While many of us are finding new ways to entertain ourselves during the pandemic, content creators are wrestling with how to make our shows, comics, games and books safely. The challenges for each industry are unique, as are the challenges faced by individual creators.
Today we talk to Nick Bruel, who for about 15+ years now has been the writer and illustrator of the Bad Kitty series, as well as some other books. It’s a series that began with a single title: Bad Kitty Picture Book. But then the character took on a life of her own about two, three years later when Bruel adapted her into a simple chapter book series. Within like two or three books of that coming out, she really started to take off in popularity, and it’s been a neat ride ever since.
We spoke with Bruel to get an idea of how he and other illustrators have been affected by the pandemic.
Sean Z: So Bad Kitty started as a picture book, became a chapter book, and some of the more recent ones are back to picture books?
Nick Bruel: Well, you know, I staggered it a little bit. What I did was I put out this book called Bad Kitty, which was an alphabet book of sorts — very simple, telling the story about this cat who didn’t get the food she wanted and told through going through the alphabet four times. It was successful enough that I did a sequel to it, about the cat and the dog that has to live in that house with that cat.
The book’s called Poor Puppy. It went through the alphabet five times and also did fairly well, and I realized at that point that this alphabet format I created was just completely untenable. So I did what honestly had not been done up until then, which was to adapt her into chapter books. The thinking for me was, this way she could grow up with her readers.
It was an odd enough notion that it actually freaked out everyone except for my editor and publishers; they loved the idea. But Barnes and Noble didn’t want to carry it. The conventional wisdom for them was, “Well, you know, why would anybody want to buy chapter books when they already know his picture books? Because picture book readers aren’t going to get chapter books,” and so on, so forth. The series thrived nonetheless and has done pretty well I think. Last I heard, there were about 15 million books in print right now.
What I’ve done in the last four years or so is actually backtrack a little bit and create a simple eight-by-eights, which are called that because they’re eight inches by eight inches. These are simple, 24-page “paper bag” picture books that are for level one readers. They’re eight by eight to fit on these spin racks in bookstores that you’ll see. They tell a simple story, but I find them very gratifying to write and so I’ve been staggering a little bit back and forth. I try to put out a chapter book once a year, and I will occasionally pepper that with two of these eight-by-eights.
SZ: How is your day-to-day job as an author/illustrator been impacted by COVID?
NB: Well, one of the things is, I have a 12 year-old daughter. We quarantined ourselves early on, you know. We lived in Pleasantville, right? And people forget this, but the original epicenter of New York was a town called Rye, which is in Westchester and not too far from where my wife’s from. She’s a professor at SUNY Purchase.
So, you know, this was something that we were very aware of very early on. And we took the maybe drastic step of packing up the car and driving to Florida, where my father in law has had a condo for decades now. We knew that school was going to be closed, and we knew that remote learning was going to be the norm for the rest of the school year, so it didn’t matter where we were. We decided that was a safer place to be, and it was at the time.
I ask myself this question all the time, because I write for kids: What can I do to help? And while we were driving down, I came up with this idea to create a free, short Bad Kitty chapter book — it reads like a Bad Kitty chapter book even though it’s only really one chapter, 24 pages — and talk about that one thing that all kids were really going to have get used to at the time, which was to wash their hands. I knew a little bit about the science of the virus already and knew that soap could literally destroy a virus. It literally breaks a virus, as well as bacteria, into pieces.
Knowing that kids were going to be hearing about viruses and germs and such, I thought I’d take it upon myself to use Bad Kitty as a conduit to discuss this topic, in a fun and entertaining, but still educational way. I also knew that this was only going to work if I made it a free, downloadable book, which is what I did.
You know, this was important enough that it needed to get out right away, especially because kids were not going outside, they were not going to the library, they were not going to school. Because the country was already shutting down very quickly at that point, the luxury of buying a book just didn’t make sense.
So I thought, I need to make a simple, free, downloadable, 24-page book. While I was doing it, I realized — rather than paint it and have it come out in color, I could not only save a lot of time by simply releasing it with line art, but it would give kids something to do, whether every page is like a coloring page for them to work on at home.
So this was my contribution to the situation we were all in. My wife and my daughter and I — we were all pretty safe, in a comfortable place in Florida. I wasn’t too concerned about our health where we were. I knew this was not going to be the case for every family and every kid in America, so this was what I thought could help if only for a month.
SZ: It’s a good answer. What is the logistical difference of releasing a free, downloadable book versus a normal book for you, if there is any? Do you just go to your publisher and say, “Hey, I’d like to do a free book,” and they provide the infrastructure? Do you have to do it all yourself? What does that look like?
