Passion and purpose ran high in the November 13 auction for Brendan Wenzel’s solo picture book debut, They All Saw a Cat, which shares animals’ varied perceptions – from friendly to fuzzy to fierce – of an approaching feline. Eight children’s houses participated in the auction, conducted by Wenzel’s agent, Steve Malk of Writers House; Chronicle’s Ginee Seo was the winner, landing world rights in a two-book, six-figure deal. The publisher expects to release They All Saw a Cat in July 2016.
“I feel a bit embarrassed using this cliché, but as soon as I saw the proposal, I felt I was looking at an instant classic,” said Seo, Chronicle’s children’s publishing director. The book, she explained, “is so intelligent and well thought-out that from the very first words and images that you know you’re in the hands of someone who is confident and knows what he is doing. Brendan’s writing is spare and has a rhythm and pacing that is unusual for an artist to achieve. And his art has a sense of movement that is just beautiful. As an editor, I knew immediately that this was really rare.”
Fueling Seo’s enthusiasm for They All Saw a Cat was her instinctive sense that the book was an ideal fit for the Chronicle list. “We have a tradition of publishing picture books with distinctive art, and I could easily see Brendan’s book joining the Chronicle pantheon,” she said. “His art is a little European in feel, and not entirely conventional – related in a way to the work of Eric Carle and Leo Leonni – but very much in Brendan’s own style. It’s a deceptively simple book that makes you really think.”
Seo wasted no time following her “gut reaction” and, supported by “virtually everyone” in-house at Chronicle, pursued the acquisition. Since other editors also expressed strong interest, Malk took the book to auction, which he observed, “became pretty heated quite quickly.”
Malk says he wasn’t surprised, given his own initial reaction to Wenzel’s work. “When we first talked on the phone, and Brendan told me the concept for the book, I was blown away,” recalled Malk. “And what he did with it was something extraordinary. The book has a lot to it: it’s very commercial, accessible, and universal – but it’s also very artful and has a lot of soul – and that’s a special combination. When I submitted the book to publishers, I was able to say honestly that I could not believe this book didn’t already exist. It feels like such a classic that should have been around for 50 years, and as an agent that’s just about the best thing to be able to say.”
Early Cat Sightings
Brooklyn resident Wenzel, who illustrated Angela DeTerlizzi’s Some Bugs, published by S&S’s Beach Lane Books last spring, was quick to express his reaction to publishers’ enthusiasm for They All Saw a Cat – and the auction results. “This is all super exciting – a word I’ve definitely overused over the past two weeks!” he noted.
The author, 33, explained that the idea for the book sprung from his experience teaching art classes while living in Nepal several years ago. Inevitably, students would tell him that they were “really bad” at drawing, an attitude Wenzel confided, “that really bums me out. My philosophy is that it’s impossible to do a bad drawing, and I always introduce that right away to kids. If every kid in a classroom draws the exact same thing – say, a cat – they will come up with a unique image, depending on their perspectives on and experiences with cats, that puts the animal in a different, new light.”
Wenzel recognized the kernel of a story in that observation, yet struggled to find a way to tell it. “I kept boiling it down further and further, and asking myself what became an annoying question: ‘But who is seeing the cat?’ Once that finally led to the refrain – ‘they all saw a cat’ – the road forward became clear, and the book really wrote itself.”
To create the illustrations, the author said he is using his standbys, watercolor and pencil, augmented by “everything under the sun. I like to explore various media, since it’s a great way of honing in on what an image really wants to be. I’m switching it up as much as possible in this book, depending on the perspective of the individual creature.”
Wenzel, whose second book for Chronicle is not yet on his drawing board, feels lucky to join the house’s author roster. “The minute I got off the phone with Ginee after the auction, I knew that she was the editor I had to work with,” he said. “She understands the book and how it can grow and expand. And I think Chronicle, with the level of craft and thought the staff brings to their books, is the perfect home for my work. Often, when I pick up a book that appeals to me in a children’s section, I’ll flip it over and find Chronicle’s logo – those spectacles – staring back at me. And my book is all about seeing – I mean, come on! It’s the right place for me.”
And what does Wenzel make of the comparisons between his art and Eric Carle’s? “Being compared to a man I consider to be one of the greatest picture book creators is, to say the very least, incredibly humbling,” he responded. “Right now I’m focused on creating the best work I can, and if my art ends up having even a small fraction of the impact that Mr. Carle’s art has had, I’d be happy as a clam.”