The annual Inis Reading Guide features the best titles published within a given year, with exciting new voices laying in wait to be discovered by readers both young and old. This month we are shining a spotlight on Brendan Wenzel and his début author illustrated title They All Saw a Cat, a profoundly clever and creatively inspirational picturebook.
Q1. This is your first major release in Ireland, before we discuss the book could you give us a little of your backstory? What led you to picturebook illustration and what projects/books have you worked on previously?
I am the son of two artists, so I grew up drawing and was interested in making books at a very young age. In 2003 I graduated from the Pratt Institute, an art school based in Brooklyn New York, and after leaving school I tried to find my way into the picturebook world for many years. I continued to develop ideas and illustrations until 2014, when the author of the first book I illustrated, Angela DiTerlizzi, stumbled across my work online and reached out about collaborating on her book, Some Bugs. Since then I have worked on five different projects including Some Bugs and Some Pets by Angela, Beastly Babies by Ellen Jackson, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by David Bernstrom and They All Saw a Cat, which is my first book as both author and illustrator. I have also just finished up work on a Cynthia Rylant book titled Life, which will be out in 2017.
Q2. What lessons have you learned from working on someone else’s text and how did this affect your own writing style?
A great many!
The more time I spend with other people’s books, the more I tend to gravitate towards brief text. That’s not to say there aren’t many books I love with longer manuscripts, but when I write I try to get things down to as few words as possible, and let the interplay between text and images do the heavy lifting.Often when I read a great manuscript by another author, it feels like the world the book will be set in already exists somewhere. It’s amazing how even with a very short text, a strong voice can set the tone and paint a picture. The importance of the text creating a certain feeling, which will hopefully inform the images, is something I’ve thought a lot about while working on manuscripts for other authors.
Often when I read a great manuscript by another author, it feels like the world the book will be set in already exists somewhere. It’s amazing how even with a very short text, a strong voice can set the tone and paint a picture. The importance of the text creating a certain feeling, which will hopefully inform the images, is something I’ve thought a lot about while working on manuscripts for other authors.
Q3. What was the inspiration for They All Saw a Cat, your début author illustrated picturebook?
I wrote this book after returning to the United States after living abroad off and on for a few years – first in Vietnam and later Nepal. The book was my attempt to process some of the experiences I had living in places very different from the one I grew up in, and how that experience provided the opportunity to step outside myself and see the world with a fresh perspective.
Another big piece of the puzzle I pulled from working with children. So often in art classrooms, I hear a common expression that upsets me. The phrase, which is understandable, and I myself have muttered a thousand times is ‘I have done a bad drawing.’ My stance in the classroom and what I also try to remind myself of, is that doing a bad drawing is actually impossible, because when you draw, you are sharing your point of view with people around you. You are giving them the opportunity to see a subject matter through your eyes. It’s always a great thing.
These were two of the big ideas that inspired the book.
Q4. From initial concept to completion, can you talk us briefly through the process and share what it was that attracted you to work with Chronicle Books on this title?
I wrote the manuscript and created the book dummy in late 2015. After showing it to my agent, we reached out to publishing houses that he thought might be interested.
I was a long time admirer of Chronicle Books, not only for the fantastic titles that they release, but also for the care and consideration they take with every aspect of the bookmaking process. Their attention to detail and the brilliant design that makes its way into all of their books had me keeping my fingers firmly crossed that they would be interested in working on They All Saw a Cat. I also had a fantastic conversation early on with the book’s brilliant editor, Ginee Seo, and the prospect of working with her was a big draw.
Once Chronicle and I decided to collaborate on the book, the bulk of the work was creating the final images. As I intended to use many materials that, at the time, were unfamiliar to me – both to keep things spontaneous and to push the variety of perspectives explored in the book – I wanted to give myself plenty of time to experiment and try different approaches.
Q5. You describe yourself as ‘an author and illustrator with great affection for all things furred, feathered and scaly.’ What were your choices for choosing a cat as the lead character in your début book?
