Miao! We are so pleased and honored to welcome award winning Vermont author, illustrator and teacher Ashley Wolff to Alphabet Soup today.
We’re big fans of her adorable Baby Bear books, classics such as Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for Earth (Mary McKenna Siddals), Baby Beluga (Raffi), and of course, the wildly popular Miss Bindergarten series, written by Joseph Slate.
In all, she’s published close to 70 titles (as either author/illustrator or illustrator), showcasing her lifelong love of nature and animals, and her mastery of a variety of styles and mediums, including acrylic gouache, linoleum block print + watercolor, and collage.
Her most recent self-illustrated picture book, Only the Cat Saw (Beach Lane Books, 2020), is a refreshed edition of a perennial favorite (first published by Dodd, Mead back in 1985) with all new art for a new generation. In this gentle, calming story, a multiracial family of four go about their daily routine from sunset to sunrise, while their marmalade tabby observes the wonders and beauty of the natural world.
As they’re busy with supper, only the cat notices the colorful sunset outside the window. During bath time, the cat has wandered out by the barn to play with fireflies, and while the older child, Tessa, reads with her flashlight under the covers, the cat witnesses the drama of an owl hunting a mouse. Oh, the wonderful things people miss when they’re preoccupied!
Spare text + single page spreads tracking the family’s indoor activities alternate with double page wordless spreads showing what the cat is up to. With each block of text, the repetitive tag line, “So only the cat saw . . . ” signals a suspenseful page turn that rewards the reader with beautiful scenes rendered in rich colors and lush textures, immersing him/her in the cat’s world of tall grasses, sleepy farm animals, lightning and rain, even a shooting star.
I love what Ashley has done with scale, perspective, and composition to play up the cat’s point of view, and her lighting effects, from gorgeous sunset and sunrise, to lamplight, flashlight, fireflies, moon and stars underscore the simple joys of life indoors and out. Such a lovely reminder to take time to appreciate what we too often take for granted.
In addition to being cozy and heartwarming, this story is reassuringly relatable with its depiction of breast feeding, sitting on the potty, and having both parents share equally in household tasks. Kudos to Ashley for initially including these somewhat unusual details in the earlier book from 35 years ago, clear evidence of her feminist, forward thinking! 🙂
We thank Ashley for dropping by to tell us what it was like to re-illustrate one of her earliest picture books, and for sharing a favorite recipe and so many cool photos. Enjoy!
It isn’t often that one gets to update a beloved picture book for a whole new generation. How did this fabulous opportunity come about?
I’m a Lucky Duck, huh? All I can say is that I started young and hung in there long enough in this joyful but competitive profession for it to happen.
I’ve worked with several smart, wonderful editors in my career, and most recently my editor is the talented Andrea Welch. Andrea is also about 30 years younger than I. When she had her 1st child I sent her the original 1985 version of Only the Cat Saw as a baby gift. Andrea and her baby loved the book, but she thought the family looked a little dated. She asked if I could just re-paint the family illustrations, but I felt compelled to re-do the whole book.
What were the most significant changes you made this time around? Could you please share several examples of old vs. new spreads so we can see the differences?
Remember, I did the original artwork in 1984. Reagan was president, AIDS was ravaging San Francisco, you could buy your very first Apple Macintosh, and “Thriller,” “Purple Rain,” and “Karma Chameleon” were the radio hits.
Most important, while some things about family life always stay the same, customs and fashions have not.
2020 families are more interesting and diverse, dads are more involved in child raising, and moms know that nursing in bed is way more comfortable. (I had not yet nursed a child in 1984—that’s why mom is sitting in a hard chair under a bright light!)
Here are some comparisons, the smaller images below are from the old book. In some you can see similarities and small changes with a different cast of characters. In others you can see definite changes.
What first inspired the story 35 years ago?
Ironically, I’m sure it was my new city life! I had never had a cat as a pet, but suddenly I saw them everywhere in my San Francisco neighborhood. I began to wonder what their nighttime adventures were. As I was still a country girl and had not yet completely acclimated to a city life, I immediately cast the story to my Vermont home ground. A long walk by the sea was the time period I needed to conceive the story almost entirely. Sometimes I am incredibly fortunate that way, a story finds me!
Which came first, text or pictures?
How can I know? The Vermont setting is absolutely ingrown-I see it in my sleep, but the family’s story is more mysterious. In 1984 I was not yet a mom, so I wonder if I was I picking up on the first stirrings of parenthood among my 20-something friends?
In the end, my wonderful models were the daughters of Judy and Bob Taylor, my former PE teacher from high school and her veterinarian husband. I spent time hanging out with their family and got some wonderful reference photos.
Why did you decide to create the illustrations using acrylic gouache?
I remember thinking that, for this, my first painted book, I should use the same acrylic paints I was using for giant murals on buildings all over Marin County, CA (me, in 1983, darling but it makes me cringe too!).
Did you use real life models for the cat and the people in the book?
Definitely, both times.
What can you tell us about the story’s setting? Did you revisit the place at all to get a fresh perspective?
The setting is a farm on Munger Street in Middlebury, VT. The Taylors called it Clipper Ship Farm. The Taylor Family: Bob, Judy, Willow, and Holly, lived there in the 1980s.
What’s your favorite spread in the new edition and why?
My favorite spread has always been the one with the owl hunting the mouse because I came of age as an illustrator and “grew” up with a group of author, illustrator, and editorial peers who eschewed ANY violence or mishap to characters, or even bystanders. In other words, this was waaaaay before This is Not My Hat or I Want My Hat Back. In 1984 it felt healthy but a bit transgressive to be including not only frank images of breastfeeding and using the bathroom, but also implying impending death to a mouse! Despite the generally sunny nature of my books I acknowledge darkness and respect the power of nature.
