Two years ago, Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director at Chronicle Books, found herself on a professional mission. She represented one of eight publishing houses bidding on the first solo picture book from illustrator Brendan Wenzel, called They All Saw a Cat. Seo nudged out her competitors during the auction, which was held on November 13, 2014, and as her prize, signed Wenzel to a two-book, world rights, six-figure deal.
At the time, Seo sang the praises of the project, telling PW, “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.”
Now They All Saw a Cat and Wenzel have embarked on a whole new adventure as the book rides a swell of accolades that began even before its official publication this past August, with a 100,000-copy first printing and 16 foreign editions to date. In September, the book appeared on the New York Times children’s picture book bestseller list, and throughout the fall has been buzzed about at regional conferences and has landed on several regional bestseller lists.
Seo’s early enthusiasm for her acquisition, hailed as a clever exploration of perspective, featuring various animals’ view of a cat, was shared by her colleagues at Chronicle, and helped drive several pre-publication efforts. Chronicle did a mailing to booksellers, educators, and librarians that contained a signed print and activity kit, as well as a copy of the book wrapped in a red ribbon and gold bell, which mirrors the titular cat’s neckwear. Other early attention included selection as a Junior Library Guild pick and placement on the ABA IndieNext list. A pre-order offer presented via Chronicle’s social media channels gave customers an opportunity to receive a custom pouch of colored pencils. Special items for retailers included a five-copy counter display, posters, and signed bookplates. And generous endorsements from such fellow illustrators as Lane Smith, Chris Raschka, Carson Ellis, and Christian Robinson continued to fuel the excitement.
They All Saw a Cat made its informal debut during ALA Midwinter in January 2016, when Seo treated more than 100 special guests at a Chronicle cocktail party to a sneak preview of the book’s trailer and some sample pages. The following month, Entertainment Weekly premiered the trailer to a wider audience.
Wenzel did a whirlwind tour of major conferences and trade shows last spring including TLA, BEA, and the ABA Children’s Institute. And at publication, Chronicle eschewed a traditional tour of bookstores and school visits, instead opting to send Wenzel to regional bookseller shows and fall festivals, among them the National Book Festival, Brooklyn Book Festival, and Miami Book Festival. In the midst of the festival lineup, some tried and true venues were still in the mix, and Wenzel visited independent bookstores whenever his schedule permitted. Among his stops were Books of Wonder in New York City and The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif. Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories bookstore in Decatur, Ga., and children and teen program manager for the AJC Decatur Book Festival – two of Wenzel’s recent appearance venues – is among the booksellers on the They All Saw a Cat bandwagon. “I love this book so much!” she said. “To me, it is reminiscent of Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, except that instead of just observing, children can consider a new perspective. It’s a book that also really engages the reader’s imagination and curiosity.”
One of the more unusual aspects of the promotional push is an original They All Saw a Cat song and video, replete with hand motions, by singer-songwriter Emily Arrow, who has created tunes for several other Chronicle books. Kids have been singing and playing along at various appearances and online, according to Chronicle senior children’s book publicist Lara Starr.
When he’s not taking planes, trains or automobiles these days, Starr notes that Brooklyn-based Wenzel has been “an indefatigable partner” in promoting his book, and that he “happily spends hours signing personalized books, bookplates, and posters.” Wenzel was a key player in the launch of Chronicle’s annual holiday #GiveBooks campaign, now in its fourth year. Chronicle partners with nonprofit literacy organization First Book for this effort, in which the publisher donates one book to a child in need for every pledge customers make to give books this holiday season. Wenzel kicked off the program with a special presentation at an in-need school in Brooklyn on November 9. And earlier this month, Wenzel did a Skype visit with first graders in Grand Rapids, Mich., where an anonymous benefactor donated copies of They All Saw a Cat to every first grader in the Grand Rapids Public Schools via the school system’s Good Things Happen grant program. And, of course, Wenzel is also hard at work on the second title of his two-book deal, though it’s too early to share details.
Seo never lost her initial confidence in the book’s eventual success and is very pleased with the response so far. “There are books that capture a concept so perfectly and irresistibly, it’s as if that book should always have existed,” she said. “That recognition of an instant classic is what is happening with readers, teachers, parents, reviewers and booksellers and They All Saw a Cat. And as we’ve seen from recent events, understanding different perspectives is more important now than ever. To read They All Saw a Cat is to take a child through the first steps of empathy, in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes unexpected, but always fascinating.”