In Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty, the title character Ate homework, Bit Grandma, Clawed the curtains and performed 23 other naughty deeds, after learning that her owners have run out of kitty-pleasing treats and plan to feed her Asparagus, Beets, Cauliflower and similarly healthy fare. Published by Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books in 2005, this picture book and a 2007 paper-over-board “cat-nipped” edition featuring die-cut teeth marks have together sold more than 75,000 copies. Now this cantankerous cat has some—more or less—good clean fun in Bruel’s early chapter book, Bad Kitty Gets a Bath, recently released with a 75,000-copy first print run.

Before Bruel was a children’s book author, he was a bookseller—and before he was a bookseller, he was a cartoonist. Both previous professions come into play when he creates his books. “I always thought being a cartoonist would be the best job in the world, since I loved the genre,” he says. “For a while, I did a self-syndicated comic strip that appeared in papers in several cities. It didn’t earn me anything, but it gave me the opportunity to hone my craft.”

During his 15 years as a bookseller in New York City—first at Shakespeare & Co. and then at Books of Wonder—Bruel began to think about bringing his cartooning skills to books. “At Books of Wonder, where I spent seven years, my life was saturated with children’s books,” he says. “I came to understand what children’s books were capable of, and what I liked and didn’t like. I started forming my own ideas and began putting together book dummies, but at first had no luck getting them published.”

His luck changed when his agent, Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary, submitted the dummy of Boing!, the tale of a young kangaroo who finally learns to leap,to Roaring Brook. The publisher released the book in 2004 and jumped at the chance to sign up Bad Kitty. “We fell in love with this book, to the point that we rushed it into publication,” Porter recalls. “It was an immediate success.” Bad Kitty spawned a 2007 companion book, Poor Puppy, starring Bad Kitty’s playful pal, which has also sold well, Porter reports. A third Bad Kitty book, Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty!, will follow in fall 2009.

Nick Bruel , moments before
trying to bathe his cat.

Bruel modeled Bad Kitty on one of his childhood pets, a feline “who was not particularly bad, but not particularly affectionate either.” Bad Kitty originally sprung to life as a book title, which the author says “literally popped into my head, as is the case with most of my books. The title comes to me first. I like titles that are fun to say aloud and this one definitely is.”

The plot took a bit longer to find. “I love alphabet books that tell a story, so I thought it would be interesting to use an alphabetical format,” Bruel says, “but I couldn’t figure out why, or how, this kitty would be bad. Then it occurred to me that, in order to take advantage of my target audience, I should think of Kitty as a little kid, who might act out by writing on the wall, flooding the bathroom or jumping on the bed—things that a cat doesn’t do.”

To create the storyline for his second Bad Kitty book—in which the protagonist creatively attempts to avoid the bathtub—Bruel also mined kids’ experiences. “The idea came to me that one of the things kids and cats have in common is that neither is terribly open to the idea of taking baths,” he says. The author first conceived of Bad Kitty Gets a Bath as a picture book, but changed his mind. “I didn’t want to do another picture book without incorporating the alphabet, because I thought I’d be cheating my audience,” he explains. “Yet I felt I’d exhausted the alphabet format. And then I realized that the new story I wanted to do was too long to tell in 32 or 40 pages, so I decided to make it an early chapter book.”

As Bruel began shaping Bad Kitty Gets a Bath, his bookselling experience again came into play. “As a bookseller, I was often approached by parents and teachers who were trying to find books for a child who was a reluctant reader, or was trying unsuccessfully to tackle chapter books,” he recalls. “This is the kid I had in mind as I created my book. I know that humor, in words and pictures, is a really good way to get that child reading.”

From his years in the bookstore, Bruel also knew that taking an established character into a format for older rather than younger readers bucks a trend. “I’ve often seen publishers take a popular picture-book character and dumb it down for the board-book audience, which I’ve never understood,” he notes. “To me this seems to be going backward. I love the idea of giving kids who liked Bad Kitty when she first appeared in a picture book the chance to grow up with her and embrace her again in a chapter book. It’s cool to bring them this character in a new format.”

Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter Books, $13.95 ISBN 978-1-59643-341-0