Kittens, Mittens, and Pie: A Dip into The Three Little Kittens with a Barbara McClintock Interview
That’s it. I’m done. I don’t wanna talk about COVID-19 or bats or tragedies or social distancing or ANY OF THAT anymore! You know what I’d like to do as a break? Just once? Just for friggin’ once this week?
I wanna talk about kittens.
Yep. That’s right. Cute cute kittens. With mittens and pie and all that jazz. While I was stewing in that frame of mind, into my in-box waltzed Scholastic, and boy were they awfully clever. They asked, Would I like to talk to Barbara McClintock about her new picture book The Three Little Kittens? It’s based on a nuuuuursery rhyme….
Well. I mean. I’m not made of stone.
Here then, today, I offer you a moment of respite from the world in which we live. Please take time to enjoy a discussion of why nursery rhymes are the ultimate earworms, the power of pie in any narrative, and the inescapable influence of Top Cat on the children’s literary field.
Betsy Bird: Barbara! So delightful to see you again, after a fashion! I’ve a few questions for you about this here new book. Now, when I was a new mama I had a chance to rediscover the hypnotic power of the nursery rhyme. I’d collect those hefty tomes by folks like Arnold Lobel and Tomie dePaola, as well as the new books being published. What particularly interests me is when an artist singles out just one nursery rhyme and makes it a picture book. What is your personal collection to these funny little creations that aren’t quite full-blown stories and aren’t quite poems but rather a keen combo of both?
Barbara McClintock: Hello to you, Betsy! Wonderful to be back!
I know, what’s the magnetic pull of these wacky little ditties? My son LOVED nursery rhymes, the more nonsensical and convoluted the better. He’d ask for certain ones to be read over and over, and he’d laugh on each reading practically to the point of tears! Some of them were like terrible lyrics to some awful pop song; maybe there’s circuitry in our brains that makes us passionate about ear worms? Like, ‘No! No! No! Not again! Don’t read that again!’
But you really do want it read again, and it gets lodged in your head and travels around with you all day. Sheesh!
The literal meanings of nursery rhymes are a bit loose around the edges, which gives ample room for an illustrator to have their way with them. Most notable is Randolph Caldecott’s rendition of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’; he grounds the nonsense of the text into a sweet visual story of cause and effect involving a pail of milk, culminating in strong parental intervention between star crossed lovers of the cutlery and dinner plate variety. More about R.C. in question # 7…
BB: Oo! Way to pull out the original Caldecott! Extra points for that. Now some nursery rhymes lend themselves to the picture book format better than others. Heck, this year we’re seeing Tomie dePaola’s rendition of the marvelous Old Mother Hubbard reprinted. Why did you select this particular rhyme? What was the appeal?
BM: The Three Little Kittens was a favorite of my son’s and of mine when I was little. Anthropomorphism makes the rhyme so preposterous – kittens wearing mittens, being toddlers, eating pie, and a long-suffering mom who happens to be a cat. Just like real life, but transformed into kittens and CATS! What’s not to love in that scenario?
I actually wanted to be a cat when I grew up. Sadly, that dream was not meant to be.
There’s a really fun story arc in The Three Little Kittens involving impulsive behavior, making mistakes and coming back from them, redemption, and pie. Let us not forget the power of pie in any narrative.
A tricky part of this nursery rhyme that I’ve never really seen dealt with in a satisfying way in any of the versions I’ve read happens at the end. The last stanza reads
“But I smell a rat close by.”
“Mee-ow! Mee-ow! Mee-ow! We smell a rat close by.”
This begs several questions. Who is the rat? Why is the rat introduced at the end so abruptly? Suddenly, the kitties snap out of their human-like avatars, into full-blown felines, unified against THE OTHER. Why are we yanked with them out of their anthropomorphic guises? This is a theme crying out for exploration!
I love to overthink things, and working on THREE LITTLE KITTENS was no exception.
I dug down deep to find out just who these kittens were, and their relationship to one another.
