The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Jill Weber, Mont Vernon artist and illustrator of Cat in the City. Courtesy photo.

Meet Jill Weber and Julie Salamon

Saturday, Dec. 6, at 2 p.m.: Toadstool Bookshop, 614 Nashua St., Lorden Plaza, Milford,,, 673-1734
Sunday, Dec. 7, at 1 p.m.: Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord,,, 224-0562

Love letter to New York
Local illustrator draws a big-city cat

By Kelly Sennott

 In 2009, New York City mourned the death of a 22-year-old stray cat named Pretty Boy.

The New York Times ran an obituary about the fluffy white feline, nicknamed the “Mayor of East Seventh Street,” who lived between a pet store and a hair salon and made regular rounds among East Village shops. He was a “dignified” old cat with a “confident swagger,” and locals were devastated.
“It was an incredibly lovely human interest story,” Mont Vernon-based illustrator Jill Weber said in a recent phone interview. 
Pretty Boy was the inspiration for Weber’s most recent project, an illustrated children’s book called Cat in the City. It was written by Julie Salamon, a New York-based writer who also collaborated with Weber for a 1996 project called The Christmas Tree, a New York Times bestseller that year.
It was an industry friend who devised the idea of making Pretty Boy a children’s book character. She sent Weber the article, and Weber liked the concept; she’d lived in New York before moving to New Hampshire 40 years ago, and this could be an excuse to look back at that time. 
“I thought of Julie right away, so I sent it to her to see if she was interested in working on it,” Weber said.
Salamon wasn’t at first; she was in the midst of writing a biography about playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and she didn’t initially feel there was enough to the story. It was cute, for sure, but it would be a very short book. 
But Weber was busy too; she was working on a picture book that told the story of Hanukkah.
Shortly after the proposition, Salamon called Weber back.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about the cat,” Salamon said. 
There were a few reasons. For one, she was going to be facing an empty nest soon, and she figured she might as well fill it with a new project. Cats also play a special role in Salamon’s relationship with New York, which she described in a Sept. 5 New York Times article, “Filling the Empty Nest With Animals.” She’d moved to the big city after college, but it wasn’t until she and her now-husband found a cat on the roof of their tiny studio that New York began to feel like home.
The project became a 192-page book, Cat in the City, which was published in September. Its protagonist is still a white city cat named Pretty Boy, but Salamon drew from other stories as well.
“At the same time, I was playing with another idea, which involved a young boy and his old cello teacher,” Salamon said. “I think I was also really kind of visiting my life in New York. I came from a town that had 800 people in it. My son jokes that he had more kids in his high school graduating class than I had in my whole town. My whole life, living here, I’ve always been very intent on finding my little community.”
Cat in the City is about finding your way in the big city — as a cat, kid or new resident — but its making was unusual as far as books go. For one, there was no deadline. 
“Julie said to me, ‘Let’s for once in our lives not have something that has a horrible deadline.’ It’s a luxury,” Weber said. “Most people don’t understand that, the minute you say yes, you’re occupied 24 hours a day.”
The physical makeup is also distinct. It’s geared toward children ages 8 to 12, but it’s also nearly 200 pages and contains glossy pages with bright, colorful illustrations, many from a “below-the-knee” cat’s eye perspective.
Weber became sentimental about the story as well. Publisher’s Weekly called Weber’s Cat in the City art “little love letters” to the Big Apple. When she was in New York, she lived below Little Italy and walked under the Washington Square arch twice a day to get to her publishing job. That arch decorates the cover.
“I love New York, and it made me happy to recreate the city I remember and love,” Weber said. 
Also unusual during the book’s creation was the communication between Weber and Salamon.
“I don’t usually work with my authors in dialogue,” Weber said. “Usually editors choose you because they like your style. Julie and I worked together a lot. I’d send her a chapter [illustration] and then we’d talk about it. … Usually the author and illustrator don’t ever meet in terms of children’s books. It’s wonderful we had the luxury of starting out doing something we absolutely loved without any outside pressure at all,” Weber said. 
The book has been received well, Salamon said.
“The essential message is both about the difficulty and pleasure of building a community and finding friends,” she said. “The main characters are cats and dogs, but there are children in the book. There’s an old man cello teacher and he becomes a very prominent character in the book. … I think it sort of transcends generations.” 
As seen in the December 4, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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