Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Pete the Cat

Sometime in the 1990s, an electrical engineer named James Dean walked into a shelter in Georgia and adopted a black cat named Pete.  James Dean lost the cat within one year, but proceeded to amass $65 million and become a New York Times Bestseller.

If you have, or know, a child under the age of 10, then you are very likely already familiar with who I’m talking about.  Pete the Cat is a beloved children’s franchise with over 100 picture books about the adventures of the titular Pete, a “groovy” blue cat who likes to wear shoes, play guitar, and gaslight himself into being stoically okay with everything in life, including such issues as missing the bus, dropping his crayons, having a dragon kidnap his best friend, and watching his other best friend nearly die in a house fire.  You know, relatable kid stuff. 


My son is completely obsessed with Pete the cat, and I have at least two dozen of the books memorized at this point.  



I will happily tell anyone who listens how loathsome I think Pete the Cat is. It's seriously just complete garbage.  The only redeemable feature of the books is that they have gotten my kid really, really into reading.  Other than that, most of them are poorly written, poorly illustrated, and utterly confusing in the messages they’re trying to convey. 

The books weren’t always terrible, though.  I’m not the only one who noticed that the first handful of Pete the Cat books were relatively benign..  Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes was pretty darn good, and the books that came after it (Pete the Cat: Rockin’ in my School Shoes, and Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons), despite being derivative, were also pretty okay. They had a pleasing cadence and a simple storyline.  

But after Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, it all goes to hell, because the original author, Eric Litwin, left.


Let’s backtrack.  In 1999, James Dean, the engineer, was a casual folk artist, who liked to draw pictures of the cat he’d lost.  James Dean looks exactly like you might imagine an electrical engineer with a fixation on cat-themed folk art looks.


James Dean can only really draw about four things: cats, tennis shoes, guitars, and motorcycles.  But his cat drawings were just folksy enough for him to self-publish a coffee table book in 2006 called “The Misadventures of Pete the Cat,” which caught the interest of Eric Litwin.  A guitar player and former special ed teacher, Eric Litwin made up a song about Pete, which ended up becoming Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.  Harper Collins picked it up in 2010 and, together, Eric and James published four more Pete the Cat books.

But only two years later, Eric and James had a falling out, which ended in a messy custody battle for Pete, and the two of them refusing to speak to each other.  

James Dean then took it upon himself to begin writing the books.  A year later, he brought on his wife, Kimberly, as a co-author.  Kimberly formerly worked for the Governor’s Press Office in Georgia, and had wanted to work with James on Pete, but they couldn’t really agree on their “vision” for Pete, which is hilarious, because Pete doesn’t have much going on inside his empty little noggin. To quote James Dean, “it became a sad thing in our marriage; we wouldn’t even talk about it.”

Just imagine the two of them sitting silently in front of their dinner, forks clinking on the china, the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.  Perhaps, under his breath, James Dean mutters, “This isn’t groovy.  Not groovy at all.”  And then Kimberly slams down her wine glass, exclaiming, “You’re not making me feel cool, James!”

This is doubly hilarious because, as the sole illustrator, James Dean doesn’t really seem to have a universal “vision” for Pete, either.  Pete’s head regularly changes shape, ranging from being 90% forehead to long and thin like Hey! Arnold’s.


These posters are side-by-side in my son's room. Look at that cat's head.




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Anyway.  In 2013, Kimberly finally figured out James’s “vision,” by writing, appropriately enough, a book called “Pete and the Magic Sunglasses,” which proved that she was capable of dreaming up empty-headed platitudes for Pete books.  In “Pete and the Magic Sunglasses,” everyone in Pete’s world decides to not be sad by passing around Grumpy Toad’s sunglasses (and ultimately breaking them, with no apology to Grumpy Toad).  


