For Pete’s Sake

Pete the Cat started as a happy accident and turned into a kids book phenomenon. Now that the men who created him are going separate ways, what’s next?
Courtesy of HarperCollins
Courtesy of HarperCollins

 

It’s the first day of daycare and my two-year-old daughter, Lola, is getting nervous in the backseat. “Why you’ll have to leave, Daddy?” she asks. At an intersection, we stop behind a Honda minivan. On its rear window, Lola spots a reassuring sticker. “Look—it’s Pete the Cat!” In Lola’s pantheon of children’s book characters, Pete is second only to Disney princesses. She sleeps near a stack of Pete books and a worn Pete doll. From my perspective, the unflappable feline is a positive influence—and compared to those formulaictales about Disney royalty, Pete books might as well be Rolling Stone.

As it turns out, the van with the sticker is headed where we are. So Pete the Cat stares back at us the whole way, our sleepy-eyed shepherd. By the time we park the car, Lola is convinced that Pete must live in the parking lot of her new school. This is August. For the next seven months, she will drag me by the finger around the parking lot almost every morning on Pete safaris. On days we spot the Pete sticker, she announces it to her teachers; on days we don’t, she mopes. A painted cat literally sets the tone for our day.

In her adoration, my daughter joins legions of kids around the world who know the optimistic kitty from a series of bestselling children’s books. With blue fur and big stoner eyes, Pete strums a guitar, rides a skateboard, and surfs with a coolness you could mistake for indifference—if he weren’t always singing happy choruses or exclaiming “Groovy!,” “Everything is cool!,” or his catchphrase, “It’s all good!” More than anything, Pete is a study in perseverance, a rebel against negative vibes: The buttons on his shirt mysteriously pop off. He tumbles off his skateboard and cracks his favorite sunglasses. He steps in mounds of strawberries and mud. But by keeping his head up and looking on the bright side, he always wins. And that simple message has made Pete a sensation from China to Spain.

It’s been fifteen years since James Dean—an Alabama-born electrical engineer turned self-taught artist—first painted Pete in hopes of making a few dollars. But then Pete took on a life of his own: first as a two-dimensional mascot of the local indie-art circuit and then, thanks to a chance meeting between Dean and Atlanta songwriter Eric “Mr. Eric” Litwin, as a children’s book phenomenon.

Since HarperCollins acquired the Pete franchise five years ago, more than 5 million books have been sold in the U.S. The eighteen titles—five hardcover picture books and an array of paperbacks used as beginning-reader materials—have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for roughly 200 weeks, combined. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Pete titles sold nearly 3 million copies last year alone, good enough for fifth place in the amorphous children’s book genre, which includes the Hunger Games trilogy.

But despite a possible television cartoon deal and more Pete books in the works, the cat’s trajectory will have to continue without Litwin, who wrote the text for the first four Pete picture books and is credited with giving the character his signature voice on the accompanying CDs. In 2012 Dean and Litwin had a falling out, and their split, like an acrimonious divorce, had to be navigated with the help of attorneys. Pete the Cat lives on—Dean has found a new collaborator in his wife, Kim. But can Pete’s ineffable magic be sustained without one of the men who breathed life into him?

A cat is born
Pete the Cat is a culmination of happy accidents. The first one happened in the late 1990s at an airy space in downtown Athens called Clayton Street Art Gallery.

Dean at the A.T. Hun gallery in Savannah. Photograph by Terry Manier.

Photograph by Terry Manier

One day, Dean dropped by a gallery-hosted auction benefiting the local humane society. The gallery’s manager, Camille Morgan, liked the watercolorist’s breezy attitude, and his paintings of barns, cows, and old buildings were selling well in the gallery. In Dean, she saw a talent for combining simple brushstrokes and white space to evoke a sentimentality that never felt arch. Morgan wanted another piece for the auction and insisted Dean paint her something—fast. She gave him a back issue of Cat Fancy for inspiration.