NB: That’s an excellent question because when I thought of it, I really didn’t know. The only thing I knew I needed to do was to format it in such a way that a two-page spread could fit easily on a 8.5”x11” sheet of paper, so that someone could print it off at home. That meant just sort of reducing the print size of the pages — only slightly. I knew my publisher would like the idea, because the people I work with are just terrific.
But I also knew that they had their own set of challenges, personal challenges — just like I did, just like everybody else in the world at the moment. So I was concerned about dropping a spontaneous project into their lap with very little notice, because I knew that this had to go out as quickly as possible.
So I did essentially what I always did when submitting a chapter book. I wrote a detailed outline and contacted my editor, Emily Feinberg, and told her my intentions. She said, “I like this idea. Let me run it by the other people and see what they say.” They got back to us and they said, “We really like this idea. Go with it.”
So what I did then was just basically what I always do when putting together a book: I mapped it out page by page. I started penciling it, scanned those pencils, which I submitted to my editor. She looked over it and gave me the thumbs up as I inked the art.
The one thing I did differently with Wash Your Paws that I never did so much with any of the others was — because I wanted to include a little bit of the science behind what a virus is, I consulted a scientist. By amazing coincidence, one of the people in the other family that we were in our own quarantine bubble with in Florida is a microbiologist, named Dr. Aris N. Economides.
I said, “Could you look over the text of what I’m going to be putting into this book and tell me if what I’m going to be saying is accurate or not?” I cite him on the back page of the book as being instrumental and give him thanks for fact-checking me.
This was a situation where I really didn’t want to pass on any information that could be even slightly inaccurate, even when really keeping the language and the information at a third or fourth grade level of understanding. After that, the question was really, “How is this going to be distributed?” I knew the best way it could be downloadable is just to scan everything and put it together as a downloadable PDF.
My publisher, they were very into the idea of giving it its own page, as if it’s just a title on its own — which it is — on the Bad Kitty books website, so it’s treated just like any other Bad Kitty book. Instead of the button that says “click here to purchase,” it says “click here for free download.” That’s how they decided to handle it and really all of this went by in a matter of, you know, weeks.
SZ: Just to give us a sense of scale, what would a normal book timeline look like, compared to this?
NB: It takes me — from conception, to outline, to pencil, to ink, to final hand in of the work — roughly six to seven months to write a Bad Kitty chapter book. Those can be as many as 160 pages. For me, I did all of that in roughly two weeks. I felt like I was on a mission. I put this thing together in pretty record time, for me.
The funny thing is, after that, they handed it all in. And my part was, for the most part, done. It’s sort of like the impact of the COVID-19 started to sink in, and I found myself very distracted. I found it very difficult to actually concentrate on all the other work that I needed to complete at that time, because I still had all these other deadlines. They weren’t as pressing as putting out these 24 pages, but boy, after that, I found myself very distracted, very unfocused in fulfilling my responsibilities.
SZ: I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. I know a lot of people who have taken quarantine and kind of gone, “This is this magnificent time where I am hyper efficient because no one bothers me.” And I know others who are kind of experiencing a kind of existential paralysis, where they’re just, “It’s difficult to work.”
NB: That’s a great combination of words right there, “existential paralysis.” Yeah. I don’t think I ever sank quite that far, but you know, I found myself easily distracted. What happened — I think for everyone — is that distractions are different. My daughter actually thrived really well with remote learning for the first couple of weeks. Then her own distractions began to take over and she was slipping behind on everything, all of her school responsibilities.
After we got down there, about three weeks in — really roughly around the time that I completed this project, it was obvious that she was not thriving well with the remote learning and needed a lot more one-on-one attention to her work, which became the dual responsibility of my wife and I. That just added another sort of massive obstacle to the day-to-day challenges that we already face.
SZ: Kind of transitioning from there, I’d like to shift more into more general author discussions of how, as a field, authors are affected. One of the more critical questions is, how do authors receive health insurance? Is this normally a thing done by publishers? Are you part of a freelancers union? How does that primarily work for published authors like yourself?
NB: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know of any author or illustrator who receives insurance through their publisher. For one thing, I’m a bit of a rarity in that I’ve had, for the most part, really only one publisher for the nearly two decades I’ve been publishing books: Macmillan. That’s very unusual. There’s literally a handful like five and six authors or illustrators I can think of who have a similar scenario.
Most authors — we are freelancers. For years, my wife and I were on a plan put together by the Freelancers Union. It really wasn’t bad. Now because my wife is an adjunct professor at SUNY Purchase, we’re on a family plan through her insurance. So that’s how we handle it now. I think you’re going to find that’s going to be the case with virtually anybody and everybody who is in the creative arts. The only exception I can think of at the moment — and I don’t think it’s the case anymore — but it used to be than regular New Yorker cartoonists were on a New Yorker health insurance plan. But I think that came to an end decades ago.
