“I really didn’t want a black cat because I thought they were bad luck,” Dean recalled roughly 15 years later at his Savannah home, where Pete’s yellow eyes stare from a large painting on the wall. “But he was the only one that wanted to play. He was sticking his paw out and wanting to play with me. So I took him home.”
As thousands of children could tell you by reciting the moral of Pete’s first published tale, it was all good.
The real Pete wandered away from home, never to be seen again, after living with Dean for about a year. But Pete has stuck around as Dean’s artistic muse since 1999, not long after Dean quit his job as an electrical engineer so he could paint full time. First, Dean painted Pete curled atop his vintage Volkswagen bug and drinking from the toilet. Soon he had Pete driving the car. And drinking coffee. And playing electric guitar. It was this version of Pete the Cat, with his unflappably cool hooded gaze, that made the leap in a few years from folksy paintings selling for $500 apiece at art fairs to children’s books that clawed their way up the best-seller lists.
Since HarperCollins published “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes” by Dean and writer Eric Litwin in 2010, the series of picture books and illustrated storybooks have sold more than 3.5 million copies and spent more than 180 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.
Pete’s sales numbers are expected to keep climbing. In October, the publisher released the latest two books: “Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses” and “Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving.” This time the artist’s wife, Kimberly Dean, served as co-author for the first time.
The new creative partnership between the spouses meant more to the Deans than fans might realize. About five years after James Dean started painting Pete, the couple tried collaborating on a children’s book not long after they were married. It turned out to be painful for both of them.
“Kim and I sat down at the kitchen table in 2004 and we were going write a children’s book together, you know,” Dean said. “It just seemed that we were going do it in about an hour. In my mind anyway.”
But something wasn’t working. The words and story that Kimberly Dean tried to match to her husband’s artwork didn’t click with him. The couple gave up after that first failed attempt. For years it “became a sad thing in our marriage,” James Dean said. “We wouldn’t even talk about.”
As Dean’s paintings of Pete became better known around Atlanta, others approached him with storybook pitches. Nobody seemed like a worthy collaborator until Dean had a chance meeting with Litwin at a traffic light.
They didn’t know each other. Dean was idling at a stoplight in an old Chevy with Pete painted on the door. Litwin walked up and said, “I just recorded a song for you, and I want to send it to you.”
Dean gave the stranger his email address. By the time the artist got home, “I Love My White Shoes” was waiting in his inbox.
The lyrics of Litwin’s song became the text of the first Pete the Cat book. Dean felt the attitude fit his character perfectly. In the book, Pete walks down the street with sneakers on all four paws, singing about how he loves his white shoes. Then he stomps through a mound of strawberries, staining his sneakers. But instead of fretting, Pete sings about loving his new red shoes. More color changes follow. Pete goes with the flow until water finally washes his shoes back to their original white.
“That was one thing about Eric,” Dean said. “He was able to write Pete the Cat.”
Dean and Litwin self-published the book in 2007. Dean took half their 7,000 copies to sell at weekend art festivals. Litwin sold copies at schools where he performed songs and stories.
A friend who owned a bookstore promised to show “White Shoes” to publishers. Still, Dean was stunned when he got a publishing offer on his 51st birthday, in 2008. HarperCollins released “White Shoes” two years later.
Litwin and Dean cranked out three more Pete books with similar messages, encouraging readers to keep cool when facing challenges. Their run ended with “Pete the Cat Saves Christmas,” published in fall 2012.
Dean said they parted company because he wanted to work with other writers, including his wife, while Litwin felt he should be the only writer on Pete books.
Litwin said in an email that he’s working on new children’s books. He declined to say why he and Dean stopped working together.
The Deans said they weren’t sure their publisher would let them work together, and several of their ideas were shot down before HarperCollins agreed to “Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses.”
“It was very daunting to come behind Eric,” Kimberly Dean said.
The Deans, who moved to Savannah from metro Atlanta over the summer, are already working on the next Pete book.
James Dean said he’s not worried about how the books fare commercially. He points to a painting in his upstairs studio of a typically unflustered Pete riding a surfboard while a shark closes in.
“I ask people, ‘What’s going to happen to Pete?’” Dean said. “Most people say, ‘Well, Pete’s going to be all right.’”