Steven Jay Rubin was shaving one morning when he started wondering about Anne Frank’s cat.
Rubin, a Los Angeles-based film producer and author, often listens to movies while he’s shaving, and on this particular morning several years ago, he was listening to 1959’s Diary of Anne Frank.
“There’s this one scene where Anne and Peter are chasing Mouschi around the attic, and it just dawned on me in that moment, ‘What did the cat think of all this craziness?’”
As Rubin often does when he has an epiphany, he reached out to his good friend and longtime collaborator, David Lee Miller, a writer and director also based in L.A.
“I called David up and I said, ‘What do you think of telling the Anne Frank story from the point of view of the cat?’ And it just lit a fire under David.”
The result is the new children’s book The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, which tells the story of the famous annex through the eyes of the cat. Entirely based on historical events, the story, co-written by Rubin and Miller, begins with a boy named Peter carrying a cat in his coat in Amsterdam. In Baddeley’s luminous illustrations, we see the red-roofed buildings along the canals; the red-and-black Nazi flags; and bicycles parked next to signs saying “Voor Joden Verboden.”
Meanwhile, the evocative narration comes from Mouschi, hidden between the lapels: “I breathe between the buttons. I smell the sea, the herring, the tulips. I hear my boy’s shoes clacking cobblestones.”
Mouschi is taken to a secret residence where he meets the “Yellow Stars,” as he calls the Jewish people, who are hiding from the “Black Spiders,” his term for the Nazis, derived from the image of the swastika. There, he finds “a sparkling, brown-eyed, dark-haired girl” named Anne Frank.
The authors first met when Miller was running The Criterion Collection and needed an expert on James Bond. Rubin was that expert — the author of The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia and The James Bond Films: Behind the Scenes.
They typically work out of Miller’s home studio, sitting at the computer together. In the past, Miller — who has four cats — had to keep the room fastidiously clean and free of cat hair, as Rubin was allergic. But Rubin’s allergy disappeared while they were writing this book, and he was able to spend time with cats while writing about them. One of Miller’s cats, Pau Pow, served as a particular influence.
“He is very Mouschi-like in the sense that he’s extremely intelligent and understands everything. He actually walks through the park with us, so we would take breaks and watch Pau Pow move through the park, and that would be inspirational to us.”
Miller’s other cats were frequently in the room, too, stretching across the desk or sitting in their laps. Such exposure was helpful because Rubin really wanted to get inside the cat’s head — as well as outside of it.
“Since the cat’s telling the story,” he said, “it was very important for the level of imagery, sounds and physicalities that the cat experiences to be exponentially increased. For instance, the fact that he’s in Peter’s coat and he can smell herring and can hear the putt-putt of the canal barges — we wanted to make it a visceral experience. What would a cat be sensing when he’s held in a hot jacket or sweater, crossing the streets of Amsterdam?”
Rubin and Miller both visited Amsterdam while working on the project, as did Missouri-based Baddeley, who also illustrated the children’s book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. Baddeley did sketches in Amsterdam and worked off of them when she got home. She also paid a good deal of attention to her own cat, who served as the model for Mouschi.
“Usually, when kids are at picture-book level, they haven’t learned about the Holocaust,” she said. “I thought it was interesting to do from the cat’s perspective. People were stuck inside this space, but the cat could kind of come and go and be the narrator for what was going on.”
Both men were “blown away,” they said, by Baddeley’s rendering of their story.
As for historical fealty, Rubin said, “We were very concerned that Anne look right. We’ve seen various illustrated books where Anne, for lack of a better term, sometimes comes off as kind of frumpy-looking. We just wanted her to be a normal teenage girl, and Elizabeth hit it out of the park.”
So far, advance response to the book, out this week from Philomel Books, has been glowing. The Museum of Tolerance in L.A. even featured the book for its family event on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Rubin and Miller, who are both Jewish, are hoping it can be brought to other museums.
“We have a mission of educating a new generation about the lessons of the Holocaust and Anne Frank and how important it is, in this age of emboldened hate, to confront racism and intolerance and bullying,” Miller said. “I’m greatly concerned by what’s going on in the world. Knowledge that the Holocaust even existed, especially in young people, is at all-time low.”
Drawing children in with adorable, spritely cat may help to spread the word. And as sad as the subject matter is, the book is also uplifting.
“I know the comfort and humanity you can get from having a pet,” Baddeley said. “Knowing that she had this animal there — I don’t know if it gave her hope, but as the reader, it gave me hope.”