Dean improvised. With a pencil, three tubes of watercolor, and a Sharpie, he got to work over a taco lunch. Translating the vision in his mind to paper had always come naturally, ever since Dean first sketched Snoopy for his grade school classmates in Huntsville, Alabama. He attended high school in Fort Payne, nicknamed “the official sock capital of the world,” where his mother, Jeanette, worked in a sweltering hosiery mill to raise three children after their self-taught-artist father split for Idaho. Before he left, Curtis Thomas had sold correspondence courses for an art school. Dean had used the instruction manuals to learn basic drawing, but the young man always thought an artist’s life would be too unstable. At Auburn University, he even rejected an instructor’s advice to get an art degree: “I’d love to,” Dean said, “but I have to go make some money.”

After graduating in 1982, he took a job with Georgia Power in Athens and traveled between rural substations. That lasted a decade, until the beautiful back-road scenes inspired him to paint watercolors on the weekends. When his paintings started to sell, he became sufficiently “obsessed,” as he terms it, to legally shorten his name from James Dean Thomas to the two words he’d been signing on paintings. After a couple of years, he quit his job to pursue art full time. He was thirty-nine and leaving a $70,000 job that would have sustained him through retirement.

But as Dean painted through lunch, he wasn’t thinking of his long-term future, only of doing a favor for Morgan. He returned to the gallery thirty minutes later and presented her with his first cat painting: a big, fluffy calico. A bidding war broke out at the fundraiser; the winner was a cat fanatic who paid $300—a figure that astounded Dean and equaled his entire weekend take from early shows like AthFest. But still, the idea of being a cat painter seemed cliched and confining. “I kept telling him, ‘James, cat people will buy anything with a cat on it,’” Morgan says. “Of course, I had no idea where it was going to go.”

The real Pete the Cat. Courtesy of Dean.

Courtesy of Dean.

Dean meets Pete
At an arts festival in 1999, Dean peeked into an animal shelter tent and saw a tiny black paw jutting from a cage full of kittens. Dean adopted him and, for no particular reason, named him Pete.

At night, as Dean painted landscapes in his kitchen, pint-sized Pete would rest in the palm of his free hand. Recalling Morgan’s advice, Dean saw Pete one day in a rare moment of inaction and rushed to his easel. Worried that a black cat would spook buyers, Dean reached for a tube of phthalo blue, a deep navy tinged with green. It wasn’t long before Pete paintings were outselling Dean’s landscapes, and he landed a full Pete show at Morgan’s gallery. Pete attended, too, and when he scurried into the gallery’s ductwork, show organizers had to blast the heat to shoo him out.

The two developed a ritual: Dean would wake up to find Pete outside, clinging to the back door. One morning, less than a year after being adopted, Pete wasn’t there. It took several weeks for Dean to accept that Pete wasn’t coming back. Fifteen years later, the loss is still raw.

Although the real-life cat had vanished, in Pete, Dean had found his muse—a sort of red-clay answer to the late Cajun artist George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog. As he continued painting Pete, the cat’s image morphed a little; harder lines softened into a rounder face with a white nose and ochre eyes. Pete became adventurous if not subversive, slinking into Mona Lisa’s arms, driving across the sky in a VW bus, and sipping “CAT-bernet Sauvignon.” Most paintings showed Pete sitting contentedly alone, though occasionally he’d hang out with Snoopy, sneak up next to Marilyn Monroe, or cross Abbey Road with the Beatles. To fellow artists and buyers, putting a blue cat in iconic pop culture settings was funny and fresh. “The first thing that popped out at me about the work is attitude,” says watercolorist Chris Hartsfield, a friend of Dean’s. “They say that dogs have masters, cats have staff, and I think [Dean] captured that.” Since the early 2000s, Stockbridge nurse Kim Pereyo and her dermatologist husband, Gerry, have spent up to $3,000 on each of the fifteen Pete originals they own. “We love the whimsical feel that they have,” Pereyo says. “Pete can do anything.”

On the festival circuit, James met Kim Rinks, a sculptor and aspiring novelist. He proposed to her in Oakland Cemetery and they were married (barefoot) on Tybee Island in 2004. With Kim’s two teenage children from an earlier marriage, they moved to a “cookie cutter” house in McDonough that they outfitted with basement studios. Dean worried art sales would not support his new family, so he offered to apply for engineering jobs. Kim said no; returning to the corporate world was like surrendering, and she felt that any other work could distract Dean from his art.

