We were ever so fortunate to spend a moment with the entertaining storyteller, musician, teacher and prolific author of the first four Pete the Cat picturebooks, Eric Litwin … Mr. Eric. He is also the author of the new musical series The Nuts.
He has spent the better part of his career championing literacy through music and movement, particularly impacting new and emerging readers. Eric has travelled across the US, Canada and abroad spreading the message of building creative communities where children feel confident tackling their first reading experience, and having a fun time along the way.
He spoke to us from his home in Atlanta, where he is busy dreaming up the further adventures of the Nut Family. Here is his story:
Where did you grow up? What were you like as a kid? What still holds true for you?
I grew up in Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson, a small town in the Hudson River Valley. It’s very beautiful there. As a kid I would say I was creative and quiet. I loved to read.
This is an interesting question, I give about 300 performances every year, where I entertain in front of a group, it’s hard to claim that I’m introverted and shy, but I will say that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt shy.
You have been a teacher. What were your influences encouraging you towards writing?
Wonderful question! I was a special needs teacher. I have a masters degree in both education and administration. My main interest in education was to get my students engaged and interested in reading, and feel empowered about reading. I was also a musician at night, focusing on getting my audience involved with a lot of folk type of music with interactivity. So I started using music and movement along with interactive techniques. My influences were folk tales and songs – the whole American oral tradition of music and stories.
Tell us the story about the first turning point of your career?
I taught for 3 years – I found my favourite part of teaching was creating the content and writing the story. I realized this was where my greatest gift was, so I left the classroom to create content and performances. I became a very popular performer, doing 200-300 performances every year for almost 10 years. I would perform in schools, libraries – during assemblies. Believe it or not, it was during these performances that I started to develop a writing style, which I now call interactive literacy, because I don’t have a better name for it. It basically means stories told with sing-alongs and move-alongs. There’s call-response and repetition. These techniques engage the audience and they engage the reader. It not only makes a great performance piece, but it also makes it a great early reader. That was the key to the first four Pete the Cat books.
So during those ten years I guess I did what Malcolm Gladwell calls putting in your 10,000 hours. I wrote the story of a little girl and her white shoes. It was the best story I’d ever written, I knew it was special. It was a story that would work with different characters so I would swap her out for a cool cat or cool dog. Some time after, I saw Pete the Cat at an art festival, he was a folk art character created by illustrator James Dean. I felt that this cat and the story of the girl with her white shoes were a good fit. I had a vision to blend early literacy, folk art and music together.
Actually, I was going to speak to him at the art festival, but I was too shy so I bought a t-shirt instead. About a month later I went to the recording studio to work with my friend Michael Levine (producer of all the music for the first four Pete the Cat books, the Nut Series and the Learning Groove), and suggested to him that I wanted to record the story of the little girl and her white shoes as Pete the Cat and send it to James Dean. He agreed and decided to put it on my CD The Big Silly. All of my CD’s have music and end with a story. We recorded it and it was one of those moments when everything went right in the studio, just great.
Then I said to Mike, I’m gonna take a walk, which was unusual, because normally you usually don’t leave a studio. I went for a few blocks and stood at a red light when a ’65 Chevy Impala, with a big Pete the Cat on the door, pulls up and stops at the red light – and there was James Dean. So I pointed at him and start talking, “I love Pete the Cat, I’m a big fan!”. We talked for a moment, the light turned green and off he went – quite a coincidence since James did not live in my town. I emailed him the story, he loved it and we decided to work together. Our original thought was to put it on my CD, if things worked well, then it could become a book. Well, things did go well, so we got together and I said let’s make it a New York publishing standard so that if it was meant to me a hit, it can be.
Before that, James had only published a book of his grown up art work
“The Misadventures of Pete The Cat“.
You have also recently worked with Scott Magoon. How did that come together?
He has the perfect sense of humour for the Nut Family. He’s brilliant at bringing this family to life. He was outstanding at taking animate objects and making them come alive. He had done it before with spoons and chopsticks. When I saw Scott’s work in a book store, I knew he was the artist I wanted to work with for The Nuts.
What do you find to be your most effective marketing strategies?
I do hundreds of performances a year, travelling about 10 days out of every month, often 2-4 shows a day. I reach thousands of people in my travels. It works not only as a marketing strategy, but it also as a process for me to write my stories. I tell a story from 100 to 1,000 times before I think it is ready for print. By that time, I know what the audience thinks of it. I will tell a story until every word is perfect, until it just rolls off the tongue. The rhythm is so important, it has to hit with every audience, in every situation, no matter what age group, it has to work all the time. It has to flow and be fun, that is when I know I have something special. Like the Nut Family.
