He’s a favorite of Michelle Obama, and this week, SkippyJon Jones is being launched into, er, “spice.”
The lastest in a line of books featuring a Siamese cat who thinks he’s a Chihuahua, SkippyJon Jones Lost in Spice is littered with Spanish words for your kids to practice and a story that’s been peppered with a liberal dose of silly.
Author Judy Schachner sat down with Babble via the phone from her home in southeastern Pennsylvania to explain why cats need three names and why her cat speaks with a Spanish accent:
Babble: My daughter loves SkippyJon’s accent. Where did that come from?
Judy Schachner: I guess I’ve always had an ear for accents and languages, and as a child I was always pretending to be somebody other than myself. Growing up during the 50s and 60s watching old films, pretending to be Bette Davis and Dark Victory and smoking my pencils and drinking champagne out of goblets – which was really water out of my mother’s glasses. I was always pretending, so the accents really come from that part of me, the little bit of actor in me.
Babble: No wonder SkippyJon is always pretending too.
JS: He’s always living in the world of his imagination. Part of his believing he is a Chihuahua is he doesn’t resemble his siblings. They all have the smaller ears, and his mother has the smaller ears, and he has the larger head and larger ears. I’ve had so many different Siamese in my life, and they’ve all had different sized heads and different sized ears! He’s sort of had to justify the fact that he’s different from the rest of them. So he believes he’s a dog, and when he sees pictures of Chihuahuas, he sees the resemblance in his own features.
Babble: I think I read somewhere that SkippyJon is actually based on one of your own cats?
JS: One of my all time favorite kitties was SkippyJon Jones. When he was a kitten, his ears were huge, and he’d always come up – that was this ritual. He’d come up on my bed and bounce on my bed. We used to play with these sticks with feathers on the end, and he would just leap up into the air and do triple flips. Sometimes he’d miss the bed completely, but this was his ritual, he’d do this every night at bedtime, come up and bounce on my bed. He did actually go down into the basement and have an altercation with a very large bumblebee and he had like these gumball size bites all over his head. I was about to take him to veterinarian, and as I like to tell children, that’s when something magical happened. He began to speak Spanish to me. That’s how it all began. I always want to know what pets kids have at home and what they call them, and I want them to tell me the silly things their animals do. At first, they’ll say, “oh they don’t do anything crazy,” but after I finish talking to them about my pets, they also see how fortunate they are to have animals that do crazy things. And that reason is they want you to write about them! Books, no matter how crazy they are, are always borne from some kernel of truth. I’m surrounded by Siamese cats, and they are great writers.
Babble: I’ve always been curious where the name SkippyJon Jones came from? It’s such a silly name!
JS: It is a silly name! Like T.S. Elliot believed all cats should have three names, and my husband I believe gave the name Skippy to this little kitten, and I wasn’t satisfied with that. I always give my cats a zillion names, not unusual for pet owners.
Babble: We do it too. My cat George has I don’t even know how many names.
J.S. Yeah! And I had just written the Yo, Vikings! book, which is about my daughters, and I had learned all about the Jotens, which are these mythic sort of monsters in Viking lore so it started out like SkippyJon Jovi, SkippyJon Yoten, and it went on and on and then it was SkippyJon Jones. I first thought – which is totally inappropriate for a children’s book – SkippyJon Jones Bad Ass Cat! We had the Shaft theme going on. It just came of fooling around with word play, which, really, the whole book is about wordplay.
Babble: How old are your daughters now?
JS: Emma is 27 and she is finishing her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in paleontology. Sarah is 24 and she is a composer in Hollywood writing for film and television.
Babble:Did you read a lot with them when they were growing up?
JS: Yeah, and that’s really what got me into this. I’d read so many children’s books, and my favorite of all time was A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard. It was illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. I loved that book and my kids did. There was something so special about that book that made me keep saying, “One day, I’ve got to do this.” And that day came when my youngest was in first grade full time, and I said I can’t wait anymore and I can’t talk about it anymore. I need to give myself a year to do a portfolio and I took it to New York, and I got work right away illustrating. Because I never dreamed of writing. It’s kind of ironic that a girl who failed every grammatical course she ever took and wasn’t a great English student . . .
Babble: Is a writer?
JS: It’s kind of weird the way things work out! But a lot of it is the reading I did to my kids. That rhythm was in my head, that rhythm of children’s picture books was really what got me to write my first book which was Willy and May. I think I read a book to myself 50 times, and then I sat down and got into the rhythm of telling the story of my great aunt.
Babble: I think you’re best known for SkippyJon Jones, but my daughter always enjoyed I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie which you illustrated. How does it feel knowing your other body of work is out there but SkippyJon gets the attention?
JS: I’m totally grateful, of course, that Skippy came along. But I always also say I’m not just SkippyJon Jones. You work so hard – I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years – and I had a modicum of success with my other books. But it’s sort of sad, and I’m not speaking just for myself, but there are so many wonderful, deserving books out there that really don’t get a whole lot of attention that should.
Babble: I can really see the imagination taking flight in your books. Why is that something you focus on?
JS: It’s really not something I set out to do. When I write a book, it’s not like “that’s what I have to write about.” But it always seems to turn out that for me I have to believe that imagination saved my life. I grew up in a home, we didn’t have very much money, my mom was so ill and she passed away when I was fifteen, and I was like her nurse for my childhood. One could say I didn’t have good report cards; I was probably a very frustrated student. I think I was diagnosed by ADD as a third grader. So it sort of explains why I didn’t do so well in school, but I had really important life and death issues I was dealing with as a child, and I think that imagination when I would go into my room, close my door, put up paper all around and draw all these characters all around me.
I like to say I invented morphing because I would morph into these drawings. I was raised in an Irish Catholic home so my brother was in the seminary for awhile training to be a priest and I saw Audrey Hepburn of course, the Nun Story, so my stories were very strange. I could recreate the story of The Wizard of Oz, taking Dorothy from Kansas, putting her into a convent, drawing the habits and then she’d fall in love with some doctor and end up at the White House in a very low cut gown. . . That’s what I lived for, I couldn’t wait to just draw and create these characters. . . sometimes we leave behind that imagination when we leave school, but that imagination is what solved so many of the world problems. I’m a big believer in play and letting kids just imagine themselves into all kind of extraordinary situations, and Skippy really does epitomize that. He’s tenacious, he gets hyperfocused on one idea.
Babble: It’s ironic you brought up your story about sending your woman into the White House. SkippyJon landed in the White House when Michelle Obama picked him up.
JS: Yeah! And before that too, I was invited by Laura Bush too to go to the White House for the Washington Book Festival. That was an amazing experience. President Bush wasn’t my favorite president, but Laura Bush did a great thing pushing the whole reading thing and libraries. I’m all for that!
Babble: SkippyJon is not just dog and cat but bi-partisan as well!
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