Dean meets Litwin
One summer day in 2006, Dean drove to Atlanta in his 1965 Chevy Impala to buy art supplies. To advertise, Dean had pasted a pizza-sized sticker of Pete’s face to his driver’s side door. At the intersection of North Avenue and North Highland, outside Manuel’s Tavern, the light turned red.

Eric Litwin was standing at the intersection. He and Dean made eye contact.

Litwin performing in Decatur

Photograph by Amber Fouts

Litwin had moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., in 1993, attracted to the robust economy and vibrant music scene. As a child he’d struggled with reading, and while in college he decided he wanted to be a teacher. While Dean had been working art festivals, Litwin had been teaching special needs children by day and performing his folk/blues songs at open-mic nights across the city. After winning one competition, he got a gig at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, and at the end of his set, he asked for requests. “Hey,” one listener said, “play ‘The Three Little Pigs’!” In a bar full of adults, Eric played an interactive song he’d written for children. The more the Eddie’s Attic crowd let loose to a silly song based on a fable, the more Litwin knew his calling was music for kids.

Litwin was accepted into the Young Audiences program, which underwrote his performances. For more than ten years, he crisscrossed metro Atlanta, giving hundreds of shows a year at elementary schools. The experience helped him develop what he calls “musical interactive literacy”: weaving music and movement into his stories, along with call-and-response, repetition, and rhythmic rhymes. He took the best stories he created on the road and recorded them for the Learning Groove, a music education company he cofounded. Each school was a fresh test audience. He studied the children and soon could feel when he’d lost their attention. A story was ready when it kept children rapt the whole time, every time.

At some point, Litwin had the idea for a story about a little girl who wears very white shoes, which she stains with strawberries, blueberries, and mud as she walks down the sidewalk. Litwin loved the story, but then it occurred to him: He’d seen Pete paintings for years at art festivals, and he wondered,What if the little girl was a cat?

Not five minutes before he came face-to-face with Dean for the first time, Litwin had been in a Virginia-Highland studio, recording a song that substituted Pete for the white-shoed little girl. The refrain was simple but catchy (“I love my white shoes”). When the recording was done, he went for a walk.

“Hey,” Litwin called out when he saw Dean stopped at the light, “you’re Pete the Cat. I just recorded a song for you!”

“Okay?” Dean said, confused. He shouted out his website URL and drove off.

A few hours later, Dean and Kim were listening to a song Litwin had emailed them. In Litwin’s raspy, laid-back tenor and fun-loving story, they knew their cool kitty had a voice—Pete Speak, they called it—and, for the first time, shoes.

Shortly after that serendipitous meeting, Litwin told Dean about his real goal: to create a high-quality picture book. Occasionally, Dean had fielded book ideas from writers and teachers, and he’d tried and failed to conceptualize a children’s book with Kim years before. But with Litwin, the synergy seemed special.

They consulted with local authors, hired a designer, and dissected successful children’s books. Their goal was to make a great book before approaching publishers. They quickly realized that, although children’s books might look easy, finding the right combination of story concept, language, and visuals can be arduous. It took two full years before they finished the first Pete the Cat book.

They self-published I Love My White Shoes in 2008. In fewer than 300 words, the uplifting tale follows Pete as he walks down the street singing “I love my white shoes,” until he mucks up his sneakers by stepping in strawberries, blueberries, and mud. A narrator repeatedly asks, “Did Pete cry?” to which comes the response, “Goodness, no!” After thirty pages, the story ends with a wholesome recap: “No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song . . . because it’s all good.”

The book was packaged with a CD of Litwin reading the story along with a few Pete the Cat songs. Dean and Litwin spent $27,000 on as many books and CDs as they thought they could sell. Between Dean’s festival shows and Litwin’s school performances, they sold all 7,000 first-run copies (at $17.95 apiece, including the CD) within ten months. They split the profits down the middle.

And then, just as art enthusiasts around Georgia had adopted Pete on canvas, independent bookstore owners championed Pete on the page. “Visually, [White Shoes is] really interesting; it was really well written,” says Dave Shallenberger, co-owner of Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories, which hosted the first Pete book party. A bookstore acquaintance of Dean’s in Alabama, Karen Wilson, showed the book to HarperCollins, one of the largest children’s book publishers, where executives were further influenced by a YouTube video of two girls reciting White Shoes at bedtime. In May 2009, Dean and Litwin signed a two-book contract. Margaret Anastas, their editor at HarperCollins, says, “The fact that this book was self-published and came to us in such a great package is very rare.”

