The Siamese cat who thinks he’s a Chihuahua bounces in with the just-released seventh book, Skippyjon Jones Cirque de Olé (Dial Books for Young Readers), in which Skippy and his friends perform in the circus. Judy Schachner, author and illustrator of the #1 New York Times bestselling series will be discussing and signing Cirque de Olé at The Bookies Bookstore, 4315 E. Mississippi Ave., Denver, on Friday, October 26, from 4-6 p.m. Colorado Parent had the opportunity to talk to Schachner about writing, illustrating and her feline phenom.
Colorado Parent: Do you remember where you were when you got the idea for Skippyjon Jones?
Judy Schachner: I can’t take full credit for the idea because it was inspired by my cat, Skippy. I was in my kitchen, and my Siamese kitten was having breakfast. Then he went downstairs to the litterbox where he was stung by a bumblebee. And he came upstairs with lumps all over his head, and that’s when I started to hear his “voice.” We had just watched Zorro and so in my head he sounded like Antonio Banderas.
CP: On the CDs that come with the books, Skippyjon’s Mama Junebug Jones speaks with a southern accent. Where do you imagine Mama is from?
JS: Mama Junebug Jones is from Oklahoma. She is a cat with a past. She once spent some time with Tom Jones. She is a single mom, raising her kids.
CP: If Skippyjon Jones ran for president, what issues would he care about most?
JS: Definitely clean litter, equality for all, and being free to be who you truly are.
CP: Of the seven books in the Skippyjon series, do you have a favorite?
JS: I am pretty excited about this new one, Cirque de Olé. I really like reading it, and Skippy has evolved—he looks different now than he did in the first book. You know, like Mickey Mouse looks different in the early drawings? At first, I had no idea I would do a series, and I’m really not fond of the first paintings. But Skippy’s at a point now where he looks like he’s supposed to look. I think the picture of Skippyjon on the cover of Cirque de Olé is one of the cutest. I also really like Mummy Trouble, because I am interested in ancient Egypt.
CP: Are you more of a cat person or a dog person?
JS: I am an equal-opportunity animal lover, especially those animals who are covered in fur.
CP: How long does it take you to complete a book, both illustrations and the story?
JS: I write one book a year, usually starting in August and finishing by January. As soon as I finish one book, I start thinking of the next one. Once I come up with a title, I get a journal and fill it with research on the topic that inspires ideas, like pictures from catalogs, and I’ll cut them out and put them in the journal.
When doing circus research for Cirque de Olé, I saw a picture of a human pyramid that gave me the idea for the tower of dogs in the book. Then I make a dummy of the book on paper (words and illustrations together on pages). I write and illustrate at the same time. Then I hand the dummy in to my editor, and the book moves forward. I polish the words right up to the end.
JS: Thanks to Skippy, I have a beautiful studio with a lot of space. I love it because as a child, I had no space. I would close the bathroom door and draw on the walls.
CP: Skippyjon Jones and his Chihuahua friends often speak Spanish in your books. Do you have Hispanic heritage yourself?
JS: Well, Spain invaded the coast of Ireland, and I’m Irish, but that’s as close as it gets. But I studied Spanish in high school, I have a good ear and can mimic any accent. My husband and I (volunteered with) A Better Chance (www.abetterchance.org) and we were around Hispanic girls that would speak to me in rapid fire Spanglish. I loved the sound of it. I’ve been criticized that the books are not politically correct, but I believe it is Spanish the way a 4-year-old would hear it. For Skippyjon, the point is that he wants to feel like a part of a group—he doesn’t look like the rest of his family and he is the only boy with three sisters—he wants to belong to something. And reading it gets kids in the habit of using their best Spanish accents. I think the great thing about America is that we are a melting pot—I am an Irish Catholic who married a Jewish man—and we are all just part of the stew. So many kids are learning Spanish in school now, and I hope (the books) can get kids excited about it.
CP: What is your best pearl of wisdom for those who wish to write children’s books?
JS: Read as many picture books as you can. I dreamed of being an illustrator, but I did not enjoy writing in school and was a terrible speller. But I believe if you can tell a good story you can write a good story. I would check books out of the library with the same tone I wanted for my own books and read them about 50 times. Reading has taught me all I wanted to know about writing. Also, find a unique voice—find what makes you different.
Judy Schachner lives in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author/illustrator and her books at www.skippyjonjones.com andhttp://www.judithbyronschachner.com.