Pete the Cat is one laid back, groovy kind of guy.
Then again, so is his creator, James Dean
A new resident of Statesboro, Dean created the Pete the Cat children’s book series, which now boasts more than 60 titles. But Dean didn’t start out to be a children’s author or even an artist. He says his creative story begins with his father, Curtis.
“My father, I felt like, was a man who could really do anything. Whatever he wanted to do, it just seemed he could do it,” he said.
When Dean was in the first grade, his father was working on electrical drawings for rockets, as the country prepared for the first landing on the moon. The family was living in Huntsville, Alabama at the time. Dean says that for whatever reason, his dad decided he could draw, even though he had never done so before.
Curtis did a charcoal drawing of John F. Kennedy after his assassination, which he sent to the White House. The family received a letter from Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and the drawing is in the Kennedy Library, so Dean has been told.
“Someday I’d like to find out,” he said, smiling.
Curtis never sold any art, so Dean says he grew up thinking of artists like most people do, using the term, “starving artist.”’
“That’s what we think of artists,” he said.
Dean developed an interest in art, and picked it up fairly easily, and was largely self-taught. He says he paid attention to art because of his dad. Dean liked to draw cartoons, and his favorite one to draw was Snoopy.
After his father left, his mother moved the family to Fort Payne, Alabama from their previous home in Huntsville. Dean went to high school there and later attended Auburn University, where he studied electrical engineering. He says he hated engineering school, and that it was very difficult for him.
“That’s probably because that wasn’t truly where my heart was. That probably made it even harder for me. I didn’t feel like I fit in,” he said.
But he pushed on and graduated, and worked in electrical engineering for 20 years. He moved to Athens, Georgia, where he worked for Georgia Power. He says he ended up falling in love with the city. Dean says Statesboro reminds him of Athens in the early 1980s, when he lived there.
It was during that time that he began to think about doing something else.
“When I hit my mid-30s, I started thinking about what else I wanted to do, because I always wanted to have another business,” he said.
Dean began to draw pictures of landmarks and landscapes around the Athens area, including places where students hung out. In just three short years, people were buzzing about his artwork, and this gave him the confidence to quit his job and pursue art full-time.
He began attending art festivals, selling his art and networking with other artists and the arts communities they called home. He began showing his art in galleries, and it was at one of them that he met a woman who asked him to paint a cat, which he didn’t want to do.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be a cat artist.’ That’s a little ironic now,” he said, laughing.
The painting she requested was to benefit her local animal shelter, and it sold for $300. This surprised Dean.
“But I said if I can paint my cat, and do it the way I want to do it and people like it, then that might be OK,” he said.
The cat that inspired him was a skinny black kitten he named Pete. Dean wasn’t looking for a cat — he’d had one for more than 13 years named Slim, and after that cat died, he didn’t think he’d ever want another one. But Pete was different.
Pete often sat in Dean’s lap while he painted. One day, he said, the kitten stopped running around and sat still, looking thoughtful, so Dean painted a quick portrait, which only took about 5 minutes. The original painting was intended for adults.
He kept doing the paintings, and eventually he became known for it, and he said he had to decide if he was just going to continue in that vein.
“So that’s what I decided to do,” he said. He recreated it 16 times for sale, and each one was signed and numbered.
Pete would often stick his nose in Dean’s coffee cup, and he said one day he began to imagine what Pete would be like if he drank coffee. He drew him sitting on a chair, holding a coffee cup, and that was the first time he’d drawn Pete in a cartoon style.
Dean was often approached with ideas for children’s books centered around Pete, but he never heard an idea that he liked. That was the case until he met Eric Litwin.
Litwin had originally met Dean during a festival, during which he purchased a T-shirt from Dean, but had lost his nerve when it came to striking up a conversation. He later approached him in Atlanta and told Dean he’d written a song for him, called “I Love My White Shoes.” The two paired up on the first Pete the Cat book, bearing that title, which they self-published.
Dean was later approached by a woman who owned a bookstore and he gave her a copy of the book, which she handed over to a publishing rep from New York. That publisher didn’t like the story as it was, but another one, Harper Collins, did and they published the book verbatim.
When asked how he comes up with the stories for Pete’s adventures, Dean says it’s not easy. He’s written some books with Litwin, and some with his wife Kim, but the bulk of them he wrote himself. Dean says that when he and Kim work together, they often disagree on what to write and how, but they have developed their own system for making it work.
One of his favorite books he and Kim have written is “Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes.”
“That’s one of the best ones because when you read it to children they get really engaged and they like counting the cupcakes,” he said. “About halfway through it, I reached the point where I didn’t ever want to work with Kim again. But in the end, we created one of our best books. So I always keep that in my head. But it’s been that way on every one of them.”
Giving up control to an editor and art director has been tough for Dean, who says he’d much rather just be at his easel painting whatever he wants. But over the years, he’s gotten better about it.
“I try not to get too attached to my ideas,” he said. “I’m doing a lot better about it.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pete the Cat books, and Dean says he’s been constantly working since the beginning. But he doesn’t mind.
“It’s my joy,” he said.
He’s working on coming up with ideas for the next book, but says nothing is set in stone yet. He also says he’s not planning on creating another character.
“I just decided I need to do this. It’s huge. I don’t need to try to write more books just to prove something to myself. I feel like, since Pete the Cat was created for adults, and what I love to do is make paintings of Pete, that I’ll get to do that the rest of my life,” he said. “Maybe God will give me some other crazy idea, I don’t know.”
Whatever happened to the original Pete? Dean says the cat loved going outside, and he just disappeared one day, and was never seen again.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” he said. “It’s kind of sad.”
But the skinny stray’s legacy lives on in a cool cat that has made millions of children laugh and experience the joy of reading. There are even cartoons that have great music and good messages for kids.
Pete the Cat books are available at book retailers nationwide, and the series cartoons are available for viewing on Amazon Prime.