Kitty has been in a foul mood ever since readers first saw her flipping out over some unpleasant food items – in alphabetical order – in the 2005 picture book Bad Kitty. Hence her well-earned nickname. A decade later, Bad Kitty has spent some time on bestseller lists and now stars in 12 titles, ranging from a board book to picture books to chapter books, including Bad Kitty: Puppy’s Big Day, released in January, and a 10th-anniversary edition of Bad Kitty (March). PW recently chatted with Kitty’s creator, author-illustrator Nick Bruel, and Bruel’s editor Neal Porter, publisher at Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook Press, and tried not to incur the wrath of the fearsome feline herself.

PW: Nick, when did Bad Kitty first strut into your imagination?

Nick Bruel: Well, there wasn’t a moment where a black cat appeared at the window, or anything like that. I have a creative device that I use: I don’t think of the story first, I think of the title first. I like titles that sound good when you say them out loud. So when I thought of “Bad Kitty” I wondered what could a cat be doing that is so rotten? That idea grew into imagining her having to eat all sorts of foods she didn’t like, and I put them in alphabetical order. The notion of telling a story that also went through the alphabet several times was something I found interesting.

Neal Porter: I didn’t realize that your dear Esmerelda [Bruel’s pet cat] was not the inspiration for Bad Kitty.

NB: No. Esme didn’t even exist yet. She arrived two summers after Bad Kitty. I was working on Poor Puppy when we got her. Bad Kitty is physically modeled on a cat I had when I was a kid, named Zou-Zou. She was all black except for a little tuft of white fur on her chest.

NP: Ah, Zou-Zou. She sounds verrry Franch.

NB: Well, I wanted to call her Chu-Chu, like the dog from the [1970s] cartoon The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. But I was outvoted. Years later we would find a Siamese cat and we named her Chu-Chu.

PW: Neal, how did Bad Kitty land on your desk?

NP: Nick has a far better memory than I, but I’ll try to remember. Years ago, Nick worked at Books of Wonder and that’s where I met him. The first book we did together was Boing (2004). And then the next book I saw from him was Who Is Melvin Bubble? (2006).

NB: Then soon after that, Roaring Brook went down the bankruptcy pipeline. There was a nine-month period when we didn’t know what would happen. In fact, Candlewick had picked up my first book initially, but I loved Roaring Brook so much that I asked my agent to hold out until I heard from Neal. Through this whole period of chaos, I kept working on ideas. When Roaring Brook came back into being, I had manuscripts that I could hand to Neal pretty quickly, one after the other.

NP: I had already committed to Melvin and then saw Bad Kitty and was totally besotted. She was berserk. And having gone through bankruptcy, we needed some berserk in our lives. Everyone knows I’m a fiend for alphabet books and I always say I won’t do more, but I keep breaking my vow. It’s an incredibly funny book that goes through the alphabet four times. It was a hit from the word go.

NB: Bad Kitty did well out of the gate, but didn’t go gangbusters. Sales in the second year were better than the first, largely because Scholastic Book Fairs had picked it up. They were early supporters of Bad Kitty and gave me tremendous exposure.

NP: Poor Puppy had come along and then it was Nick who posited the idea of chapter books. He wanted to do highly illustrated black-and-white chapter books that would appeal to reluctant readers and also kids just learning to read independently.

NB: The notion of adapting the picture book came to me even before Bad Kitty existed. As a bookseller I saw so many picture books adapted into board books, and I thought, “What is the point? To kids those books all taste the same.” So I had a lunch meeting with Neal and Simon Boughton [Roaring Brook’s publisher]. I was telling them my theory that having a character who grows up with the reader might be worthwhile. And the first words out of Simon’s mouth were, “Can you make it a series?”

NP: We met with a lot of resistance at retail. They kept asking, “Why would you take a picture book character and age her up for chapter books?” We argued that you have lots of fans who are growing up and starting to read independently. We did [chapter book] Bad Kitty Gets a Bath and it exploded on the trade side and with Scholastic [Book Fairs].

NB: The independent stores were supportive, but the chain stores were nervous. I think because they have different buyers for picture books and chapter books and they didn’t really know what each other was doing.

NP: And we were still Roaring Brook, a small publisher, and we didn’t have any clout. But the books sold like crazy.

PW: Do you guys have a roadmap of where Bad Kitty is headed, or is it more of an organically growing series?

NP: All the books come from the hand of Nick and his particular understanding of kids and what they love, and being naughty. So far everything has sprung up organically. Someone recently pointed out “you have a franchise there,” but we still see it as an organic series.

Here the pair riffs on mass production of Bad Kitty books.

NB: I’d love to see the books cranked out of something like Andy Warhol’s or Jeff Koontz’s factory. I could see a big Bad Kitty inflatable-looking thing made out of plastic and steel.

