MOWMT Day #23: Christy Mihaly Celebrates Puppy Day
Picture Books with Puppies (for National Puppy Day!)
by Christy Mihaly
Happy National Puppy Day! It’s the perfect day to study favorite picture books featuring DOGS – and pointers on how to make yours stand out from the pack.
When I wrote Patience, Patches!, I knew there were lots of “dog books” out there … so I dug into doggy mentor texts. I gathered three top tips for writing stories with a dog as a main character:
Make the canine character believably doggy.
Weave in multiple layers and plenty of heart.
Add an original twist or two.
Dogs are often stand-ins for humans – but they must remain believably canine. Stacey McAnulty accomplishes this well in Excellent Ed (illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach).
Ed, the Ellis family dog, notices that he, unlike the other Ellis kids, is not allowed to do certain things (such as use the indoor bathroom). Ed notices the other Ellises are excellent at various things. Maybe if he were excellent at something, he’d be allowed? Ed makes am amusing series of attempts to be better at something than his humans … then realizes he is, after all, excellent in his own doggy way. As a dog, Ed shows us that everyone can be excellent at something.
Layers and Heart:
The secret to making a picture book stand out is weaving in multiple dimensions, or layers, and plenty of heart, or emotional resonance. In Excellent Ed, for example, the art contributes to the book’s diversity by portraying the Ellis family as Black; and the story about how each of us has our own excellence will resonate with kids.
An outstanding multi-layered book is the 1996 Caldecott winner Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann. It’s a wonderful friendship story that offers lots of laughs, plus practical safety tips for kids. Rathman portrays police dog Gloria as a faithful companion who enjoys pulling a prolonged prank on her partner Office Buckle – until he finds out and she feels ashamed. Rathman masterfully portrays Gloria’s emotional arc, and the book’s final safety tip (“Always stick with your buddy!”) is a sweet resolution.
Another classic, Mark Teague’s Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, has charmed kids for a couple of decades. Teague uses an intriguing epistolary structure, as the dog, Ike, writes letters to his owner. There’s lots of doggy heart here, as Ike describes his unjust punishment – something kids can appreciate. And of course, a twist at the end.
Dog books are so popular that it’s challenging to find an approach that nobody else has taken. But author Nelly Buchet found a fresh angle in Cat Dog Dog: The Story of a Blended Family, illustrated by Andrea Zuill.
Amazingly, the text consists only of the words “Cat” and “Dog” in different arrangements. The story features a couple of people who move in together with their pets (one with Dog, the other with Cat and Dog). Each spread humorously illustrates another step in the animal stepsiblings’ progression from antagonists to family members. It’s a hilarious read-aloud, and perfect for a kiddo just learning to read.
Side note: Don’t stress about writing something utterly different from any book ever written. Dear Mrs. LaRue doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t feature a letter-writing dog. In fact, Can I Be Your Dog? by Troy Cummings is a distinct and equally appealing dog-writing-notes story.
Studying these books helped me hone Patience Patches! I made sure Patches was a believable dog who sees the world through doggy eyes. The main people in his world are “my loud-laughing person,” “my soft-singing person,” and “the stick-thrower from next door.”
Adding depth and layers, I incorporated humor: Patches claims “I am good at waiting,” though of course we can see he isn’t. I wove in LGBTQ representation, giving Patches two moms. I ensured the story reflects the essential love and loyalty of a doggy heart. And I left room for the talented illustrator, Sheryl Murray, to bring out these elements in her art, which she does beautifully.
As to originality, my idea isn’t new. Revolving around the relationship between a dog and a new baby, it’s a canine new-sibling tale. But I let Patches narrate and gave him a unique, quirky, lovable voice. Further, my plot centered the theme of patience, as Patches waits and waits for Baby to become an actual Person, and his friend. The “patience” part is what made an editor go for it – she thought kids would relate to Patches’s impatience, and how we all need to practice patience sometimes.
What’s your favorite dog book? Do you like the wordless “Carl” books? Or are you more of a “Walter the Farting Dog” fan? Maybe Doug Salati’s new work, Hot Dog, is your cup of tea. Read them all! There’s a puppy picture book for everyone.
PRIZE: I’m offering a personalized, signed copy of Patience, Patches! Plus, stickers!
BIO: Christy Mihaly is a RYS judge who writes for kids because she believes that our best hope for the future is raising young people who love to read and giving them the knowledge and skills to lead. Christy has written more than 35 children's nonfiction titles on topics from hayfields to free speech to food. Patience, Patches! (Dial/PRH, illustrated by Sheryl Murray) is her first fiction picture book. Other recent titles include WATER: A Deep Dive of Discovery (Barefoot Books, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa) and The Supreme Court and Us (Albert Whitman, illustrated by Neely Daggett). Her books have been honored with a Gold in the Nautilus Book Awards and listings on Bank Street Best Books, JLG Gold, and Green Earth Book Award shortlists. Christy lives in Vermont where she enjoys walking in the woods with her dog and playing the cello (though not simultaneously).
Please visit her website, www.christymihaly.com, and say hello at Instagram (@christymihaly) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christymihaly/). Thanks!
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