Since then, Kimberly and James have churned out Pete after Pete book, none of which have the pleasing rhyme schemes that Mr. Eric’s books did, and most of which are jaw-droppingly awful, as if they were written on the back of a bar napkin by a goldfish after a few drinks and without any backtracking to ensure all the pieces fit.

For example, in “Sir Pete the Brave,” Pete and his kingdom fall under a spell that puts them to sleep.  When they wake up, they discover that Lady Callie is gone!  She’s vanished!  She’s been… captured by a dragon!  Pete goes to save her, but at no point does it explain who cast the spell or even why.  The dragon itself is not magical and it’s unclear why the spell was a plot point in the first place; you get the impression there was, at some point, a wizard or a witch or a sorcerer, but that James and Kimberly forgot about it and just never bothered to go back and correct it.  In their defense, the book is a whooping 30 pages long, so it’s impractical to expect them to go back and actually edit their stories so that they make sense.

Now, I’m sure you might think I’m being overly harsh to a book meant for children.  (The books claim they are for children ages 4-8, which shocks me.  I would have surmised their audience as being 2-5.)


Shout-out to Calvin's older cousin Olivia.
At 6, she wisely noted that the books are "kinda boring," 
but had the emotional maturity not to say it in front of him.


But I can’t help but feel there’s a very subtle yet persistent heteronormative, nationalist slant to the books. Putting aside Pete’s sugary sweet and downright toxic positivity, it’s hard not to notice the frequent American flags that bedeck the school house and Grumpy Toad’s motorcycle.  It’s also hard not to notice how Pete’s mom typically only speaks after his dad does, and how she always wears dresses with lace collars, even when camping (though she does forsake her fuzzy stay-at-home mom slippers for gender-coded pink hiking boots).

If you look carefully at the beginning of each book, you’ll notice that James Dean often includes a Bible verse in the dedication.  I first noticed this in Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes, in which Pete discovers (spoiler alert) that Grumpy Toad ate all his cupcakes, and decides to forgive him.  The Bible Verse is Matthew 6:14, about forgiveness.  And if you’re in the know, you can search online for Bible studies involving Pete the Cat and find plenty of mentions of the coded religious themes.


The subtle nature of this worldview is easy to dismiss, because it’s not much more than a feeling.  But I got an inkling my gut feeling was correct when I met up with a group of Mormon families for a kid playdate, and they all adamantly declared that they love Pete the Cat.  Pete the Cat is very popular in more conservative circles, and especially among Christian fundamentalists who like how Pete is always happy.  

I get that children’s books should be “nice,” but at the same time, telling kids to just ignore or suppress bad feelings strikes me as emotionally unhealthy.  And there are plenty of books about feeling bad (for example, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) that have a message that’s a little more nuanced than Pete’s dismissive “it’s all good” refrain.  Having a bad day or feeling a bad feeling isn’t wrong, and to tell kids to just choose to be happy is, in my opinion, emotionally stunting.


A much healthier response to negative stimuli is writing excessively long posts on the internet complaining about the thing you don’t like.

Another coping mechanism for stomaching Pete the cat has been to develop some pretty robust headcanon for the world of Pete the Cat. Despite Pete being a franchise, the books have little consistency, but I can make a pretty strong argument that Pete the Cat is living in a collapsing apartheid state.

In the early books, Pete’s world is populated solely by cats.  His school, the bus, the grocery store: all of these are cat-only spaces.  Then, in “The New Guy,” Gus the Platypus moves in, and suddenly we see a world with lots of other animals, such as toads, dogs, and alligators.  But while we see them as part of Pete’s friend group, his school still seems entirely cat-dominated, and all skilled jobs (such as doctors) are always cats.  If you arrange the books chronologically, you can witness the background shift of the population as the segregation of the world slowly erodes, a political process Pete is entirely oblivious to.


What is Pete’s age?  No one knows.  Half the time he’s scribbling away with crayons and the other half of the time he’s stealing snowplows to pave the streets.  My best guess is that Pete is Schrodinger’s age: he is 5 years old (hence, crayons and show-and-tell), which is 35 in cat years (hence, the driving).