NP: They key to the books is that they deal with very common childhood situations – the first day of school, the arrival of a new baby – all in the guise of this cat world, with unseen human owners. It’s a matter of finding situations that feel juicy enough. But I think the possibilities are endless.

NB: I have to remind myself all the time to try to keep Kitty very grounded. There is a great temptation to have Kitty go into outer space or on some other grand adventure, but it wouldn’t be true to her character. So there are certain limitations to her. Kitty is in many ways both a cat and a child.

NP: What is interesting to me is the span of readership for the books. We think of picture book ages being two-to-six, and the chapter books ages seven-to-nine.

NB: And I also just spoke to a group of fourth and fifth graders.

NP: Nick has easily moved from picture books to chapter books and back to picture books. But I don’t know that you’ll see a Bad Kitty dystopian YA novel anytime soon.

NB: Neal, I’m sending you Fifty Shades of Kitty next week.

PW: Nick, what do you think it is about the books that engages such a wide range of fans?

NB: Humor is a big component. They think the books are funny and that’s no small thing. Humor is universal. I wasn’t athletic as a kid. I had the perfect physique for someone who would grow up to be a children’s book writer. I had no particular skill-set like shop. But early on I saw that being funny helped me make friends. To this day, I believe that when I’m being funny in the books I’m making friends with my readers.

PW: Does it feel like a decade has passed?

NB: When I think about 10 years ago how I was hauling boxes and straining my back, and forcing myself to draw cartoons and submit them – it feels like a previous lifetime.

PW: What are you doing to celebrate Bad Kitty’s 10th birthday?

NP: The anniversary edition of Bad Kitty has a big, fat, glorious sticker that says “10th* Anniversary Edition! (*56th in Cat Years)” and a great poster that folds out and turns Kitty into kind of a pin-up girl. And there’s a new cover. Kitty has evolved as Nick has evolved as an artist. She doesn’t look entirely like the original Bad Kitty.

NB: I repainted the cover because Kitty has kind of grown. She’s pretty much aged 10 years. She grows and grows from book to book.

NP: Hopefully she’ll have at least nine lives.

NB: I’m doing a 92nd Street Y appearance on March 16 [the first in a new reading series for elementary school students]. We’ve been talking about it for months and all of a sudden it’s here. It’s going to be a different sort of thing for me and I’m going to break my record for the number of kids I’m speaking to live [900 kids from area schools will be in the audience], because it’s going to be simulcast [to more than 60 schools nationwide]. It will be similar to what I do when I visit a school. I’ll be reading from Bad Kitty. In order to prevent chaos, I’ll have one child from each class that’s attending live on stage. We’ll put together a story live, then I’ll do some drawing. After that I’ll take questions.

NP: I’m thrilled. Every major writer and poet has appeared at this venue and now Bad Kitty joins the ranks of Robert Frost and John Ashbery. He’s going to wreck the hall.

PW: What can readers look for next?

NB: May is going to be a weird month with so much going on [including celebratory costume events, a window display contest, and a birthday party event at the New York Public Library]. There are two new early reader 8x8s coming: Bad Kitty Does Not Like Candy and Bad Kitty Does Not Like Dogs (both from Square Fish). It’s a way to tell simple picture-book stories that may not be full picture-book length.

NP: They have the same wry humor and can be read by very young readers, or even non-readers who will enjoy the illustrations. And there’s also the new book on how to make comics. Bad Kitty Makes Comics…and You Can Too! (Square Fish, May).

NB: Simon and Neal asked if I could do something with Kitty outside of the stories, an activity book of some sort. Simon suggested a book about Kitty making comics. When I was in third grade, not only was I reading comics, but I was making comics with my friends. It was tremendous fun. I wanted to do a guide to the activity and use the real language of making comics. And since it’s both Bad Kitty and Strange Kitty together, you know it’s going to be kinda weird and sorta fun.

NP: I suspect that Strange Kitty is a stand-in for Mr. Bruel. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have Strange Kitty, whose love of comics is apparent in the chapter books, take the lead. And there’s even a nod to a Dr. Seuss title in there.

NB: Well, Strange Kitty is a cat in a hat, after all. I’ll be doing more early readers, too, and next January we’ll have the chapter book Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet. The next picture book will be Bad Kitty Scaredy Cat for Halloween 2016, which will go through the alphabet several times.

NP: Hey, Nick. I just found out earlier today and I can now officially tell you that there are 12 million Bad Kitty books in print. That’s a hell of a lot of trees.

NB: Wow. What’s neat is that it’s not so much that 12 million kids have a copy of the book. But I love hearing from librarians “we cannot keep your books on the shelves.” If even 100 kids have taken that same book and passed it along to another kid, that’s tens of millions of kids. That, without question, is the dream fulfilled for anyone who does what I do.