OAKLAND -- Many American pet owners are notorious for imbuing their animal companions with human traits and, according to the Humane Society, spoiling the little darlings to the tune of $50 billion each year.

But Rockridge resident Caroline Altman has gone a step further and made Indy, her 12-year-old Siamese male, the star character in a series of children's books, the first of which recently appeared in local bookstores.

Cleverly written, "The Indy Series: One Feline's Quest for Cultural Adventure" features Indy in a variety of situations that both entertain and educate. "Indy at the Opera" debuted in early June, soon to be followed by Indy traveling to Tulum to dance with the jaguars before a third book takes the feisty feline to England where he will understudy Crab the dog in a Shakespearean production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

Altman, a graduate of Head Royce, first came up with the idea for a book series about her cat when she traveled to Athens, Greece, about eight years ago.

"I noticed all these cats around the Acropolis wandering in places where people can't go and realized that they probably know more about the Acropolis than the people visiting," she said. "I thought, 'What if my cat could meet them and get the inside scoop on the Acropolis?' Now, every time my husband Matt and I go somewhere, I'm always thinking how it could be another adventure for Indy."

According to Altman, who has an extensive background as a composer, singer, performer, writer and educator, the opera was the logical place to start her book series.

"Indy does actually sing," Altman said. "When I have voice students at my home, he likes to sit on the piano and study their mouths to see where the sound is coming from. When I sing, particularly big coloratura sections of a piece, he echoes me."

In the first episode of the book series, Indy journeys to the opera to take part in a production of "La Traviata" to the chagrin of the human company members and the delight of the cats that make the opera house their home.

Along the way, Indy learns about music, theatrical tradition and the difference between storytelling and real life.

As the former director of education for the San Francisco Opera Guild, Altman knows a thing or two about opera. She created the Summer Conservatory Training Program and two musical composition programs -- Voices for Social Justice and Book to Bravo! -- for students and has written more than 30 study guides.

"It was a natural extension to combine the educational aspect of the study guides with the children's plays I've been writing for years," Altman said. "I really want to educate young people about the arts but in an entertaining way. They can read about Indy's fun adventure but, at the same time, they'll learn something about music or dance or theater. There's even a glossary in the back of the book to help with unfamiliar terms."

Altman manages to combine the art of dancing along with environmental and endangered species concerns in her second book, "Indy and the Jaguars of Tulum." The energetic author traveled to New York to visit Panthera, a group dedicated to wildcat conservation as part of her research.

"Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society have created a jaguar corridor from Mexico to Guatemala so the cats can pass safely between the two countries," she said. "Indy, and hopefully the reader, will learn about the cats as well as dance skills when Indy studies an ancient Mayan dance that honors the jaguars."

Taking on the illustrations for the book series is Altman's father Joel, a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of English.

"He's done books about Shakespeare and critical theory and even written some fiction, but he had never done illustrations before," Altman said. "This has been a really sweet thing for us to do together."

Altman noted that as a 9-year-old living with her family in England, she and her dad would travel around making up stories for her two favorite stuffed animals, Peewee and Elly.

"I'd take my stuffed animals and put them at the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge or where ever we traveled, and my father would photograph them while I wrote a little story," Altman said. "Now, we're doing a more grown-up version of that special childhood memory."

FYI
"Indy at the Opera" is available at Laurel Books, Walden Pond Books, Pegasus and A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair Village. Altman will do a reading of the book at 11 a.m. Sunday at A Great Good Place for Books.
The San Francisco Opera will be performing "La Traviata" through July 13 with Opera at the Ballpark featuring a simulcast of the show at AT&T Park on Saturday.
For more information on Altman, go to www.carolinealtman.com or www.lyricabellaproductions.com.