In Ashley Wolff’s Only the Cat Saw, a feline explores the outdoor world while his human family settles down for the night indoors. Originally published by Dodd, Mead in 1985, this was the third picture book created by Wolff, who has gone on to write and illustrate or illustrate more than 60 picture books in her children’s book career. She recently revisited her timeless tale to repaint the illustrations to reflect the current times, recasting the family as mixed-race and involving the father more actively in childcare and housework. PW spoke with the author about modernizing the look of the book, which Beach Lane Books will release this month.
What was your impetus for creating new art for Only the Cat Saw?
I give Andrea Welch, who has been my editor at Beach Lane for 10 years, full credit for the idea. She was kind enough to have a baby, and I still had a small stash of copies of the original book from when it went out of print in the mid-’90s, and I would send them to new babies as gifts. When Andrea received her copy, she said she loved the story, but that the people in the story definitely looked like they were from 1985, and I agreed with her.
What specific images did you think needed updating?
The clothing, for one. The mom has her shirt tucked into her high-waisted jeans, which looked much more like the 1980s than today. And there were other things I got the chance to change. In one scene, the mother is nursing her baby while sitting in a rocking chair with a bright light shining on her. At the time, I didn’t have children yet, so I didn’t have a clue about what one would want when nursing a baby, so I changed that to having her nursing in bed in the middle of the night next to a soft light. I have always been a feminist, and originally I had the dad doing some tasks around the house, but didn’t really play it up. In the new art I made him much more involved. And I gave the family more diversity.
Did you make any significant changes to your depictions of the cat?
Yes—the cat in the original book is no longer alive, of course, so it’s a different cat in the new art. I borrowed a cat from someone I know to photograph for my model. And I tweaked the cat’s story a bit, and instead of having him visit a chicken house, in the new art he visits a sheep barn, since I realized that a chicken house would be closed up at night to keep out predators. The cat in the chicken house was a great image, but it didn’t quite make sense!
But the story’s backdrop remains the same?
Yes, it’s set on the same farm, in my hometown of Middlebury, Vermont, that I used in the original book. The house and the barns are still there, and it’s still a working farm. It is owned by a new family, and that family has young children under the age of 10, as did the family that lived there when the original book came out. I knew the grandmother of the current owner, and I got permission to spend a lot of time with the family and I took a lot of wonderful photos. The great thing about being an illustrator is that you don’t have to take the perfect photo—you can do what you want with what you take. I tried to use the same style, which is a realistic, acrylic-wash style that I work in a lot and people seemed to love in the original book.
Was it a challenge to return to art that you had previously created rather than start from scratch?
It was interesting to return to this book for a few reasons. One thing that was different for me was its relatively small format—I have gotten away from that. Also, this is the only book I’ve ever done that alternates spreads with words with wordless spreads, and it was pretty much the only book I’ve ever done that wasn’t full-bleed, so that was interesting to revisit.
Of all the books you have published over the decades, does Only the Cat Saw rank among your favorites?
I’ve had a long career, predominately illustrating other people’s stories, and I have always loved this book. The idea for the story—and this almost always happens to me when I am working on my own books—came to me all at once, I think while I was on a hike, and I never seriously wavered from it. The book was almost effortless—or at least the art was. It took me several revisions to get the words just right. I can say that I had no birthing pains with either the original book or this new edition, so I feel very lucky! It is an unusual gift to be able to go back and take a book you still love 35 years later and bring it to a new generation.
Only the Cat Saw by Ashley Wolff. S&S/Beach Lane, $17.99 June 16 ISBN 978-1-4814-6692-9