Indie booksellers across the country have chosen Cat Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith (Random House Studio) as their top pick for the July/August Kids’ Indie Next List.
On the book, René Kirkpatrick of University Book Store in Seattle, Washington, said, “I am so psyched that there’s a new Jory John and Lane Smith book! And it’s about cats and a day in their real lives! And a squirrel!”
Here, Bookselling This Week discussed cats, humor, and writing for children with John and Smith.
Bookselling This Week: Jory, you write other books for children and adults. What makes your approach to writing picture books different?
Jory John: With picture books—while a big focus is on the humor, heart and message—I also think about the rhythm of the text, how it’s going to sound when it’s read out loud, if it lends itself to a performance, and if it’ll stand up to multiple readings. It’s incredible to think that these books become a part of a child’s routine and home life, and I take writing humor books for kids pretty darned seriously.
BTW: I think I laughed and thought of my own cat on every single page, which made this such an engaging read. Do you use humor often in your writing? What draws you to it?
Lane Smith: We hope other readers think of their own cats, too. When I first read Jory’s manuscript I knew he nailed it. Cat Problems could only have been written by someone who knows cats. I laughed out loud with recognition many times. I kept up the laughing while making the artwork. Thank God I work alone in a barn.
JJ: When I first saw Lane’s sketches, I knew he had nailed it, too! As for humor, yes, that’s definitely my go-to. It’s my favorite way to communicate in both writing and in life. I love surrounding myself with funny people—like Lane Smith!—and reading funny books and articles and essays, and watching funny things. So yeah, I’m a huge fan of comedy. I know Lane is, too, because we talk about it, a lot. I’ve used humor in my writing, going back to my early days writing a humor column in college, to a bunch of writing I’ve done for McSweeney’s, to my books. I think having a sense of humor is important in your day-to-day life and your overall happiness, and I hope that our books give kids lots to laugh about.
BTW: And the art! It’s gorgeous and so expressive. Lane, what was your inspiration? And how did you develop this particular style?
LS: Thanks! Like most doodlers who live with a cat you can’t help from grabbing a pencil and paper every time the kitty strikes a pose. (Years ago, I scanned all of my cat doodles then bound them into a little book for my wife. I called it Cat Scans.) I hope cat parents will recognize some Standard Feline Body Language in Cat Problems. Also, readers who know some of my other books might notice that this one is more painterly than the others. During the pandemic I’d been working on large oil paintings and big, bold brushstrokes found their way into my CP illustrations.
JJ: Lane, do you have an extra copy of Cat Scans? Is this a good venue to ask for free things?
LS: It was an edition of one. Sorry. But I might have an extra copy of Cat Problems to sell you at my author’s discount rate.
JJ: You get a discount?
BTW: Lane, was illustration, particularly for children’s books, something that has always interested you? Or was it something you came to later as an artist?
Lane: I discovered, rediscovered really, children’s books when I was an art student: Sendak! Lionni! Steig! The Provensens! I could only dream of making kids' books someday and for the rest of my life. My first book was published in 1987; I got my foot in the door and haven’t removed it since.
BTW: Judging by the back cover, I’m assuming you both have at least one cat. Tell me about your cats.
JJ: I have two cats, William and Olive, brother and sister, friends and rivals. They make me laugh, every single day. (Olive is currently meowing at my office door as I type this sentence. Oh, look, here comes William.) They’re lovely companions and—as a person who spends a lot of his time working from home—my life has come to revolve around them, from their incessant meows asking for treats to their never-ending meows asking for wet food. So, basically, everything you see in the book is based on actual events.
LS: Myself, my wife, and our dog JoJo are all dominated by a cat named Lulu. She is playful and a little destructive but Jory and I both agree that cats get a bad rap. People say they are aloof. We’ve had conversations about how affectionate and engaged our cats are. And you know the rule: If a cat sits on your painting or keyboard you have to stop what you are doing and indulge them. You cannot move them. That’s the rule. It added about five years to this project. I finally just bought a new computer and gave the old one to Lulu.
BTW: What role do indie bookstores play in your lives?
JJ: Whenever I visit a new town, the first thing I do is look for the nearest indie bookstore. Gosh, I love so much about them, including the expertise of the staff, the curation, the atmosphere, the physical spaces, the camaraderie, the events, and so much more. I’ve lived near some incredible bookstores in my life, including Powell’s Books, Moe’s Books, Diesel, Dog Eared Books, Green Bean Books, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to collaborate with tons of indie bookstores around the country on countless events and school visits. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the amazing owners and employees and customers, and love being a part of the strong sense of community that indie bookstores provide. These bookstores are essential and necessary and I can’t think of a better way to spend any free time that I have than to go to my beloved indies.
LS: I am lucky to live near one of the best indie bookstores in the country: The Hickory Stick in Washington Depot, Connecticut. Our little town doesn’t have many shops. But a bookshop is something the residents deem essential. Washington Depot has a grocery store to feed our bellies, a gas station to feed our cars and—not to be sappy—The Hickory Stick to feed our souls. Okay, that sounded sappy. But it’s true.
JJ: I didn’t think that was sappy. I thought it was lovely. Hey, I’d like to come to your town and visit The Hickory Stick with you. (No pressure, Lane.)
LS: Let me check my calendar and get back to you.
BTW: Anything to add?
JJ: My cats send their regards and thank you for this interview.
LS: Oddly, my cat does not seem to care.