I could rant endlessly about Pete’s strange fever-dream world, but for the sake of brevity, I have compiled three five-book lists to take a look at.  This might seem excessive, but there are over 100 Pete titles, so this is really only scraping the surface.  Let’s start with the good Pete books, of which there are few.



One thing all of the S-tier list books have in common is that they feature simple stories of Pete doing something a normal child might do, and learning a basic childhood message.  They’re relatable and predictable in a way that feels cozy, which works with Pete’s simplistic, homegrown art style and general vibe.

  • Rocking in my School Shoes and I Love My White Shoes are functionally the same book, so I’m listing them as a single entry.  
    • Premise: James Dean can draw shoes pretty well.
    • Highlight: “Here comes Pete / Rocking down the street / Wearing four shoes on his four furry feet.” A rare instance of very pleasing cadence and rhyme scheme. This is because they were written by Mr. Eric. Not Ibsen, but far and away the best Pete has to offer.
    • Minor criticism: When Pete steps on the mountain-sized pile of blueberries, we see him in profile, and so help him, James Dean cannot draw a cat in profile to save his fucking life. Sideways Pete haunts my dreams and, when I am old and weak, will come for me on my deathbed.
  • Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar
    • Premise: Pete finds a caterpillar and watches it turn into a butterfly.
    • Highlight: They let the butterfly go at the end.
    • Minor criticism: They call a cocoon a “pupa,” which is way, way too silly of a word if you are three years old.
  • Pete the Cat’s Trip to the Supermarket
    • Premise: Pete and his family go to the supermarket.  For once, we see Dad doing something domestic, albeit in a tie. 
    • Highlight: They count down the aisles from 10 to 1 so that, as a parent, I am assured I’m nearly finished with the book.
    • Minor criticism: The Cat family buys no toilet paper or cat litter, and there appears to be an entire aisle of samples, including whole hot dogs and cupcakes. 
  • Pete the Cat’s Train Trip
    • Premise: Pete rides a train to see his Grandma.
    • Highlight: Kids like trains.
    • Minor criticism: Pete whips out his guitar to play to the other train passengers, which is bad etiqutte on public transportation. 
  • Pete the Cat and the Tip-Top Treehouse
    • Premise: Pete and the gang build an elaborate treehouse that has a movie theatre, an ice rink, and more. 
    • Highlight: A surprisingly poignant ending. Dispersed inside the sprawling treehouse, Pete and his friends all find themselves a little bored because they’re alone, so they meet at the jungle gym at the base of the tree and tell Pete how glad they are he built the treehouse, because it “brought us all together!” 
    • Minor criticism: There's an unaddressed plothole. Why couldn't they have all just hung out together in one of the treehouse’s many cool places?
    • Shout-out: This book introduces Emma, the slightly manic pug, who throws down the elaborate blueprints for the treehouse the second Pete asks what they should do in the treehouse.  She’s all business.  I love her.  



