Telling Anne Frank’s Story — From the Cat’s-Eye View

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The cover of “The Cat Who Lived with Anne Frank.” (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

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,” directed by George Stevens.

“There’s this one scene where Anne and Peter are chasing Mouschi [the cat] around the attic, and it just dawned on me in that moment, ‘What did the cat think of all this craziness, with people never going outside and tiptoeing around?’”

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 Anne and the others in 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 sleek black cat between the lapels of his coat as he walks along the streets of Amsterdam. In Baddeley’s luminous, colorful 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” — “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, derived from the image of the swastika. There, he finds a girl — “a sparkling, brown-eyed, dark-haired girl.” That girl is Anne Frank.

The mix of finely observed historical detail and poetic description in the book owes to the differences between Rubin and Miller.

“David has a very special talent,” said Rubin. “He’s a very poetic writer. My writing style lends itself more toward historical research. Together, we seem to have found our real sweet spot in terms of collaborating.”

The two 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.”

“Sometimes you meet somebody and you feel like you’ve known them forever,” said Miller. “That’s how it was for me meeting Steve, and we’ve been working together ever since.”

They typically work out of Miller’s home studio, sitting at the computer together, with Miller typing. In the past, Miller — who currently has four cats — had to keep the room fastidiously clean and free of cat hair, as Rubin was allergic to cats. 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 most recently 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 black 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 a 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.”

That was precisely Miller and Rubin’s intention.

“The whole concept of the book, like any children’s picture book that’s dealing with this difficult of a subject, is how can it be a portal to introduce the subject of the Holocaust and Anne Frank in an age-appropriate way?” he said. “The illustrations help to do that.”

Both men were “blown away,” they said, by her rendering of their story.

“Elizabeth brought so much dimension to the panels,” Rubin said. “There’s so much detail, you can’t quite grasp it when you first see it.”

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 Penguin Random House’s Philomel imprint, 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 and schools.

“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,” said Miller. “I’m greatly concerned by what’s going on in the world. Knowledge that the Holocaust even existed, especially in young people, is at an all-time low.”

Drawing children in with an 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.”

lspikol@midatlanticmedia.com

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