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I Am A Cat by Galia Bernstein [Behind the Book]

last updated 14 February 2018

The Illustrator: Galia Bernstein


It’s been an exciting 2018 for Galia so far. Her author-illustrator debut, I AM A CAT (Abrams), published on February 6th to starred reviews and has already gone into ten foreign editions. We asked her a few questions about the inspiration behind the protagonist of I AM A CAT, her process, and what projects are coming up next!

Click above to watch the I Am A Cat book trailer.

At what point did you know that you wanted to be an illustrator and where did you study or hone your craft?

Two things were clear about me from a very young age. I liked anything to do with animals, and I could draw very well. Those two traits very quickly found each other. My twitter profile says that I’ve been drawing animals since I was two and people since I was 14. That’s true. I watched and drew animals for as long as I can remember, and didn’t really draw people until I found out that it makes you popular in junior high.


My mother is an artist and it seemed clear to everyone who knew me, that one day, I will be an artist too. As a child I embraced it, I couldn’t think of anything better then drawing for a living, as a teenager I rebelled. “I already know how to draw”, I said to everyone who asked, “where is the challenge? What’s the point? I read a lot, and my favorite books were by Gerald Durrell. I read them over and over again and I wanted to be a naturalist like he was. To study animals. I majored in biology in high school and was planning to continue my studies in university. I kept drawing of course, great hobby, I thought, even helpful for a scientist, but a hobby all the same.

I graduated from high school, and as an Israeli, before university, it was time to join the army for 2 years. The army offers opportunities and training for people with special abilities, and I had one. My little drawing hobby. I tried out and got excepted to a tiny, noisy unit of writers, photographers, designers and illustrators. All working to publish the army’s weekly magazine.

My first week in, I got my first illustration job ever. I read an article, I drew a picture to go with it, and I saw it in print a week later. Bye bye, biology. A few years later, after working in magazines for a while, I moved to New York to study illustration at Parsons the New School for design.

What do you draw inspiration from and where do you work best?

My first week at Parsons, (third week in the US) I found myself sitting on the floor, in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in all its glory, holding a sketchbook and staring into space. This can’t be my life, I thought, I’m studying art in New York City? I’m Felicity, I’m Carrie Bradshaw, this is not real.

I’m still in awe of this city and what it has to offer. I promised myself never to lose it, and I make an effort not to. I go to museums as often as I can, I explore the streets and parks for hours, with my trusty dog beside me, a naturalist after all. This city has everything if you know where to look. And looking is part of the fun. It is my great love and my inspiration. I work best when inspiration strikes, wherever it is. Some of my best writing was done on my phone, on the subway, and some of my best sketching was done in coffee shops. When it comes to final art, at home on my computer is the only way.

What did the early process of writing and creating a sketch dummy to submit to publishers entail for I AM A CAT?

In school I took a picture book development class taught by illustrator Pat Cummings. Pat was great. She had real publishing experience and knew what a good book dummy should look like. We learned how many pages are in a picture book, how to thumbnail and then sketch it all, and finish only two perfect pages or spreads.

The first half of the story did not change much since then, but the ending was different. In the original story, Simon had to preform some tasks to prove that he was a real cat. I was never completely happy with the ending but I sent it to three editors (at a time when major editors were still accepting unsolicited manuscripts). They all sent replies and all said the same thing: love the beginning, not sure about the ending. Then I got a textile job and the book was forgotten for a few more years.

When I got back to it, I was still struggling for a while, but one day I had an epiphany. Why is it up to Simon to prove to the big cats that he is one of them? He knows he’s a cat, we know he’s a cat. If the big cats don’t think so, the burden of proof is on them!

And so, a new Simon was born – bold and defiant, with his head held high – I loved him immediately.

How did your story develop further with your editor and art director at Abrams?

Tamar, the editor, and Pam, the art director, were kindred spirits. They totally got the book immediately. The motto was less is more. The design, the typography, the quality of paper and choice of endpapers, everything was kept simple and minimal to let the art and the words speak for themselves. Tamar cut everything out that wasn’t completely necessary. At times I was a little skeptical, especially since I lived with the text for so long, but she was right. No backstories, no extra dialogs, it’s bare to the bone and it’s perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about this book.

Are you surprised to see your book go into 10 foreign editions?

Completely surprised!!! Didn’t really think about my book coming out in other languages, let alone 10 of them before it even came out in English! Still not completely sure how that happened.

Foreign editions of the book.


I Am a Cat featured at Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Was the central cat’s personality inspired by a particular feline?

Simon looks like my former cat, Ross (A girl with a boy’s name. Long story.), but she was never this brave.

He is what we wish we could be, and he says what we wish we had said, after the person we should have said it to, is long gone. Like all house cats, he has plenty of attitude and doesn’t see how his size has anything to do with anything.

We know that you love to go to the zoo and look at the animals for inspiration. How does this affect your storytelling, as well as your process of designing characters? Would any big cats in New York City’s zoos look familiar to readers of I AM A CAT?

I do like sketching animals from life but not for this book. I was extra fascinated with big cats from a very young age and I’ve been studying and drawing them all my life. I have also been drawing and redrawing most of the scenes in this book over the years. There was very little research left to do.

Besides illustration, you have additional creative pursuits? Namely, you worked as a textile designer, and you create ceramics. Do you feel that what you have learned in these other art forms finds its way into your illustration work?

Absolutely! For me, the most important thing in art is composition. A good composition draws your eye around and creates interest. My favorite ceramic sculpture are frozen mid movement, like they are about to come to life, they also tell a story in gestures and expressions. By definition, illustration accompanies text, but it shouldn’t rely on it to tell the story. Art should always have a narrative.

Textile design taught me to see the beauty in mistakes and not to be afraid to make them. When you look at antique fabrics, Indonesian batik or Indian block prints, with their broken lines and hit-and-miss coloring, you can’t help but admire the beauty in the imperfection. This is especially important to digital artists. A digital line thrives to be perfect, to be even, to round corners, un-taming it takes a lot of skill and practice.

I spent years trying to draw in Photoshop with a Wacom pen, something that will look like it was drawn by a 19th century Javanese peasant. It’s very freeing. Most of us come out of art school drawing very deliberate, careful lines, zooming in and working and reworking them, but the only way to draw a bold, dynamic swooping line, is to make a bold, dynamic swooping gesture with your hand, and then let it be.

It may not be perfect, but that line you drew, is the a perfect visual expression of the gesture you’ve made, Javanese peasants know it, why don’t we?

What are your dream projects and what are you working on now that we can look for in the future?

The book I’m working on now is about a baby baboon. I am newly fascinated by their looks and habits. Unlike big cats, I did not spend a lifetime studying baboons, so a lot more research is going into this book.

The greatest thing about being a writer/illustrator is that every project can, and should be your dream project. You can write what you want to draw and draw what you want to write. I have no interest in writing books because they fit a current trend. I want to write books that speak universal truths and don’t belong to a certain time or place. Books that last. There is nothing better then that.

If you’d like to work with Galia Bernstein, you can contact her via her agent, Anne Moore Armstrong. Email her here.

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