  • Firefighter Pete
    • Premise: Pete’s class takes a field trip to a fire station, which sounds like a great premise.  Except then the alarm goes off, and instead of shoving the kids aside, the firefighters take Pete with them, in full protective gear, to a house fire.  The house is engulfed in flame and Pete discovers his friend Grumpy Toad trapped in mortal peril on the second floor.
    • Why It Sucks: This book went from zero to 100 in a big hurry, and not in a way I’m fond of. 
    • Also: The house Grumpy Toad is in isn’t even his house.
  • Scuba Pete
    • Premise: Pete goes scuba-diving for the first time (this is established in the book) without a diving buddy.  On the search for a sea horse, he encounters and gets close to some surprisingly dangerous and really abyssal sea life, including a stingray, an electric eel, one of those crabs that hangs out at whale falls, a jellyfish, a blowfish, and a sperm whale.  
    • Why It Sucks: Oblivious to even the most fundamental safe diving practices, Pete goes into a dark cave and gets lost. 
    • Also: Pete’s unsafe diving practices aren’t all on Pete.  I also blame Captain Joe for dumping Pete into the middle of the ocean and offering no advice, except for a vague and unhelpful description of a sea horse. You just KNOW that Captain Joe has blood on his paws.
  • Cavecat Pete
    • Premise: This is, hands-down, my LEAST favorite Pete the Cat book.  Pete is a caveman who makes a picnic for his friends, who are dinosaurs.  
    • Why It Sucks: The picnic goes wrong, so Pete plays guitar at his friends until they have fun??  Also, his friends’ complaints are valid: the T. Rex doesn’t want to eat salad (the ONLY food offered, brought by the first dino friend Pete encountered; Pete asks no one else to bring anything), and one of the dinosaurs is sick with a cold (not his fault).  This isn’t the only time Pete plays guitar at a problem to make it go away; in “Pete and the Treasure Map,” he responds to a sea monster attack with his guitar, under the somehow correct assumption that the sea monster is a drummer.  Remember in RENT when Roger saves Mimi from dying of AIDS by playing his guitar?  It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.
    • Also: I wonder if the author is a creationist or if the book is just capitalizing on children’s love of dinosaurs.
  • Go, Pete, Go! 
    • Premise: A typical tortoise-and-hare plot, with Turtle driving a racecar and Pete pedaling a bicycle. 
    • Why It Sucks: Neither of them actually appears to be racing at all.  Turtle stops at a diner, stops to get lemonade, and takes a nap.  But Pete doesn’t stay on task either.  He stops to eat an apple, and also stops to literally smell some roses.  Pete’s victory is entirely arbitrary.  Pete is nice and Turtle is kind of a jerk, and I think we’re supposed to think Pete wins because he’s nice, but that’s not how racing works and not what the Tortoise and the Hare was about.  
    • Also: Emma, the pug, makes a cameo, in which she refuses to race her car because it’s too old and broken. Emma would never let her vehicle fall into such disrepair.
  • Construction, Destruction
    • Premise: Pete goes out to recess to discover that the playground is a mess.  How did it turn into a post-apocalyptic junk yard over the course of a single school day?  Who cares!  Instead of this being a lesson in stewardship, with Pete and his friends cleaning up the place, Pete scribbles out some crayon drawings of a new playground, and the principal of the school puts him in charge of a full construction crew to build it.  They violently destroy the old playground and build a new one, but Pete decides it isn’t cool enough, so he insists on changing the plans last-minute against their advice.  What Pete builds is a death trap that literally collapses while everyone is admiring it.  (He’s lucky as hell no one was actually playing on it.)  The pile of rubble is disappointing to everyone, except Pete, who declares it to be “even better” than they imagined it.  
    • Why It Sucks: The moral of the story?  “Sometimes, you have to dare to dream big.”  That’s right.  Pete’s poorly-conceived, dangerous playground that fell apart into a non-functional pile of scrap was hailed as a success and considered part of his “dream.”
    • Also: Cat Apartheid is very evident in this one, with all of the school administrators and students being cats but all the lowly construction laborers being other animals. Grumpy Toad is a construction worker, implying child labor for the lower castes is not uncommon in the Peteverse.