And the rat! What was going on with that little rhyme ending photo-bomber? Or, rather, mouse. It made sense to turn the rat into a tiny mouse, to build up visual contrast in size between it and the kittens.
I conducted a series of interviews with the characters as a detective would at the scene of a crime – in this case, a piece of missing pie, with the mouse as a prime suspect.
I wrote each character’s take on what had happened and their relationships with each other, as a means to discover who they were.
Kitten number one was the bossy know-it-all older sister,
Kitten number two was the middle sibling, living the conundrum of being irritated by her older sister, but not being quite as quick or confident and therefore incapable of a good push-back to all the big sister bossiness.
Kitten number three was a bit of a space cadet, as my older siblings used to call me.
Then there’s the mom. Much as the kittens think they’re pulling one over on her, she’s ahead of them.
And the mouse. What would drive a mouse to put itself in danger, even if there was a lull in everyone’s attention with all the mitten craziness going on? Does the mouse do or say something simple and honest and bold to change the assumed kitty course of action? Something I am absolutely passionate about is being kind and accepting and generous to those who are outside our little clans. Could I fit that theme into our cross-species confrontation?
The reader only sees all my detective work carried by visual gesture and word balloon asides in the final book. That’s the magic of research and character development and deep diving questions about a story – it’s there like the aroma of fresh baked pie, but you don’t see all the measuring and mixing and baking and bowl-washing. What the author/illustrator gives you is the fun and joy of sampling the delicious results.
As for how the kitten/mouse face-off goes, you have to read the book to find out how it all ends!
BB: There have been other picture books of The Three Little Kittens in the past, most notably Paul Galdone’s version. Did you look into these other versions when making your own or do you avoid them like the plague when you’re in the process of figuring out the look, the style, and the format?
BM: I love Paul Galdone’s version of The Three Little Kittens! That man could draw cats like nobody’s business!
I actually looked more at old cartoons for inspiration than at versions of The Three Little Kittens. I’ve seen enough renditions of The Three Little Kittens to get a general idea of what I didn’t want to do – many of them are rather staid, and the kittens are dressed in frilly victorian clothing more often than not. I wanted to do something bold and fresh and playful – something I would have loved when I was very young. That meant channeling the exuberance of the 1960’s Saturday morning cartoons I loved watching, and not laying too heavy a burden on the characters with tight rendering and antiquated settings.
BB: Speaking of look and style, this struck me as a bit of a departure from what we’ve seen you do in the past. Much like last year’s incredible book Vroom!, there’s a simplicity to the art that’s fresh and appealing. What’s going on here? What’s the impetus and influence?
BM: I’ve long been a huge fan of the work of Alice and Martin Provensen, Diane and Leo Dillon, and that master of masters, Maurice Sendak. These geniuses had the ability to adapt their visual styles to fit perfectly with whatever text came their way. The intelligence of their choices and ability to shape shift stylistically is super intimidating, but boy is it fascinating. I’ve wished for the talent and ingenuity and boldness to follow their lead.
After 40 plus years in the biz of illustrating books, I’ve decided – paraphrasing Maurice Sendak – to stop using the same style for every book, which is in essence creating the same book over and over again. I’m not saying I’ll give up my pen & ink style inspired by all those wonderful 19th century artists ( check out question # 7! ) but I’m interested in making books for a much younger crowd than I’ve done before. And I think simplicity works very well for very young children.
A few years ago, Simon Boughton encouraged me to use a bold line and color, very different from my fine dip pen and ink line work. I took a giant step, picked up brush tip markers and prismacolor pencils, and found a surprising spark set loose by using different tools to create my drawings.
My mom saved many of my childhood drawings in a large scrapbook, and it’s been fascinating to go back and look at those early drawings. I’m learning a lot from them.
I set off on a journey revisiting the cartoons and comics that were such a big part of my childhood. I’m sure my take on the world was established in great part by Top Cat, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Donald Duck, Yogi the Bear and all the other cartoon characters who spilled out of our tv on Saturday mornings long ago and far away.
