Behind the Story: Kathi Appelt on ALLEY CATS’ MEOW

THE ALLEY CATS’ MEOW by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell (Harcourt, 2002). This jazzy tale (or is that tails?) features the love story of Red and Ginger. The text sings and the illustrations dance. Really, jazzy. Age 4-up. This interview was conducted via email in 2002. Visit author Kathi Appelt.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Paws down, cats are my favorite animal! I’ve never lived without a cat, and I can’t imagine life without them. Anyway, for a couple of years, both of my sons took tap dancing lessons, and one day this group from Australia called the Tap Dogs came to Houston to perform. So a bunch of us got tickets and drove down to watch them. What a show! Great dancing, great performance, and best of all . . . great name. I just loved the name, and I thought, “Well, if there are tap dogs, maybe I could have a book that had jazz cats.”

At about the same time, there was a band called Squirrel Nut Zippers that was doing a lot of original swing music, and hearing them brought to mind all the old swing tunes that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to dance to back in the movies of the 50’s and 60’s. And so there you go . . .

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I wrote this one fairly quickly, mainly because a friend of mine invited me to come stay with her for several days at her cabin in Tennessee. She and I took our laptops and spent five days just writing. There was no TV, no interruptions, just the two of us writing. This book really kept me from being bored out of my mind! So, I came home with a fairly well-polished manuscript, sent it to Allyn Johnston and she bought it.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Okay, so Allyn bought it, and I’m feeling really smug. Then I had to completely rewrite it. There were a lot of problems with the rhyme, and also I had included a whole host of other cats–Ella Fitzgrowler, Frank Furrnatra, Cab Calico, etc–and they were bogging down the story. Allyn pushed me to turn the story over to Red and Ginger and take the other cats out of there. The story is much cleaner thanks to her, and I’m a humbler person.

The biggest challenge was finding the right illustrator. Allyn insisted upon finding someone who could handle the dark night scenes well, and that was tricky. Almost by accident, I saw a cover that Jon Goodell had done for a book by Dick King-Smith. I clipped it and sent it to Allyn and, thank you God, Jon took the project. We’re now doing a second book together, MERRY CHRISTMAS, MERRY CROW, and I can’t wait to see what Jon’s crow is going to look like. I absolutely adore his cats–they’re la-di-da-di-da!