Kate Banks strikes me as an author who doesn’t like to sit still—in more ways than one. Not only has she traveled extensively, as you’ll read below, but she’s the author of nearly 40 picture books and novels for children. “I am always working on several projects at once, usually a couple of picture books and a YA,” she tells me, though she is also currently completing revisions for a middle-grade manuscript, which blends science and fiction, “a sort of hybrid based on British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments with animals.”
Out on bookshelves now is City Cat, her story of a globe-trotting feline who visits some of Europe’s most famous cities, all the while crossing paths with a traveling family. Banks’ lyrical text is matched with the gentle and expressive illustrations of Lauren Castillo.
I caught Kate between trips to ask her a bit about this new book, as well as to weigh in with her thoughts on picture book publishing today.
You began publishing children's books in the late 1980s and have had such a distinguished career. I'm curious: How do you think the picture book fares today, as compared to previous decades? What have been some of the significant changes you've seen over the years?
What strikes me the most about picture books today is how they are made. Back in the ‘80s when I began publishing, the making of books was an artisan endeavor with craftsmen contributing their bit along the way. Authors and writers met with their editors, and phone calls were still the order of the day. There was an enviable intimacy about the process and, I think, more freedom in choice of stories, art and their interpretation.
Today the picture book has become a commodity, subject to the dictates of a market economy. Technology has made piecework redundant. Undoubtedly, there is greater efficiency, but the process has lost that personal touch.
That said, there are still many wonderful picture books being produced, and perhaps they are better as editors must be more selective, and bookmaking is more refined. But I am wary when I hear agents and editors asking for “character-driven books” or books with spare texts, because it sounds to me like they’re looking for the recipe for a perfect picture book, which I don’t believe exists. To me, the perfect picture book is a spontaneous creation, inspired by an invisible and mysterious muse not to be found in the marketplace.
Another thing that has changed is the mindset of readers, whose brains are literally being rewired by technology and the media. In my work as a therapist, I am well aware of the neuroscience behind this. A short time ago, an editor commented that a manuscript I’d submitted was too quiet for today’s market. This remark concerned me, because children need quiet, reflective books, as well as fast-paced, action-packed stories, to grow into balanced teenagers and adults with healthy neuropathways and good coping skills.
And I believe writers, educators and publishers have not only a golden opportunity but also a responsibility to influence children’s development in positive ways, something that is increasingly more difficult in a market-based industry where the bottom line overrides all.
Tell me what it was like to see Lauren's artwork for City Cat.
Frances Foster sent me samples of Lauren’s artwork when we were looking for an illustrator for That’s Papa’s Way. I immediately fell in love with her exuberant, open-faced characters and her full but graceful detail. We were looking for an artist who could convey the tender relationship between father and daughter without sacrificing sense of place. I was delighted with Lauren’s art and was eager to do another project with her.
City Cat came to mind when I saw her cityscapes, which vibrate with energy and a sense of place—accomplished without being overwhelming. There is always something new to see when you go back for a second look.
When I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren, I could see her personality reflected in her work and that was a treat. To me her illustrations for City Cat are inviting and immediate, allowing readers to step into her city scenes as artfully as those stray cats step into the streets of Rome.
You have lived in Europe for many years. Did your world travels inspire this story?
In 1988, I married an Italian and moved to Rome where my two sons—and the idea for City Cat—were born. Rome is teeming with stray cats, and I couldn’t help but admire how they masterfully maneuvered through the city streets, scavenging for food and comfort.
When my boys were young, we traveled often by car, visiting all of the sites in City Cat. And as the years passed, my own borders expanded, first to France where we moved in 1996, then to England where my boys went to school. These days I am often in Munich and London for work. So, in a way, the book reflects my own personal story.
But it also touches on themes that are dear to me: travel, discovery, connection and homecomings. I was especially drawn to the idea of the family and cat undertaking parallel journeys, meeting at landmarks which are common gathering grounds for travelers and, in a way, sacred spaces where we connect with others. I also loved the invitation to explore new territory, inviting readers to observe and notice.
Lastly, Europeans know their geography and, apparently, Americans don’t—according to them. So, City Cat gave me a chance to present some geography in a fun and meaningful context. I hope the story awakens in readers an awareness not only of the bigger world outside of their boundaries but of their own inner worlds.
And I hope it inspires them to embark on their own travels one day.
CITY CAT. Copyright © 2013 by Kate Banks. Illustration copyright © 2013 by Lauren Castillo. Published by Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Illustration used with permission of Lauren Castillo.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.