Look, I’m so fortunate to have had a long career built on a rock-solid style. But it’s been freeing to think ‘What the heck?’ and explore new parts of my creative self. Maybe it’s taken most of my working life to have the confidence to experiment. But it’s given me so much joy, and has connected me with an energy I haven’t felt since I was a child. Now that I’ve broken loose, I want to keep going, keep exploring. And keep making books that are meaningful and connect with the children who read them.
BB: Would you be at all interested in doing more picture books in this style? Heck, would you be interested in other nursery rhyme picture books?
BM: Yes! Yes! Yes!
BB: Fair enough. Now a bit of a change of pace. Once, long ago, we were at a book party and this guy all in black comes up and starts chatting with us. After a while he moves on and I asked you who he was. You replied, with great good humor, that it had been Jeff Smith. I might have been a bit surprised that you knew him since I’ve never seen you do much with comics before. This book seems to be changing that. Have you always been a comics fan? Do you have any interest in a full-length graphic novel of your own someday?
BM: Comics and cartoons were my first and early love. I was never a big Dick and Jane fan; Casper the Ghost, Donald Duck and, of course, Top Cat comics were my favorite reads.
My first attempts at creating illustrated stories were done when I was around four years old, in panel comic strip style on strips of wallpaper from one of my mom’s decorating projects. Mom was my first collaborator – she wrote words I dictated to her into the word balloons of those early comics of mine.
I progressed into writing full-blown comic books, mostly featuring the cartoon character Top Cat. When I was around eight, I was making six to eight page comic books with stapled bindings for my friends, complete with single page ads for causes ranging from saving lions to the benefits of drinking milk.
After Top Cat came Charles Schultz and PEANUTS, followed by CALVIN AND HOBBS. And oh, my gosh, MOOMENS!
I’m a huge Frank Miller fan – what he did with DARE DEVIL was beyond phenomenal . And I love love love Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez’ LOVE AND ROCKETS. I also love the work of Antoine Revoy. He captures the delicacy and graphic muscle of both French comics and Japanese manga in his work.
ADELE & SIMON was very influenced by the work of Jaques Tardi. And I refer frequently to the work of French artist, cartoonist, and writer Jean Giraud, aka Mobius.
But the rock star of the graphic novel world for me is Posy Simmons. Her graphic novels TAMARA DREWE, based on Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, and GEMMA BOVARY, on Gustave Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY. are spectacular – brilliantly drawn, witty, droll and hilarious contemporary social commentaries, perfectly paced and exquisitely detailed and nuanced…I could go on about her work. And on. And on.
In the late 1990’s, Francoise Mouley and Art Spiegelman contacted me to ask if I’d do a comic for their fledgling Little Lit series. They saw the natural cartoonist in me, and I was thrilled to create comics for all three of their Little Lit books. My favorite was THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA, in Folklore and Fairytale Funnies. It was a blast working with them, and being part of that very cool groundbreaking project.
And yes, I would love to create a graphic novel someday. But I have to work up the chutzpah to think myself capable of being on the same block – not in the same building, not the same room, that would be too terrifying – as those heroes of the genre.
BB: What are you working on next? (if you can say, of course)
BM: I’m illustrating a picture book bio of Randolph Caldecott, written by Michelle Markel, published by Chronicle Books.
Talk about making a full circle! I’m going back to one of my original heroes and mentors, studying his original drawings in university collections, looking through old editions of his books I picked up in London years ago, and sketching live farm animals, quite a departure from VROOM! and THREE LITTLE KITTENS. But I’ll be back with that VROOM! KITTENS style. Stay tuned!
And stay tuned we shall! I’m particularly intrigued by that Caldecott bio mention.
Extra thanks to Sydney Tillman and the good folks at Scholastic for setting this up. Thanks especially to Barbara for stomaching my questions with good grace and humor! I didn’t expect LOVE AND ROCKETS to get a shout-out today, and now I’m so glad that it did.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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