Released widely in 2010, the Harper­Collins version of White Shoes sold less than Dean and Litwin had hoped for—20,000 copies or so in its first year, according to Dean. But the subsequent book, Rocking in My School Shoes, was promoted specifically to get kids excited about back-to-school programs, and as it found an audience with teachers and librarians across the country, sales for White Shoes picked up, too. “The moral lesson of the stories is obviously important, and the bright colors—it’s just a really attractive package to make kids enjoy reading,” says Meredith Moseley, director of Atlanta’s Shallowford Presbyterian Preschool, which uses Pete as a teaching tool for preschool and kindergarten. Pete’s catchiness and self-esteem-boosting attitude resonate with a variety of kids, she says, “which I think a lot of children’s books don’t do.”

Together, Dean and Litwin would create two more picture books: Four Groovy Buttons and Pete the Cat Saves Christmas. They went on national tours, during which Dean would paint a basic Pete to leave behind for schools and businesses as Litwin strummed his guitar and sang. The fanbase swelled. At an Austin bookstore, a crowd clogged the aisles. Litwin recalls one performance when his microphone malfunctioned during a reading of White Shoes. In unison, 200 children rose from their seats and finished the story from memory.

Pete’s celebrity spread internationally, too, where titles have been translated into fourteen languages and counting. In French, Pete is Pat le chat (which Dean loathes), and in Italian, he’s Rocco il gatto (he likes that one). In August 2012, Litwin was astonished to find that Pete books he’d written had claimed the top three spots on the New York Times children’s bestseller list. Pete’s meteoric rise was surreal, and through his adventures, early readers across the world were finding a bridge to literacy.

But by that year’s end, Dean and Litwin’s partnership was over.

Courtesy of HarperCollins
Courtesy of HarperCollins


Dean and Litwin split up

In the Ardsley Park section of Savannah, where moss-draped oaks make enchanting tunnels of the streets, Dean answers his door barefoot, wearing a Pete T-shirt and beige cargo pants. He and Kim moved here from McDonough a year ago because this free-spirited city and its coastal breezes are more conducive to a shoeless lifestyle. His Arts and Crafts–style home, built in 1916, is artichoke green with two bulbous palms in the front yard. And it’s not hard to find: A gleaming yellow Volkswagen Bus sits out front, like the one Pete used to save Christmas when Cat Santa got sick.

Dean leads the way to his upstairs studio, through a home filled with Pete “keepers”—the originals that Kim forbids him from tinkering with. The home swarms with five cats and an affable pug named Emma. Sipping a glass of grape juice, Dean takes a seat in the studio and explains that his career is lined with miracles. He signs each painting with “TNTFT,” for “Take No Thought for Tomorrow,” a Bible verse that reminds him to seize each day and let good things come. Fate, serendipity, luck—it’s integral to all success, but Dean stresses, “It’s just been crazy surreal for me, just totally unbelievable.” At fifty-six, with his salty beard and shoulder-length ponytail, he looks like a kinder, gentler Greg Allman. Yoga has helped him recuperate from an ankle sprain suffered while skateboarding. Like Kim and her son, Trey, a former U.S. Army sniper, Dean has a Pete tattoo (Pete walks atop a “13” on Dean’s shoulder, for luck).

Dean says his split with Litwin simply boils down to this: Since he first conceptualized Pete as a children’s book character in the early 2000s, he wanted to eventually spread writing duties around, so he could work with his wife and bring his own story ideas to fruition. According to him, Harper­Collins initially pushed back against the idea of using any writer besides Litwin, until Dean “just kind of had to put my foot down.” After all, the character belonged to him, based on his real pet. Litwin wasn’t so flexible, as Dean tells it, saying he would have no part in the series if other writers were used because he feared it would diminish the character and stories he created. They sat down with attorneys and reached an amicable agreement, according to Dean: Going forward, Dean could use Litwin’s writing in his appearances at schools, as Litwin could use Pete artwork during his performances.