I am a big fan of all animals, so it was not an easy task selecting one to focus on, and other creatures like foxes and owls were certainly in the running. I wanted, however, to choose an animal that was both a bit mysterious, but more importantly familiar – something almost everyone would have had some manner of interaction with. A cat seemed perfectly positioned in so many ways. They are both independent and affectionate; a predator and prey; domesticated and a bit wild; commonplace but mystical. The more I considered options, the more a cat seemed like the perfect choice, especially within the hierarchy of the familiar backyard animals. Looking back, I think a dog would have also been fun, but They All Saw a Dog would have been a much different book.
Q6. The line ‘The Cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws …’ is lyrical perfection and rather aptly illustrates how a cat would encounter the world through its heightened senses. How did you arrive at this opening line which sets the tone for the rest of the book?
When I wrote the line, I was thinking about watching outdoor cats, and how they move through the world. It was important to only put down on paper what I was certain of, and so lines like ‘happily walked’ or ‘briskly walked’ went out of the window.
One of the things I like the most about where the line ended up, is the use of whiskers, ears and paws, which are not only likely components one might use to describe a cat, but also those parts that a cat would use to perceive and experience the world.
This book has a lot to do with what we can know and what we have to imagine. It felt important to have a refrain that reminded myself and the reader – this is what we know, before taking that hard left turn into the realm of imagination on the individual animal spreads.
Q7. Every element of the book; from page layouts to the choice of each distinctive medium, from the gentle shift in phrasing of ‘the cat’ to ‘a cat’, to the final spread, culminates in an immense piece of work that is profound in construct yet reads so effortlessly. Can you talk us through some of these elements and how long the process took?
Creating the images for the book took around a year, when all was said and done. The text came fairly quickly, but fine tuning the rhythm and pacing took a bit longer. The images, which were created with various mediums, as well as my computer, came together at various speeds. Some images resolved themselves quickly, while others took much longer to iron out. For certain images, like the bee, countless outtakes were created before the image felt like the right one for the final book.
Q8. I am so impressed with how you have taken such a heavy and somewhat complex subject and treated in such a light and relatable way. The final page is breathtaking, (I am not ashamed to say I had goosebumps and shed a tear). What have been the best reactions so far from young readers in response to the book?
Thank you again! That is a kind and humbling compliment.
The best part of the process for me has been the opportunity to chat with kids about the ideas explored in the book. I’ve been dying to talk about perspective the entire time I’ve been working on the book, and I’m now able to have that conversation quite regularly.
On tour one of the exercises I’ve been doing has been to create a new image for the book using an animal of the audiences choosing, as well as their suggestions for how that animal might see the world. Many of the comments I’ve heard have been mind-blowing.
While making an image for The Cheetah Saw a Cat in Houston, a first grader raised her hand and made the comment ‘Maybe because a cheetah is so fast, it would experience the world as if it was in slow motion.’ It was such a cool idea, and I kept thinking about that comment for days after. Moments like these are a great reminder of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to connect with kids, not only to share my ideas, but more importantly hear theirs.
Q9. A number of our followers would be educators and librarians. Are there any activity sheets/class project plans available to download?
Absolutely! The brilliant team at Chronicle Books has put together a number of fantastic resources for the classroom and story times. These are available at theyallsawacat.chroniclebooks.com
Q10. And finally, can you share what you are currently working on? I hear there is another author/illustrator book in the pipeline with Chronicle Books … will this be an independent title or shall a certain cat be making a reappearance?
Yes! I am working on a new book with Chronicle Books, which, although is much different than They All Saw a Cat, pulls from some of the same foundational material. I can’t say that much at the moment but it will have MANY animals, and although it probably won’t have THE cat, a cat or two will surely make an appearance.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel out now in hardback (£10.99, Chronicle Books)
To get your hands on a copy of the Inis Reading Guide featuring the review of They All Saw a Cat, follow this link to the shop.
To read Brendan’s answers to the ‘Five Questions from the Little Orange Chair’ head over to our Instagram @kidsbooksirel.