Former journalist Kathy Louise Schuit is an author/illustrator of children’s books with characters who become heroes of their own stories. Dance Cat, published in October 2022, is her second picture book release. You’ll find Kathy on Facebook and on her website at OpenWithDesign.com. Look for Dance Cat on Amazon.
What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Dance Cat?
Dance Cat is a story about the value of practice. The Dance Cat practices every day to dance his best in every way. The second part—about HIS best—is also essential. Practice to be the best YOU can be.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
When my last book for children, Where Does This Line Go?, was critiqued by judges from the NMPW Communications Contest one of the comments that really stuck with me was that some of the rhymes simply didn’t work. I went back and read through the book taking a very deliberate look at the quality of the rhymes and found the critique was absolutely correct. With this book, I spent many more hours working on the rhymes. I also consulted with a teacher whose PhD is in early childhood learning. She worked with me not only on the rhyming but on the rhythms used by adults when reading to children. It’s important, she said, to make sure that devices are used in the writing—punctuation, certainly, but also line divisions, bold words for emphasis, italics and artistic treatments of the word to create connotations—to guide the adult reader into the proper emphasis and/or discussion with the child of what is happening in the story. I learned so much from working through this process.
Did the spark for the book begin with an idea, a line of prose, an image?
This book was inspired decades ago by my sister—a choreographer and dance instructor—who had a cat in her studio that she called her dance cat. The idea of a cat dancing with the students stuck with me.
Tell us how the book came together.
I started collecting images of cats in different poses in 2017 and was sketching dancers shortly after that. But it was Covid isolation that really gave me the time and incentive to get serious. I have hundreds of illustrations of cats in my sketch libraries now—so sick of drawing cats! It wasn’t until 2021 (after a trip to a Laguna, California art show) that I decided the cat should be painted blue. After that, the illustrations got much easier. I also attended a conference hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in Albuquerque. The speaker was Molly Idle, author/illustrator of Tea Rex and Caldecott Honor-winning picture book Flora and the Flamingo. This was one of the BEST conferences I’ve ever attended, with Molly sharing an entire day’s worth of her trade secrets. One thing she said that really stuck with me is that she limits her color palettes. This helped me with my color selections for Dance Cat—I decided then and there to pretty much limit the colors to shades of pink and blue. That choice led to a lot of pictures that resembled baby shower gifts! The key was in increasing the intensity of the colors, and it all came together after that.
Who is your main character and why will your audience connect with him/her?
The dance cat is the main character and is only ever referred to as the dance cat. He is a he because I wanted to create a story that held interest for young boys as well as girls. Dance studios around the country are mostly populated with girls dancing in pink tutus. Even in today’s world of greater inclusiveness, boys can be easily discouraged from getting involved with dance. The dance cat will appeal to anyone who loves to dance (and a lot of people who like cats). Teachers of any kind should find Dance Cat a useful story for presenting the idea of the importance of practice to develop your skill.
Do you have a favorite image or page spread from Dance Cat?
I DO! While I’ve sold several prints of the coyotes signaling the start of the Dance Cat Show on page 15, my favorite is the cityscape on pages 11 and 12. I had so much fun drawing the buildings tilted around the dance school, getting the street to angle just right and adding the plants, park and lighting. It’s one of my favorite drawings ever.
What did you love about putting this project together?
So many things! Like I’ve already said, the education on the rhyming and reading of children’s books was priceless, as was the SCBWI conference. Once I got started, the creation of each image became its own labor of love. Getting the text to work better also helped me to “see” the illustrations more clearly before I even started to sketch them—I wanted the illustrations to tell the story just as well as the text. It was so satisfying when I could make illustrations that looked just like what I had imagined in my own thought bubbles.
What have you had to learn about creating a picture book’s narrative?
One of the most valuable things I learned about writing for young children is that, while they may have messages of their own, at their core picture books are about sparking interest in the child for learning to read. With that held in mindfulness, I take seriously the advice of seasoned writers about holding the entire book close to 350 words (the average attention span of children 4–5 years old) and have made it a rule for my children’s writing. If the child loses interest in the story, it’s not just one reading that suffers, children can easily connect one boring story to a mindset of ALL stories are boring. It’s a big responsibility writing for young children. Tight, exciting writing that moves quickly from event to event is essential. And get an editor, I can’t say that enough. A book with only 350 words deserves the attention it takes to make sure every one of those words is the exact right one to get a child to beg for more reading!
What kind of creative patterns, routines, or rituals do you have?
When I’m in the middle of a project, I have a truly hard time pulling myself away. I’ve always been one of those people who likes to work straight through to the end of most all activities without stopping. My brain understands this isn’t practical when working on lots of illustrations and page designs. And yet, I still find myself surprised at midnight after I’ve been drawing since 8 a.m. The muscle stiffness and shallow breathing those days cause has made me enforce more breaks and daily exercise on myself, but I’m not as successful as I need to be. Being able to create any form of art is a gift for me. Losing myself in it is something I never thought I’d experience in this lifetime.
Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I’ve always been a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey storytelling style. I like my characters to overcome obstacles and to become the hero of their own story in the end. I did have concerns with Dance Cat that there were not enough challenges for the cat to really emerge as victorious in the end. That’s when the last couple pages were added, to show that he has dreams, and the way to make them reality comes from within himself and his decision to practice.
What writing/illustrating projects are you working on now?
In January, I started work on a 32-page illustrated marketing booklet for a Real Estate Company in Texas. It’s an exciting project. The text has been provided and the company wants the illustrations to have a feel similar to that of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. It’s already clear that it will afford me lots of room for further education and artistic growth—my favorite!
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.