So that, I think, is an exceptional marketing tool. Here is the other: I’m a former teacher, who has developed an expertise in using interactive techniques and music. I do workshops for teachers around the country. My books are born out of my educational goals and objectives to benefit early, emerging and reluctant readers through the use of music and movement, call and response, rhythm and rhyme. This is what motivates me, these are my roots. This is why I feel that the success of my books has come from the classroom and library outreach. Teachers use our books in the classroom and librarians appreciate them for story time, not only because the techniques benefit early readers, but also because it makes it fun. Making them easy has an effect of a reward that can be used as empowerment. They feel smart. I’ll read a story and ask a question and hear them call out the answer. I’ll stop for a moment asking “How many of you feel intelligent?” That is what I want, my 3 and 4 year olds to feel like geniuses. I want kids who can’t understand Sight Words to figure it out through repetition. I want my techniques to make them feel empowered as readers and have a great time!
When you leave your many speaking engagements, what do you hope to have accomplished with your audience?
I hope to have shown them four things: music, motion, call and response and repetition. These four things can be used in literacy, throughout the classroom day. On the surface, they just feel fun, but look at the social-emotional benefits. Let’s connect with the research that says that when children move, they learn more. Let’s look at how much more engaged they are and how repetition helps them learn and rememeber sight words. Once we start to realize that these fun techniques create an enormous educational advantage, we can also realize that they are simple and can be done by anyone.
Tell us about your travels.
I love seeing America. I’ve come to realize how diverse the country is and how many amazing teachers in schools there are. Beyond that, I’ve travelled to Canada, China and recently got invited to go to Amsterdam. The first four Pete the Cat books, which I wrote, have been translated into 8 languages and have won several international awards.
Which is your most treasured award?
I feel the most treasured ‘reward’ is to hear from parents that my books have helped their child learn and have fun reading – like when the parents of a non-verbal child share that their child’s first words were “I love my white shoes”. Or when teachers tell me they have a student that just will not speak, but will read your books cover to cover. These accolades are the best part of what I do. I do deeply appreciate awards as well, often because they are put together by volunteer organizations. I am very proud of all of them. The Theodor Geisel Award (Dr. Seuss) for Pete The Cat is special to me because it is specifically for books that help beginning readers. But I am just as proud of an award that may come from a county where children voted on it themselves. Even though I was only in the classroom for 3 years, I still think of myself as a teacher trying to help emerging readers, and accomplishing that is my greatest satisfaction.
Where were you when you first learned that you had hit #1 on the NY Times Best Sellers list?
I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was book two. Even though the first one: I Love My White Shoes, has been on the best sellers list for over 2 years, it never hit #1. It took my second book, Rocking In My School Shoes, to hit number 1; then third and fourth book also hit #1. There was, however, a day I remember when I had the #1, #2 and #3 spot on the list. Now that was exciting. Nowadays, I still have 2 books on the list and I’m very delighted that they are consistent and going strong.
Who are some of your favorite authors? What makes him/her special?
I am a big Mo Willems fan. I think he does a fantastic job of reaching children through humour and I love how his characters speak directly to the children. Of course, I love the work of Scott Magoon. I think his book Breathe is quite wonderful. I love Sherri Duskey Rinker and her book Good Night Good Night Contruction Site and her illustartor Tom Lichtenheld.
Do you have words of wisdom for young writers?
I feel that reading your books out to children constantly and getting audience feedback from your readers is absolutely essential to me. I can’t even imagine putting out a book, unless I’ve read it to an audience 200 to 300 times. I feel that this is where you see how they will respond. That’s how you know that you are on to something magical.
Also, I think understanding passion and profession, and being comfortable with each one, is important. You write because it’s your passion (you are going to write no matter what), but turning it into your profession is a business and you have to understand the business aspects of it, like any other market. I think it’s key not to confuse the two. The goal is to successfully blend what you are passionate about with something that you can make a living with. I believe I have done that. I am passionate about creating picture books to help beginning readers, which is what excites me. But I also work hard to create books that are marketable and appealing. The two things are no longer separate. Bridging those two things together takes time, persistance and the willingness to try again, and try again and again. The process of writing a great story is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. You have to enjoy that 90%. It’s just work; doing creative exercises, trying things out. When that inspiration comes, you’re not done! You just have a nugget, now you have to do the work. I think the best analogy for me is: many scupters say that the scuplture is already in the wood or the stone, they are just discovering it.