“It’s kind of sad that we’re not working together,” Dean says, before modifying that statement: “It is sad that we’re not working together.” Since their parting, Dean says he’s left the door open to future collaborations with Litwin, whom he repeatedly calls a “genius.” The offer, he says, still stands.

The fifth picture book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, was published in 2013. The text was written by Kim, who says she was inspired by listening to Eric Clapton and BB King. Last month, the sixth Pete picture book debuted, marking the second collaboration between Dean and his wife. In Pete the Cat and the New Guy, Pete is introduced to a new neighbor, and his young audience learns the values of tolerance and diversity.

Most online reviews for Magic Sunglasses have been positive, but some readers have griped about Litwin’s absence. “While its predecessors were witty and charming, this book is not,” wrote “Cat Owner” on Amazon. “Do I love it as much? No. But is it still great? Yeah,” says Shallenberger, the bookstore owner. “It doesn’t quite have the same rhythm, but we’ll see how it goes.”

As for the most important critics, children like my daughter, Lola, the changes don’t seem to matter. At bedtime, we read early Pete titles, and Lola calls out “Goodness, no!” like the chorus of her favorite song. But she loves the Magic Sunglasses storyline, too. Her favorite, though, might be the most basic: a beginning-reader book Dean wrote himself called Pete’s Big Lunch, in which Pete hilariously (per Lola) makes a gigantic sandwich.

This summer, Dean was working on four Pete titles, including a Groovy Guide to Life concept aimed at older kids. Pete fans may soon be able to buy Pete roller skates, Pete board games, and Pete pajamas. And there’s even talk of a Pete the Cat animated series. Pete could soon be everywhere.

Litwin moves on
One stormy afternoon, Litwin sits on the couch at his modest, Cape Cod–style home near East Atlanta Village, joyfully talking for more than an hour about the genesis of Pete stories. He’s kept a large portfolio of newspaper clippings and tokens of the series’ awards, and he breaks into song to explain characters, strumming an old Alvarez guitar he’s kept for twenty years—“the most successful long-term relationship I’ve had.” At forty-eight, his brown bushy hair has calmed into shorter, grayer curls, and he notes the irony in the fact that he has no kids or cats.

When asked to discuss his split from Dean, however, Litwin becomes cagey. I ask if he and Dean are still friends.

“No,” he says flatly. “We’re not in communication.”

Litwin would rather discuss his next project: a series of children’s books with publisher Little, Brown and Company called The Nuts, featuring the work of Boston-based illustrator Scott Morgan. It will play on the metaphor that families are nutty, especially at bedtime, and the characters are literally nuts—hazelnut, walnut, chestnut, and acorn. The first book, Bedtime at the Nut House, leans on the same crisp writing and wink-wink edge that made Pete a hit with adults. This fall, Litwin will go on a fifteen-city tour in support of The Nuts. As of July, he was considering using his Pete earnings to move to Washington, D.C., where he’d buy a home closer to his family.

A recent book launch for The Nuts proved that Litwin’s local following is still strong—and that he can still incite dancing frenzies. The party was too large for bookstores, so Litwin took the stage on Bedtime’s publishing day at cavernous First Baptist Decatur. The sanctuary soon filled with the chatter of children like five-year-old Jesse Banich, a “Pete the Cat nut” who couldn’t pick a favorite book no matter how much his mother promised him ice cream. About 200 kids and parents showed up on a school night, many of them toting Pete books from home and buying Bedtime at the merchandise table. Wearing baggy jeans and an unbuttoned vest, Litwin spotted me in a pew and happily noted that White Shoes had just reached 100 total weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Later, he roused cheers from the audience by saying, “Some of the first few books we sold were here in Decatur.” In public, the Pete high times were hardly a sore spot for Litwin. He even cited James Dean as the artist of the Pete books that were his backdrop onstage.

During his forty-minute performance, Litwin led youngsters through Travolta-style disco dancing. He persuaded mothers to hoist their toddlers in the air. But nothing got the room moving like White Shoes. As a volunteer turned the book’s pages, Litwin strummed his guitar and sang. Children spilled into the carpeted aisles, dancing away from their parents, gathering in front of the stage and bouncing off each other in the world’s cutest mosh pit. After the story, Litwin looked down and seemed surprised. “Okay,” he laughed, “you can go back to your parents now.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

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