Growing up in Fort Payne, Alabama, James Dean loved music and art. But his humble circumstances led him to focus on academics, which in turn led him to Auburn and a degree in Electrical Engineering. But the muse never really left, and after 20 years Dean quit his job with Georgia Power to give art one last shot.
And what a shot it was! Dean created Pete the Cat and the rest is history. Pete is now the central figure in more than 60 best-selling children’s books, original works of art, and multiple television and cable adaptations. Dean was awarded the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for children’s literature in 2013. On a recent visit to Auburn, Dean told two overflowing audiences how it all came to be. He was invited here by EFLT children’s media instructor Sid Harden.
“In my children’s media course, each of our students is required to select and present one picture book to the rest of the class,” Harden said. “Pete the Cat books have always been popular. While doing research for an author study one of the students discovered that James Dean was an Auburn grad. My class wondered what it would take to get him on campus so I wrote him a letter of invitation. To my pleasant surprise, James saw it as a great honor and agreed to come. He was gracious and kind from beginning to end.”
The response to the opportunity to see Dean was so strong that the children’s media program set up two separate sessions, plus a book signing. The noon session was held in the College of Education’s Learning Resources Center and quickly maxed out with 40 participants. In that session Dean told his life story and how he came up with Pete the Cat. He gave an encore presentation later that evening in one of the large Mell classrooms, which was attended by about 75 faculty, staff, students, and other interested parties.
“Although these events were primarily intended for our students and faculty, James’s presentation ended up drawing lots of interest from different groups,” Harden said. “We had families from Huntsville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Montgomery there. We had several home-school families, as well as would-be writers who wanted to see such a success story in person.”
The noon session was followed by a book signing and Pizza Party in recognition of Mr. Dean’s future release, Pete the Cat and the Perfect Pizza.“I expect we had about 80 people at the book signing,” Harden said. “It was a lengthy line and took a long time, but James was patient, loving, and compassionate with each person, including lots of children. He never got in a hurry and took a personal interest in each person. We just could not have been more pleased with how it went, and plan to have more events like this in the future.”