  • Pete the Cat and the New Guy
    • What's Up: This one lives rent-free in my mind as the ending of Cat Apartheid.  I like the message of Pete welcoming the new guy, but I think it’s weird how Pete greets Gus by telling him he looks weird and asking what he is (stopping just short of asking to touch his hair).
  • Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes 
    • What's up: This one could be S-tier, if not for a few issues.  First of all, the book establishes that the cupcake party starts at 3, but later, the cupcake party is held in the evening.  Second of all, it’s weird that Pete just goes around accusing the shit out of all of his friends of taking the cupcakes without any evidence, and demanding alibis, and no one, at any point, calls Pete out for being an asshole.  
  • Pete the Cat and the Not-So-Groovy Day
    • What's Up: Indisputably Calvin’s favorite.  I suppose it’s age-appropriate enough, but the ending is that the not-so-groovy day was groovy after all and that Pete is happy.  Seeing Callie gaslight Pete into having a good day felt just a little off; Pete’s relentless happiness is unnatural and emotionally dishonest.
  • Pete the Cat and the Lost Tooth
    • What's up: The Tooth Fairy asks for Pete’s help and gives him a list of kids to visit.  So Pete breaks into Callie’s and Alligator’s houses to take their teeth and leave them coins.  Then he goes to Gus’s house, where there is no tooth, because, as Gus explains when he wakes up, as a platypus, he does not have teeth.  Pete gives him a coin anyway, and concludes that “even though everyone’s different, being kind is always cool!”  This leads to so many questions, the main one being, why was Gus on the tooth list in the first place if he lacks teeth?  
  • Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool
    • What's up: This is a book I desperately WANT to like, because it’s got a simple plot of Pete the Kitty going to preschool and having a nice day.  But this book can’t choose whether or not it wants to rhyme, so it splits the difference, resulting in some pages rhyming and some not.  When read out loud, it’s a hot mess, without any kind of beat or cadence.
    • Actual excerpt: "He runs to put everything in his new backpack / Pete's backpack is really groovy! / He picked it out himself at the store. / Now it is time to head out the door!"  

Honorable Mentions

  • Pete at the Beach is about Pete learning to surf, and the message is that, even though it’s okay to be scared, it’s also good to try new things, a nuanced and excellent message.  
  • In Pete’s Big Lunch, Pete is hungry.  He makes a big sandwich.  It’s too big!  He shares it with his friends.  “Sharing it cool.” That’s it,  that’s the whole book.  It encourages sharing and trying new foods.  10/10
  • Pete the Cat and the Mysterious Smell stands out to me as probably the only book that has any actual humor, with the gang searching for a bad smell while Grumpy Toad worries that they’ll miss pizza day at school, and the eventual ironic reveal that the smell is a rotten sandwich in Grumpy Toad’s backpack.

Dishonorable Mentions

  • Pete the Cat: Out Of This World! is an advertisement for Space Camp.  Pete goes to Space Camp and is put on a shuttle to the moon, where he plays “a groovy interstellar tune” (ignoring that there’s no sound in space) and almost gets abandoned on Mars, because apparently the shuttle is like a bus and if you’re not back in time they just leave without you.  Literally the last page is an advertisement for space camp.
  • The First Thanksgiving features Pete in a Pilgrim’s hat, sharing "maize" with the "Indians."  🙃
Pete the Cat sucks. A lot of kids' books suck, but they don't have to. Some (like the Llama Llama franchise) are charmingly illustrated and well-written. 
But ultimately, the point of a children's book isn't to redefine literature. It's to introduce kids to the allure of stories, and to get them invested in reading. And in this, Pete the Cat excels. Pete the Cat was my child's first "fandom," and while I can't say I like it, it's not for me. It's for him. And when you're a parent, sometimes, you grit your teeth and agree that "it's all good."

Great Western War

Greetings, blog!

Last week I won my very first bardic prize competition!

It all started back during my first SCA War, during a week-long camping trip in Potrero.  I had been invited to stay with True's Crew for my birthday. 

For those not in the know, SCA (the Society for Creative Anachronism) is basically a Renn Faire on steroids.  Instead of it being a fair with apid performers that people can attend, everyone involved is "in character" to varying degrees, and everyone is wearing period costumes (or "garb") and contributing to the communal middle-age roleplay.

SCA was something that naturally appealed to me as a person who enjoys both performing and costuming, but I had been wary to join, because the whole thing seems to have a very steep learning curve.  It would be less daunting if I knew someone.  So when True Thomas the Storyteller invited me to stay in his camp for Potrero War, I jumped on the chance.  