Why do you think Only the Cat Saw has such enduring appeal?
Perhaps it’s because the core of this story hasn’t changed one bit. Family life hasn’t changed. In every generation we still want to eat our dinners, take our baths, and be safely tucked into bed.
And cats are eternally nocturnal creatures who want to explore the adventures of the night and then nap in the morning sun.
Please describe your studio/workspace. Do you have any special objects/talismans that you keep close at hand for inspiration?
I painted all the illustrations for this book in my new ArtBarn.
In 2014 I returned to Vermont from California after 34 years in San Francisco to care for my mom Deane Ibold Wolff van de Velde, who was descending into dementia and ill health. When she died in 2018, she left me some money and I used it to build the dream studio she and I had both always wanted. It is just 90 steps from my back door but it’s a space just for creativity, not laundry, cooking, or home distractions.
I’ve decorated one wall with some tributes to my mother. The primary colored painting was done by a professor at Middlebury College in 1963 when she was 32 years old. It has always hung in our homes.
Below that is a memento mori panel painting of Tula done after she died of Lymphoma in 2014. Below that is a painting I did of Deane in about 1979 and below that are some photos of Deane.
This is a sardine can shrine I made after her death.
And here is one of those fake Wild West studio pics of the two of us. I think it tells us a lot about her fun loving nature!!
We know you have a longstanding love for border collies, one even inspiring the beloved character Miss Bindergarten.
I sure do. Once you have a BC it is hard to go back! Notice how these dogs are always keeping an eye on you.
I got my 1st dog while still in art school in 1977 and named her Pumpkin.
Then, after many years, I adopted Lucy in 1997.
I adopted Tula, a BC cross, as a rescue in 2011.
And adopted Lord Rufus of Dunmore in 2017.
In all I’ve had 3 puppies and one adult rescue in 60 years. They are all good dogs!
Please tell us more about Rufus, who lives with you now. Has he asked to be featured in any more wonderful pandemic-themed prints?
Rufus is the star of a book that will pub next fall called, How To Make a Pumpkin Grow. I just got the first set of proofs!
Loved the Baby Bear Resistance prints you made several years ago too. Will we be seeing any new pieces for the upcoming Presidential election?
I sure hope so. I needed to leave Facebook after the revelations about enabling hate groups, but I linger on Instagram (@oakleybobcat,) hypocritical as that seems. When I start creating my pieces that is where they will appear. I am repurposing the Covid-19 state images to alert voters of when early voting begins.
Speaking of pandemics and elections, how have you been coping during these very trying times? What have been your saving graces?
Rufus has been very busy encouraging, comforting and supporting all 50 states + territories and First People nations.
Can you recommend any particular picture books (your own or titles created by others) that parents and/or educators may find especially helpful/hopeful/uplifting to share with kids learning remotely?
I love ALL kinds of picture books at this time. I love the ones that show life as we used to know it the most. Children under 3-4 are probably taking this mostly in stride and many won’t remember what life was like before the ‘rona.
Older children will feel this harder and I don’t think we have any books yet that reflect the profound way that life has changed.
Finally, please share a favorite comfort food recipe that’s in your regular rotation these days.
This is the blueberry muffin recipe from my honey’s mother and grandmother. He is 72 and his mom…long dead. There is a great deal of reverence around this recipe. I was nearly cut dead when I added those notes at the bottom after listening to his daughter recommend some small tricks.
Phew, we survived that crisis! I thought you’d enjoy the background canister set and old-timey bowls and measuring cups. The cast iron pan is called a “gem pan.” Apparently, it is traditional. I received this as a gift from Honey’s sister when we’d been dating for well over a year.
I made these last week in a camp on Lake Dunmore, VT, built in 1929. It has a wood stove, but otherwise is just for summer. It is an amazing structure and I get to live here for weeks at a time.
Ashley's Blueberry Muffins
- 1-1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup + fresh or frozen blueberries. I used frozen wild ones we picked in the blueberry meadows in Goshen, Vermont
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put a small amount of Crisco in each of the 12 wells of a cast iron muffin pan. I’ve never used anything else, so don’t know how to suggest a substitute. Place the pan in the oven to melt the shortening.
Meanwhile, measure the dry and wet ingredients and combine in a 2-quart bowl. Add the blueberries and blend gently so as to keep them whole.
Remove the pan from the oven, and use a silicone brush to coat all surfaces of the wells. With a ladle or large spoon, distribute the batter evenly among the wells. (The dog loves to lick the batter bowl.) 🙂
Bake the muffins at 400 for 22 to 25 minutes. If the berries are frozen I usually bake for the longer time. They will be nicely browned, easy to remove from hte pan, and moist and delicious inside. Pile in a towel-lined basket and serve. They taste great the next morning too.
*For information about the merits of cast iron cooking, click here.
~ from Author and llustrator Ashley Wolff, as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
ONLY THE CAT SAW
written and illustrated by Ashley Wolff
published by Beach Lane Books, June 2020
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
**Starred Review** from Kirkus
♥️ Signed copies available via The Vermont Book Shop
♥️ Check out this lovely review by Margie at Librarian’s Quest
♥️ Enjoy this video of Ashley reading the book:
🐱 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 🐱
Ashley is generously providing a signed copy of Only the Cat Saw for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this blog no later than midnight (EDT) September 29, 2020. You may also enter by sending an email with CAT in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the author, text and illustrations copyright © 2020 Ashley Wolff, published by Beach Lane Books. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.