Steven Jay Rubin was shaving one morning when he started wondering about Anne Frank’s cat.
Rubin, an L.A.-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?’ ”
Rubin reached out to friend and collaborator David Lee Miller, a writer and director also 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. The book, co-written by Rubin and Miller, begins with a boy named Peter carrying a cat in his coat as he walks along the streets of 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 “Jews forbidden” in Dutch.
Meanwhile, the evocative narration comes from Mouschi, hidden in the coat: “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. There, he finds a “a sparkling, brown-eyed, dark-haired girl.” That girl is Anne Frank.
The co-authors typically work out of Miller’s home studio. In the past, Miller — who has four cats — had to keep the room fastidiously clean, as Rubin was allergic to cats. But Rubin’s allergy disappeared in the course of writing this book. In fact, 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, so we would take breaks and watch Pau Pow move through the park and that would be inspirational.”
Miller’s other cats were frequently in the room, too, stretching across the desk. Such exposure was helpful because Rubin really wanted to get inside the cat’s head.
“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 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, whose own black cat 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 cat’s perspective. People were stuck inside this space but the cat could kind of come and go.”
Both men were “blown away,” they said, by Baddeley’s rendering of their story.
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.”
Advance response to the book, out this week from Philomel Books, has been glowing. The Museum of Tolerance in L.A. featured it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“We have a mission of educating a new generation of young people and families 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.
Drawing children in with an adorable cat may help spread the word. And as sad as the subject matter is, the book is 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.” JN
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.