In classrooms around the country, there’s a blue cat that’s getting lots of attention. He’s named Pete — Pete the Cat, and he’s the titular star of the popular children’s picture books. “Pete the Cat” has risen to become one of the biggest children’s book series to come from a Georgia author.
That author, James Dean, didn’t even intend for Pete the Cat to become anything big to start with. He started out as the focus of a series of paintings Dean was selling at art festivals.
“It was something I was doing for adults,” Dean said. “It wasn’t for children, but people started coming up to me telling me it should be a children’s book.”
Soon, Pete the Cat would spawn dozens of books, and the series is now inspiring a future TV show and a puppet show coming to the Center for Puppetry Arts from April 4 to May 28.
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However, the Pete the Cat franchise almost never came to be, and it took decades before Dean’s humble painting of his cat grew into the children’s book juggernaut it is today.
From engineering to art festivals
Since he was a child, Dean saw art as an unrealistic dream. His father was the epitome of the starving artist whose art, while great in his son’s eyes, never garnered much fame — except for one piece.
“When John Kennedy was assassinated, he did a charcoal of (him) and sent it to Jackie Kennedy, and he got a letter back from Jacqueline Kennedy that (it was) going in the Kennedy library,” Dean said.
Dean said his father was the only artistic influence he had as a child, and since he saw his father’s talent yield little money, he decided to pursue electrical engineering at Auburn University instead. He soon landed a job at Georgia Power, and he found himself living and working in Athens.
While working at Georgia Power, Dean decided in 1994 to begin drawing landscape pictures of Athens music venues, and within three years, he was decently known in the art community in Athens. He then felt financially stable enough to pursue art full time.
“So I quit my job in ’97 — like an idiot,” Dean said jokingly, “and I started doing art festivals.”
Two years later, in 1999, Dean’s cat, Slim, died. He couldn’t imagine getting another cat, but he soon changed his mind.
“There was a little black kitten in a cage at the shelter in really bad shape — a little tiny kitten who had been starved,” Dean said. “I didn’t really want a black cat since I thought they were bad luck … but this kitten wanted to play with me and the other kittens didn’t, so I ended up taking it and naming him Pete.”
He said he chose that name for no particular reason, but he had no idea what that name would turn into.
Unknowingly becoming a cat artist
Dean continued to sell his art around Athens, and he eventually drew a cat (not Pete) for a Humane Society fundraiser. It sold for $300, to his surprise.
“I didn’t really want to be a cat artist,” said Dean, who now lives in Savannah. “But it got me thinking — if I could draw (Pete) in a way I’d like, what would I do?”
He ended up painting a 1-year-old Pete in a melancholy piece where Pete sat in a corner of white space with a long, L-shaped tail.
“I took it to a show, and this lady who saw it on a Saturday came back on Sunday saying, ‘I just have to have it. I couldn’t get this thing off my mind,’” Dean said. “I’ve never had somebody have that reaction to something I’d painted.”
After people began telling him Pete should become a children’s book character, he ended up having a very peculiar run-in with a man he’d never met, Eric Litwin, while stopped at a traffic light in Atlanta.
“I had an old ‘65 Chevy with a big Pete the Cat on the door, and I looked over at (Litwin), and he said, ‘I just recorded a song for you,’” Dean said. “I thought this guy’s strange, since I didn’t know him. I think I gave him my email address, but when I got home … he sent me (the song) ‘I Love My White Shoes.’”
That song ended up morphing into the title of the first book, “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.” Litwin and Dean worked on it together, and they ended up self-publishing the book. They were able to sell 7,000 copies between the two of them.
“It’s about stepping in blueberries and strawberries, but all the adults know it was about stepping in crap,” Dean said. “I love that it’s edgy, and it just has everything for me.”
The book eventually made its way to the desk of a publisher at HarperCollins Publishers.
“On my 51st birthday in 2008, the phone rang, and I look down and it said New York City,” Dean said. “I thought, ‘Wow, who’s calling me from New York City?’ It was a publisher, and they wanted to talk to me about publishing the book.”
‘A dramatic day in the life of Pete’
After the first four “Pete the Cat” books, Litwin and Dean split ways, and Dean began co-writing the books with his wife, Kimberly.
After a few more books, Dean was contacted by Leonardo DiCaprio’s agent about a possible “Pete the Cat” TV show. The show is now in production by Alcon Entertainment, and “Phineas and Ferb” co-creator Swampy Marsh is producing it. The rights were picked up by Amazon, and Dean said they’re hoping to have the pilot ready before the end of 2017.
That isn’t the only big adaptation of “Pete the Cat,” since the Center for Puppetry Arts has its own version, which will premiere April 4. Artistic director Jon Ludwig described it as an episodic “dramatic day in the life of Pete,” which combines the plots of many of the books. Children in Atlanta schools helped influence which books were adapted.
“We had the kids vote on their favorite books,” Ludwig said.
The kids also helped resident puppet builder Jason Hines refine the design for Pete and his fellow cast of characters.
“They did drawings of their own, and they all started with Pete’s ears,” Hines said. “They love those two triangle ears, so that definitely became a motif throughout the entire design process.”
Dean rarely draws Pete and the other characters in the books the same way twice, but that’s just not practical in the puppet design world. However, it sounds like they were able to capture the essence of the characters and sets as close to the books as possible.
“The puppets look exactly like Pete the Cat from the books,” Ludwig said. “Everything was (designed with) the goal to make it look exactly like the books.”
Dean said he’s not really afraid of others adapting his work, since the Pete the Cat property seems to work out when people get the essence of the character.
“I got so excited (seeing) the 3-D sketches,” Dean said. “I can’t wait to actually go there and get to see it. To me, that is just as crazy as Amazon picking up the rights to a cartoon. Who would’ve dreamed they’d have a Pete the Cat (puppet) show?”
“Pete the Cat”
April 4-May 28. $10.25 for members, $20.50 for nonmembers. The Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-873-3391, www.puppet.org.