Talking cats and books with Skippyjon Jones creator Judy Schachner
Judy Schachner shares a special connection with cats—especially Siamese cats. It started when she was just 11 years old and her mother was dying of cancer. During an already difficult time, her striped Tabby was hit and killed by a car. So Judy’s older brother gave her a Siamese kitten named Frankie. The tiny kitty stayed by their mother’s side while she was bedridden and comforted Judy by licking tears from her face whenever she’d cry.
“That little Siamese cat just meant everything to me,” she said.
Because of that experience, Judy, her husband, and daughters have “had different adopted dogs and all kinds of stray cats, but I’ve always had to have a Siamese cat in the mixture.”
One of them, Skippyjon Jones, was a funny feline with huge ears reminiscent of a Chihuahua’s. Each night, he would run upstairs and jump on the bed, waiting for a tummy tickle or the chance to chase after a feather toy.
“So many times, he would leap in the air and do a triple flip and land upside-down in my pillows with his legs sticking straight up—or miss the bed completely,” Judy recalled. “He was like an Olympic champ of leaping and jumping.”
Of course, Skippyjon Jones is now one of the most famous Siamese cats in children’s literature. In 2003, Judy wrote and illustrated a picture book featuring him as a Siamese kitten bouncing on his “big-boy bed” who glimpses his reflection in a mirror and sees a Chihuahua. Skippyjon Jones enters a make-believe world in which he becomes “El Skippito” and meets a band of Chihuahuas called the Chimichangos. The tongue-twisting dialogue is hilarious:
“Why the maskito, dude?” asked Poquito Tito.
“I go incognito,” said Skippito.
“Do you like rice and beans?” asked Pintolito.
“Sí, I love mice and beans,” said Skippito.
Skippyjon Jones quickly became a New York Times bestseller and won numerous awards, including the E.B. White Read Aloud Award. Judy went on to write and illustrate many more books of Skippy’s adventures, and the series is currently being developed for television.
Judy said she didn’t set out to create a hit children’s book—she just wrote a whimsical story for the eight-year-old child inside her. She loves getting mail from kids and meeting readers at bookstore signings.
“I’ll be busy signing away and then I look up and see a fan standing there with a Siamese cat draped over their shoulder,” she said with a laugh. “There are so many cats that have been named Skippyjon Jones.”
People also bring Chihuahuas to events—she was particularly tickled by the one wearing hot pink goggles—or send her pictures of their pups. In the Skippyjon Jones books, Schachner uses actual photos of Chihuahuas sent by fans—it makes her laugh that whenever Skippy looks in a mirror, the Chihuahua he sees staring back at him is always a different dog.
“Each time, it’s a different Chihuahua and that doesn’t bother him. It’s just, ‘Am I a Chihuahua?’”
Judy is incredibly grateful to her readers as well as her cats. She immortalized her 21-year-old Siamese cat Simon in The Grannyman, a touching picture book about an elderly cat revitalized by caring for a kitten. That kitten, Tink, a beloved feline with a “brain the size of a frozen pea,” stars as an indoor cat who sneaks outside for adventure in Bits & Pieces.
“I work really hard to get that feeling of total, drooling adoration I have for my fur babies across in art,” Schachner said.
“Maybe the way they hold their little paw curled up, or the way they stretch their toes, or the way they look at you with either such sincerity in their eyes, or in the case of Tinky in Bits & Pieces, there’s nothing going on in his head whatsoever…I work very hard with expressions.”
Her pets can affect her work in other ways as well. She’s had to work in her studio with a cat strapped to her chest in a baby carrier because he needed to be close to her—this has happened with several kitties. And she currently can’t leave out tracing paper because her Siamese cat Chicopee is “obsessed” with eating it. He’s even munched on drawings of Skippyjon Jones!
But these quirks that might cause frustration in some pet owners create story fodder for Judy. She jokes that her books are “nonfiction” because her cats give her so many ideas. In fact, her advice to anyone who dreams of writing or illustrating children’s books—aside from joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—is to draw inspiration from their cats and dogs.
“Just take notes, and let your pets do all the talking, sock eating, face sleeping, and inappropriate pooping they want. This is how they create great stories just for us, the ones they love.”