Tell us a little about The Learning Groove.
The Learning Groove is a fusion of music and movement. We created 6 CD’s that are all fun and educational and interactive including sing-along, dance-along, finger movement, finger plays, chanting and dancing. Every CD will have a different style of music. They can be used in a number of different ways:
1. Parent and child classes, where teachers take our training online and then offer classes designed for children ages 0-4. These classes are offered all over the world now.
2. Teachers in pre-school use the curriculum found in The Learning Groove website, which was created for them as enrichment music to use with their classes.
3. For everyone else, there are free resources online (120 songs with individual webpages that include online streaming of the song, sheet music and activity suggestions). The hope is that people will use these resources in the classroom and at home to come up with great ideas that can be shared in the comment section. Some have added links to youtube where you can see the idea in motion. We also have the CD’s for sale.
Tell us about the Nut Family.
I think every family is nutty. I don’t know any family that isn’t. I think the idea of this family is that they are loving, kind, support each other and they are – nice. That’s a great positive. It’s about being unique, being yourself and being comfortable with that. Book 2 called “Sing and dance in your polkadot pants” is a very fun story. All of my Nut Family books end with a song. The first one, bedtime at the nuthouse, ends with a lullaby.
*Sung here by Mr.Eric himself during our chat:
At the end of the second book, The Nuts sing and dance in their polkadot pants to a line dance called the Polkadot pants dance.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
Well first off, the second Nut Family book. Maybe I’ll have some new characters, possibly a mermaid story. I hope to put out another musical CD soon as well.
Thank you for time spent with us. Any last words for the teachers out there beginning the new school year?
Start the year off singing and dancing with your students when you read … try to nuture a sense of creative community.
Visit Mr. Eric:
It’s bedtime at the Nut House, but little Wally and Hazel Nut aren’t ready to go to sleep.
“We’re Nuts! We’re Nuts! We’re Nuts!”
Why go to bed when you could be singing and howling at the moon?
But Mama Nut insists… “All little Nuts need to go up to bed!”
Who will win this bedtime tug-of-war?
In an unforgettably catchy bedtime adventure, Eric Litwin, author of the best-selling and beloved Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, and artist Scott Magoon invite readers to chime in and join the nutty fun!
Check out Eric’s Pete the Cat books too:
Pete the Cat goes walking down the street wearing his brand new white shoes. Along the way, his shoes change from white to red to blue to brown to WET as he steps in piles of strawberries, blueberries, and other big messes! But no matter what color his shoes are, Pete keeps movin’ and groovin’ and singing his song…because it’s all good. Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes asks the reader questions about the colors of different foods and objects.
Pete the Cat is back—and this time he’s rocking in his school shoes. Pete discovers the library, the lunchroom, the playground, and lots of other cool places at school. And no matter where he goes, Pete never stops moving and grooving and singing his song . . . because it’s all good.
Pete the Cat is wearing his favorite shirt—the one with the four totally groovy buttons. But when one falls off, does Pete cry? Goodness, no! He just keeps on singing his song—after all, what could be groovier than three groovy buttons? Count down with Pete in this rocking new story from the creators of the bestselling Pete the Cat books.
‘Twas the day before Christmas and Santa was ill.
In the cold winter wind he had caught a bad chill.
Will Christmas be canceled? Will it come to that?
“Never!” cried Santa.
“Let’s call Pete the Cat!”
In this rockin’ new spin on the traditional tale The Night Before Christmas, Pete the Cat proves that giving your all in the spirit of Christmas is the totally groovy thing to do.
News from Mr. Eric:
Words on a Limb would love to thank the guitar strumming, book writing, best selling, harmonica blowing, song singing, folksy, fun Mr. Eric for sharing his story and brilliant tips. Your work with children and literacy is truly visionary and impactful, you affect kids’ lives all over the world with your art.
We invite our readers to check out The Learning Groove for tons of useful resources that, as a parent, teacher, librarian, special needs instructor or child activity planner, can prove to be invaluable tools.
We wish Eric further success with the Nut Family series and with all his inspirational stories to come. Now, let’s sing and dance in our polkadot pants!