SZ: On the same topic, are there any authors unions or professional organizations, like the National Writers Union or the Authors Guild that provide any kind of member support?
NB: I don’t know of any. Certainly not in terms of financial support or even financial planning advice or anything like that. There are organizations… There’s one called SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) that is more of an information bank for writers and illustrators and — probably even more importantly — for aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books. They organize conferences, and portfolio reviews and that sort of thing, but nothing that would help a children’s book author with financial or health insurance advice.
I’m also a rarity in that this is my job. I know of plenty of children’s book authors and writers where publishing a book or putting out children’s books is sort of a second job or a pastime of love, I guess. I knew a man who was a very accomplished illustrator, and he was a dentist. During his off time on weekends, he illustrated picture books with great success. I couldn’t tell you the percentage, but I would say illustrators — a lot of comic illustrators are probably also freelance — they’ll do whatever editorial, magazine, what may come their way. It’s not an easy career to support yourself and your family with, unless you really are lucky enough — like I’ve been — to hit the right mark at the right time.
For the most part, every author and children’s book illustrator I know is struggling during this time, if only because for a lot of us, a significant source of income is school visits. In the same way that a lot of musicians don’t really earn a lot of money off their albums, but will earn a lot from going on tour and having concerts, the second schools were closed, all school visits that were scheduled evaporated. A lot of authors and illustrators for kids really rely on visiting those schools to supplement our income.
SZ: Is that because you sell at the schools or is that because the schools buy copies with their libraries?
NB: Neither. It may be a little bit that they buy from the authors, but actually for the most part, authors are by contract not allowed to sell their own book. This is because publishers don’t want the authors themselves to compete with retailers. So you know, as an author, my discount is 50 percent from Macmillan. Retailers — I was a bookseller for over 15 years — generally don’t get a discount higher than 40 to 45 percent. Usually, [money from school visits] comes in the form of an honorarium.
SZ: A speaking fee?
NB: Authors or illustrators are paid to spend the day at the school, give anywhere from one to two to three — or four or five, even — presentations to various grades, and there may or may not be a book signing that comes afterwards. The book signings are usually done as a fundraising technique for the schools themselves, to offset the cost of the honorarium for bringing in an author. So, it’s an interesting balance of finances.
It’s also really fun. So I have to say, this is the one thing that the virus has taken away from us that I miss the most. Conducting school visits is just a joy to children’s book authors and illustrators. Think of a scenario where you can walk into a space, in this case a school, and you will be presenting to and surrounded by literally hundreds or, during the course of the day, thousands of your readers. Those scenarios may come and go every now and then for adult genre authors, like mystery writers at a conference or things like Comic-Con, but children’s book authors — we could do this every day, given the opportunity. I know loads of authors and illustrators who do at least one or two a week, and they’ll travel the country to do it. It supplements income, but it’s also just wonderful. I just don’t know of any scenario or any other author genre where you get to do that.
SZ: That’s interesting, especially because one of the previous COVID interviews I had was with a voice actor, and I asked a similar question: How do conventions affect you? And they had a similar response, “This is a great opportunity to speak to my fans.” But they also talked about how, for them, they don’t consider conventions a primary source of income.
NB: Well, the reason it may not be financially important to them is because — if I’m appearing at a conference, I’m generally not compensated. My expenses for travel are reimbursed, but I’m typically not compensated for those. That’s purely for promotion and publicity purposes and they’re often organized by or facilitated by my publisher.
Schools are different because schools are open nine months out of the year, at least. They bring authors in all the time. This was not something that happened when I was a kid at all, but it has become standard today. Schools all across the country are contacting authors all the time to see if they’re available to visit. During my years of doing this, I have visited literally hundreds of schools. It’s gotten to the point where most of the schools I visit, I try to keep very local, because the time to travel is so exhausting. I try to keep it pro bono.
It’s such a valuable thing to be able to visit a school because I’ve learned stuff. I’m there to talk about my book to the kids, but the teachers — they want the kids to meet an author because they want their students to get some sense of what it’s like to create these books that they read, and why we do it and how we do it, and maybe even pass on a lesson on writing or drawing or whatever the case may be. I like to do it also because I learn something from them in return.
I can tell you at least two of my books — Bad Kitty School Daze and Bad Kitty Takes a Test — would not likely exist, if not for my having visited schools and been in that environment and found inspiration to create those books. I can also guarantee that all the rest of them probably wouldn’t be the same, if not for my having gone into those school environments to understand what it’s like for my kiddos each and every single day.