True, a traditional storyteller with decades of bardic experience, taught a class on "fire crawling," the art of wandering between camps and entertaining, and escorted a small group around to practice their pieces and get feedback.  

It was enormously fun, and so I set my sights on doing it all over again at Great Western War this month.

I was staying with friends I'd made at Potrero, but I was not prepared for the sheer size of Great Western War.  My central plan was just to shadow the talented bards in our camp, but that was before I saw the flier for a bardic prize competition on Thursday night.

Whiskey tasting at the 'Three Drunken Celts" camp!

Above - Carpe Luxurium - host of the bardic prize competition.

I had many reasons to want to enter the competition.  The first and primary one was to practice a ghost story I had been working on back at Potrero.  The other was that the hosting camp, Carpe Luxurium, had a lot of Dionysus symbology that appealed to me immensely.  I'm not typically one to read too much into "signs," but if anything could be a sign, this was it.
So I showed up early for the sign-ups, and here's how it went:

First, there were five "flights" of four competitors each.  At the end of each round, the audience would vote for their favorite, and that person would go to the finals.  I was the first person in the third flight, and I felt immensely intimidated after seeing the kind of acts that had gone on before me.  There were people singing opera, people singing in middle English and Celtic, people with harps and guitar, original songs and well-researched, practiced compositions.  And I had a ghost story.

(If you're expecting me to write it down here, prepare to be disappointed!  It's a story meant to be told in front of a fire, not written down on a blog.  But if you know me and ever want to hear it, I'm happy to tell it.)

Surprisingly, I won my round, albeit in a VERY close almost-tie with an incredibly talented singer/harp player.
In a greater compliment than the win itself, one of the camp residents who was working by the "door" told me that a group of passerbys had paused to listen.  They were invited to join the audience and stay for the length of the cabaret, but declined.   However, they hovered on the edge of the camp, not leaving until my story was finished; they wanted to know how it ended.  The ability to arrest a crowd and get people immersed into a story is the most sincere indication of a storyteller's ability, and even if I had not won, knowing that three random people had paused and just stood there to listen because they'd gotten sucked in was compliment enough.

But I did win, and the problem the win now created was that I had to do a second piece for the finals.  I had nothing prepared and had also been drinking because I hadn't expected to win.  (There was only one other story teller and, as I was told later by the producer of the competition, story tellers almost never win.)  (The producer of the competition?  Hannah the Storyteller, a bard who got her moniker from none other than my own bardic role model, True Thomas himself!)

Smack in the middle of the finals round, I staggered up and proceeded to tell the story of Dionysus, Ampelos, and the Cadmean Vixen.  With all of the Dionysus-themed symbology around the camp (and my recent completion of my sommelier course!) it felt only fitting.

If I can say I have any regret from the weekend, it is that I did not get a recording of this finals performance.  I was on fire.  I have never, ever performed like that before; the entire audience, about 70 or 80 people, was completely enchanted.  They laughed, they "oohed," they hung on every word!  I had felt that my ghost story had not been told as well as it could have been, but my performance in the finals?  It was perfection.  It was the best I'd ever done. 

Above is Matthias, a dulcimer player with 16 years of experience, who got second place.  I would have been happy to lose to him, or really any of the other contestants, who were all immensely talented.

But after a close vote, I won the competition, which was the first one I'd ever entered.  (For a prize, I was allowed a choice; I selected a lambskin mantle.)  More importantly than the win, I made some amazing friends (including Hannah, who is a Bay Area resident!) and found a place for myself in the SCA.  I'm still very new and learning all the etiquette, but at Carpe Luxurium, I felt welcomed and inspired with the confidence to continue to work on my bardic craft.

Great Western War was everything I had hoped it would be, and more, and I'm looking forward to growing more as a storyteller and making more memories in the years to come.