my favorite illustrator working today. Everything she makes is outrageously beautiful. Pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.
2.Leo Lionni is probably the illustrator who I look at the most. Everything about his work blows me away. Beyond brilliant.
3.My father is the illustrator David T. Wenzel (his most recent picture book was The King of Little Things written by Bill Lepp). He has taught me a ton over the years and although our styles of image-making are quite different, he has been a huge influence in every way.
In your own words, describe what They All Saw A Cat is about.
They All Saw A Cat is the story of a brown cat with a red collar and little gold bell who goes for a walk. The hook is not the story of any major occurrence in the cat's life, but rather an exploration of how the various creatures that cross paths with the feline, see and experience it in their own unique way.
One of the things I enjoyed about the idea was it afforded me the opportunity to play in that space between what we can know and what we can only imagine.
Please describe your illustration style.
I like to alter my approach a hit from project to project, depending on the tone and feel of the text. In They All Saw A Cat, however, the images actually changed from page to page. I wanted to capture the huge shifts in perspective from one animal to the next, and using unique materials and approaches seemed to be a great way of emphasizing the variety of experiences. Throughout the book I experimented with pencil, crayon, oil pastel, colored pencil, marker, acrylic, as well as my standard: watercolor and cut paper.
All the images eventually end up on screen for various degrees of compositing and tweaking, although I am happy to report a huge part of the image making process for They All Saw A Cat took place right on the drawing board.
This is your first picture book that you have written AND illustrated. I love how your illustrations are so appealing to children—bright colors and big eyes that are both humorous and draw the reader in at the same time—your characters actually appear to be looking at the reader! How did you take that child-centric illustrating approach and apply it to your words/story?
I have many times tried to nail down what I think makes successful work for kids, and always felt like my response misses the mark to some degree.
Here's what I can say for They All Saw a Cat: it was important to me, especially given the arguably heavy subject matter, that every image in the hook felt playful, but playful in its own unique way. I think (hope) that makes sense.
What was the inspiration for the cat to be the animal that all the other characters “see.” Why not a dog?
Originally a few other animals were in the running. I considered both an owl and a fox, However, I landed on a cat for a few reasons. First, cats are familiar. A cat was also perfectly situated on the hierarchy of familiar backyard creatures, and thus could represent a very different thing to every animal it encountered.
A dog certainly crossed my mind and could have been an interesting wat to go. I do feel like it would have been a very different book. Maybe a bit sillier. It would have been a lot of fun to work on.
|"and the dog saw A CAT"|
I love how each animal (or child) has a different point of view, and how each way of “seeing” is so incredibly different. The way a bumblebee sees a cat is very different than the way a mouse sees a cat. Which “way” of seeing the cat was your favorite to illustrate?
Tough question! Each image is enjoyable in its own way. The markings on some images, like the flea, ended up being repetitive and a bit meditative. Those spreads were great because I could just focus on interacting with the materials.
Others, like the bird, gave me the chance to really dive into to Cat's world, and render things a little more meticulously. Probably the Snake was the most fun, because I got to be very loose with the crayon, and I was also really specific with how I wanted the cat to look, that kind of made me laugh as I worked on it.
|"and the bird saw A CAT"|
Do you own any cats/pets? What are their names?
My wife and I had a cat when we lived in Vietnam. We had not intended to get a pet, but one day we looked out our window and this tiny fella was mewing and struggling to stay afloat in the' little marsh next to our house. We took him to the vet to get fixed up and cleaned up, but afterwards he still looked very much like a cat who had just emerged from a swamp. We named him Showcat. Thought it might raise his confidence a bit and we’re pretty sure it worked.
|"and the fish saw A CAT"|
What do you love about creating picture books for children (and adults)?
Talking with people about books from their childhood is always a lot of fun. No matter who I'm having the chat with, they always seem to get an excited and dreamy look in their eyes when remembering their favorite book. It's great. Recently, I was home and stumbled across this strange book I loved as a kid and immediately a bit of the wonder and potential I must have experienced reading it thirty years back wafted right over me. It's pretty incredible that a book can store all that so perfectly. My hard drives from college crashed years ago. The opportunity to create a book that might provide similar gateway for a child or an adult, and the privilege to spend my days trying to access those feelings, is one of the many reasons I feel so lucky to do this.
What is next? Any future projects for us to look forward to?
I just finished final art for Cynthia Rylant's Life, a beautiful manuscript I was very humbled to work on. That will be out next year. I am also happily working on my second book as an author and illustrator with Chronicle. I am unfortunately not ready to say too much about that one just yet but will share that many of my favorite creatures from around the world make appearances. Probably no big surprise there.
Thanks again Brendan! Look forward to They All Saw A Cat, available in stores August 30.