A couple years ago, James Dean, a local artist celebrated for his whimsical paintings of Pete the Cat, was stopped on North Highland Avenue when a man with wild hair and rumpled clothing shouted at him.
“Hey! I wrote a story and just recorded a song for Pete the Cat!” said Eric Litwin, a local songwriter.
Dean smiled, told him to e-mail him the idea, but didn’t dawdle when the light turned green.
“I just thought he was some crazy guy wandering the streets,” Dean said.
Dean was a painter with a strong local following. His cartoonish, cobalt blue kitty had become a staple at art festivals and was displayed in shops and galleries. Pete the Cat’s adventures (slinking into Picasso’s Dream, the Beatles’ Abbey Road and even on the rooftop of Eddie’s Attic in Decatur) kept Dean’s paintbrush very busy.
Dean didn’t believe a stranger could develop a story about the beloved cat. But by the time Dean pulled into the driveway of his McDonough home, the story and song were in his inbox.
“He put Pete the Cat in shoes. I had never done that,” said Dean. “It was perfect.”
So the two became artistic partners and at the beginning of last year, without pitching it to any major publishing companies, they self-published the book, “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.”
It’s a story about a kitty donning new white sneakers stepping in strawberries and blueberries, even a bucket of water. But no matter what, he keeps movin’ and groovin’ and singing his song because, as the story goes, “it’s all good.”
The feel-good story with a recognizable cat got readers purring. Within 10 months, they sold 7,000 copies of the book. A YouTube video was posted featuring two sisters reading and signing along with the book.
HarperCollins noticed cat’s following and inked a deal with Litwin and Dean, a move that elevated Pete the Cat to the big stage.
In March, the Pete the Cat book left his humble Georgia roots and slipped into bookstores across the country and Canada.
After just three weeks on shelves, “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes,” climbed up to No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List for picture books. The illustrated story joins “Alice in Wonderland: The Visual Guide,” and “Listen to the Wind: the story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea.”
Dean could barely believe it. “Are you sure?” he asked his publicist in an e-mail after hearing the news.
“This is all way unexpected. It’s hit me like a train,” said Dean. “I am getting e-mails from people in Vancouver having Pete the Cat sightings.”
Not just a pet project
Both Dean and Litwin started out in non-artistic fields. Dean worked as an engineer for Georgia Power for almost 20 years before dedicating himself to art at the age of 39.
Litwin was a special education teacher for several years before switching careers about a decade ago to be a children’s singer and storyteller performing at schools throughout metro Atlanta with Woodruff Arts Center’s Young Audiences.
The inspiration for Pete the Cat goes back about 10 years when Dean rushed for his camera to capture an image of his pensive cat, Pete. But before he could take the picture, Pete had darted away. So Dean drew the cat instead.
Up until then, Dean had sketched old buildings, classic cars and Atlanta city landscapes. But he quickly discovered a demand for images of his cat in unexpected places or sipping what looks to be a cup of coffee with the green Starbucks logo but instead says: “Meowbucks.”
Before the book was released, Pete the Cat then started drinking wine, favoring the “Cat-bernets.” But Pete the Cat didn’t reach celebrity status until he put down the bottle and laced up a pair of white sneakers.
Litwin, 43, believes the story about a cat stepping in fruit and water but not fretting about getting his new shoes dirty or wet, carries a simple but important message: “It’s all about taking life as it comes; stay positive and it’s all good,” said Litwin, who lives in Atlanta.
When Litwin first jotted down the story years ago, the main character was a girl.
“I knew it was a good story but character is key. I realized it had to be a character everyone loved. So that’s when I thought of Pete the Cat. And the whole joke and satire and moral of the story worked,” he said.
Pete on demand
Litwin and Dean have visited dozens of schools in recent weeks. Litwin, who performs with a guitar, harmonica and banjo, revels in the spotlight. He reads the book and offers animated performances signing the folksy song, “I love my white shoes. I love my white shoes. Oh no, Pete stepped in a large pile of strawberries. ... Did Pete cry? Goodness no. I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes.”
Dean, meanwhile, prefers to quietly paint 4-foot-tall canvasses of Pete. He can often finish a simple Pete painting during a school visit, and he leaves it behind.
“We are so different. He loves words. Me not so much,” said Dean. “Eric grew up in New York. I grew up in Alabama. But we’re a great team.”
Litwin, who can fetch as much as $500 for local performances, is now getting a stream of requests to perform in other cities and venues including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, which can pay three or more times the rate.
Meanwhile Dean, who paints at least 100 original Pete the Cats every year, is struggling to keep up with demand. He’s only slightly raised the prices, which range anywhere from $600 for smaller pieces to as much as $5,000 for some of the poster-sized pieces of art.
The book has taken Dean’s work in an unexpected direction.
“I wanted to make art for adults,” said Dean. “I love kids but I didn’t want to make a too-sweet cat or cutesy kittens for children. I didn’t think that would be satisfying. Pete is a little bit edgy. He’s lovable and he’s got that ‘look in his eye.’”
Pete’s eyes are still yellow and slightly cross-eyed.
“Kids call me on that,” he said. “They say, ‘What’s up with the eyes?’ And one girl said, ‘He looks mad.’ I told her, ‘Pete is not mad, just a little mischievous.’”
Pete the Cat used to sneak his way into iconic images of Frida Kahlo and Marilyn Monroe.
But the book’s popularity has changed that.
Now all people want is Pete.
“Mostly what people want is paintings of Pete. He doesn’t have to be doing anything. Just Pete.”
Pete in intense phthalo blue and with golden eyes that have become softer and a little bit droopy, but make you wonder what’s next.
A video of two adorable local girls reading and singing the song made the rounds and garnered attention from HarperCollins. To see it, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpZ9mOQ6iSU
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