Holy Gua­camole!

Talk­ing cats and books with Skip­pyjon Jones creator Judy Schachner

Modern Cat - - Contents - BY JEN REEDER

Talk­ing cats and books with Skip­pyjon Jones creator Judy Schachner.

Judy Schachner shares a spe­cial con­nec­tion with cats— es­pe­cially Si­amese cats. It started when she was just 11 years old and her mother was dy­ing of can­cer. Dur­ing an al­ready dif­fi­cult time, her striped Tabby was hit and killed by a car. So Judy’s older brother gave her a Si­amese kit­ten named Frankie. The tiny kitty stayed by their mother’s side while she was bedrid­den and com­forted Judy by lick­ing tears from her face when­ever she’d cry. “That lit­tle Si­amese cat just meant ev­ery­thing to me,” she said. Be­cause of that ex­pe­ri­ence, Judy, her hus­band, and daugh­ters have “had dif­fer­ent adopted dogs and all kinds of stray cats, but I’ve al­ways had to have a Si­amese cat in the mix­ture.”

One of them, Skip­pyjon Jones, was a funny fe­line with huge ears rem­i­nis­cent of a Chi­huahua’s. Each night, he would run up­stairs and jump on the bed, wait­ing for a tummy tickle or the chance to chase af­ter a feather toy.

“So many times, he would leap in the air and do a triple flip and land up­side-down in my pil­lows with his legs stick­ing straight up—or miss the bed com­pletely,” Judy re­called. “He was like an Olympic champ of leap­ing and jump­ing.”

Of course, Skip­pyjon Jones is now one of the most fa­mous Si­amese cats in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. In 2003, Judy wrote and

I work re­ally hard to get that feel­ing of to­tal, drool­ing ado­ra­tion I have for my fur ba­bies across in art.

il­lus­trated a pic­ture book fea­tur­ing him as a Si­amese kit­ten bounc­ing on his “big-boy bed” who glimpses his re­flec­tion in a mir­ror and sees a Chi­huahua. Skip­pyjon Jones en­ters a make-be­lieve world in which he be­comes “El Skip­pito” and meets a band of Chi­huahuas called the Chimichan­gos. The tongue-twist­ing di­a­logue is hi­lar­i­ous: “Why the mask­ito, dude?” asked Po­quito Tito. “I go incog­nito,” said Skip­pito. “Do you like rice and beans?” asked Pin­tolito. “Sí, I love mice and beans,” said Skip­pito. Skip­pyjon Jones quickly be­came a New York Times best­seller and won nu­mer­ous awards, in­clud­ing the E.B. White Read Aloud Award. Judy went on to write and il­lus­trate many more books of Skippy’s ad­ven­tures, and the se­ries is cur­rently be­ing de­vel­oped for tele­vi­sion.

Judy said she didn’t set out to cre­ate a hit chil­dren’s book— she just wrote a whim­si­cal story for the eight-year-old child in­side her. She loves get­ting mail from kids and meet­ing read­ers at book­store sign­ings.

“I’ll be busy sign­ing away and then I look up and see a fan stand­ing there with a Si­amese cat draped over their shoul­der,” she said with a laugh. “There are so many cats that have been named Skip­pyjon Jones.”

Peo­ple also bring Chi­huahuas to events—she was par­tic­u­larly tick­led by the one wear­ing hot pink gog­gles—or send her pic­tures of their pups. In the Skip­pyjon Jones books, Schachner uses ac­tual pho­tos of Chi­huahuas sent by fans—it makes her laugh that when­ever Skippy looks in a mir­ror, the Chi­huahua he sees star­ing back at him is al­ways a dif­fer­ent dog.

“Each time, it’s a dif­fer­ent Chi­huahua and that doesn’t bother him. It’s just, ‘Am I a Chi­huahua?’” Judy is in­cred­i­bly grate­ful to her read­ers as well as her cats. She im­mor­tal­ized her 21-year-old Si­amese cat Si­mon in The Gran­ny­man, a touch­ing pic­ture book about an el­derly cat re­vi­tal­ized by car­ing for a kit­ten. That kit­ten, Tink, a beloved fe­line with a “brain the size of a frozen pea,” stars as an in­door cat who sneaks out­side for ad­ven­ture in Bits & Pieces. “I work re­ally hard to get that feel­ing of to­tal, drool­ing ado­ra­tion I have for my fur ba­bies across in art,” Schachner said. “Maybe the way they hold their lit­tle paw curled up, or the way they stretch their toes, or the way they look at you with ei­ther such sin­cer­ity in their eyes, or in the case of Tinky in Bits & Pieces, there’s noth­ing go­ing on in his head what­so­ever…I work very hard with ex­pres­sions.” Her pets can af­fect her work in other ways as well. She’s had to work in her stu­dio with a cat strapped to her chest in a baby car­rier be­cause he needed to be close to her—this has hap­pened with sev­eral kit­ties. And she cur­rently can’t leave out trac­ing pa­per be­cause her Si­amese cat Chicopee is “ob­sessed” with eat­ing it. He’s even munched on draw­ings of Skip­pyjon Jones! But these quirks that might cause frus­tra­tion in some pet own­ers cre­ate story fod­der for Judy. She jokes that her books are “nonfiction” be­cause her cats give her so many ideas. In fact, her ad­vice to any­one who dreams of writ­ing or il­lus­trat­ing chil­dren’s books—aside from join­ing the So­ci­ety of Chil­dren’s Book Writers and Il­lus­tra­tors—is to draw in­spi­ra­tion from their cats and dogs. “Just take notes, and let your pets do all the talk­ing, sock eat­ing, face sleep­ing, and in­ap­pro­pri­ate poop­ing they want. This is how they cre­ate great sto­ries just for us, the ones they love.”

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