Even though my daughter goes to school, I’m not in there. I’m not in that building. I don’t really know, but I’m in this unusual circumstance in that I have now been inside hundreds of the school buildings and met hundreds of thousands of these teachers and tens of thousands of these kids. That’s great. I missed that. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again.
SZ: Related to that, how has shifting to online book tours and online speaking affected you?
NB: Two things. First of all, I was able to do the first half of my January book tour without interruption, and then all of this started to happen in mid-to-late February. The second half of my book tour was supposed to be in early March, but that just got canceled outright, understandably. It happened very quickly. It is interesting to think back on it now, how seeing that daily, things were getting more and more serious, and trying to think, “Does air travel make a lot of sense right now? Maybe drive?” But one by one, stores and schools were canceling the event over the course of about 48 hours.
I’ve done a few online presentations, and they’re not the same. I cannot do the same thing presenting to a group of kids, no matter how large or how small the group, that I do when I’m visiting a school.
When I’m on stage, I try to keep it interactive. I do a lesson on how to form a story by simply asking yourself questions, and in order to demonstrate that, I point to kids who are raising their hands. I’m walking up and down the aisles among them, pointing to kids who raised their hand to answer the question like, “Why is this the camel on the moon?” And the kid says, “Because he’s hungry!” Okay, “What does the camel want to eat? “You!” And I can’t do that in an online atmosphere, because one, there’s too much of a pause between my asking the question and finding a kid who may want to answer it, and two, because I don’t even see most of those kids, especially in the Zoom setting where everyone has their own frame because they’re all in their own world. Even when they were all gathered together in a library or an auditorium, it was near impossible to do something like that. Now, I really can’t.
So it’s not the same. I still try to keep it interesting and amusing. I’m not doing nearly as many of them and I don’t plan to, either. Sometimes it’s very surreal, because even when I’m on Skype and I’m talking to a group of kids, there’s still an interaction. You can see how they react to something I say, and I can hear them react to something that I’m doing.
But I’ve had some presentations where, because they immediately silence all the kids or because I can’t even see them — maybe at the bottom, I can see a box that says 400 in attendance or something like that — I’m doing what feels like a monologue, by myself, in my room, to a computer screen. I have no idea who is or isn’t listening. I really don’t know how people like Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers do these monologues every single night. They’re sitting in their own empty rooms and they’re talking to a screen with zero feedback from an audience or anybody else. It’s a very weird feeling.
The only exception is I did a Zoom with a school and the kids were peppered wherever it was they were. I think it was a school in Brooklyn, so the kids were all at home, and they muted all the kids, but I could see all of them. I could roll the bar over and I could see each one of them. That was hilarious, because there were certainly circumstances where I saw more kids’ feet than I did kids’ faces, because they’re just like lying in bed, on the sofa, under the sofa — they’re all over the place in their home, sort of paying attention, sort of not. Hard to say. And that was kind of fun.
SZ: Do you think things are going to return to normal soon? Do you think this is kind of the normal that you’ll be working with for a while?
NB: That’s a good question everyone asks themselves in some capacity. I don’t foresee this school year being at all how things once were. I do think we’ll eventually go back to normal. I do have the benefit of having spoken to my friend, the microbiologist, and he does give me insight into the likelihood of a vaccine becoming a reality and how it will change things.
But even once there is a vaccine, it’s going to be months and months before it will be ubiquitous. And even then, we’re not really clear what the vaccine may look like, because we’re not really clear on what this virus can do. It’s such a new virus, nobody really seems to know if it mutates on its own, like the influenza virus, in which case we need a new vaccine every year, or if we’re gonna need a vaccine plus boosters. I don’t know. It’s gonna be very strange and difficult.
Certainly, the onus is on schools. They’ve already been described as petri dishes because — they are. You’re packed to the rafters with kids who never practice safe hygiene, really. I don’t know if school visits are going to become a standard thing again. Certainly not this coming school year. I just don’t see it at all. What will happen in the following school year? I’m not sure. I think that’s an answer I can give you a year from now, because I just don’t know.
In terms of tours, I’m gonna miss that too, because it’s a marketing device and it’s a good way to get your book out into the public and to get yourself out into the public. I can do my work. That’s not an issue. I can write and draw from whatever cave I happen to be sitting inside, but going out and presenting myself at bookstores or conferences and schools… I don’t know when that’s going to happen again, and doing it online can be fun, but it’s just not the same.
You can follow Nick Bruel on Twitter, and you can download ‘Bad Kitty: Wash Your Paws’ for free from the Bad Kitty website. This piece is part of an ongoing series, Creating During COVID, which explores how creators are reacting to and coping with the pandemic.