ADVENTURES IN WRITING A CHAPTER BOOK SERIES, by Catherine Stier

NOTE: This is a difficult time to introduce a new book series to the world. Kathie MacIsaac, an administrator of MG Book Village, recognized this and reached out on Twitter to authors with soon-to-be-released books with a gracious invitation to contact her. Gratefully, I did. Ms. MacIsaac offered me this chance to share my news and insights here on the MG Book Village blog. I couldn’t be more appreciative. So here goes…

Adventures in Writing a Chapter Book Series:
The Making of A DOG’S DAY

A phone conversation with my editor ultimately led to the project I am proudly announcing today…

Introducing the new A DOG’S DAY chapter book series, debuting with two titles, illustrated by the amazing Francesca Rosa. Each book highlights a dog that performs an incredible job or service (and loves the work, to boot):

  • Jax, a dog that fends off wild predators to protect his flock!
  • Ava, a dog that rescues people from avalanches!

As I observe the April 1st release, I’m sharing here a bit about choices made, things learned, and joyful discoveries that came to light while bringing these stories to the page.

Why Dogs? Why Me? Why Dogs and Me?

Going to the Dogs
It’s pretty obvious that lots of kids adore chapter books about dogs. Detective dogs, time travelling dogs, famous dogs – there are series for young readers featuring all kinds of set ups with canines. The dog-themed chapter books I’ve spotted in the library are often dog-eared (yes, I said it) and appear well circulated and well loved.

I’m drawn to these lovable, loyal creatures, too. So as I began to embark (yep, did it again) on writing a dog series, I set out to present a new take on this favorite subject within the boundaries of a fresh framework. As discussed with my editor, each A DOG’S DAY book will:

  • Star a fictional dog with a job that canines perform in real life
  • Be presented from the dog’s point of view
  • In keeping with the series’ name, will cover only one day in that dog’s life. As in, just 24 hours or less.

That last bit – that perhaps has proven the most challenging.

Pups and Past Works
Most of my previous published works have been picture books. Still, some aspects of this new series fall into somewhat familiar territory. I had earlier published a middle grade chapter book, THE TERRIBLE SECRETS OF THE TELL-ALL CLUB, that was named a Scholastic Instructor magazine “Teacher’s Pick.” Working on that book taught me much about this format.

And then there was Barnaby. He was the sweet, whiskered hero of my earlier picture book, BARNABY THE BEDBUG DETECTIVE, about a dog with the power to sniff out a sneaky pest. While writing the Barnaby book, I witnessed a special performance, courtesy of a local exterminator – I had the chance to see an adorable and determined little dog enthusiastically do this detecting job.

Through that experience, I gained new insights and bits of information that became a part of the story. So as I began this new series, I made it my mission to meet every kind of working dog I write about.

Bringing Pups to the Page

Ruff (But Not Rough) Research
What I found to be true with the Barnaby picture book proved true as I researched my other dog books – people who work with dogs (like the exterminator) are the kindest, friendliest, BEST people in the world. I guess that’s not a big surprise. And they love to talk about and show off their amazing dogs!

My research led me on excursions around the country to meet with working dogs and their people. A livestock guardian dog expert I contacted invited me to visit the great Pyrenees on patrol at his parents’ Texas ranch. I witnessed an avalanche rescue dog demonstrate her scenting skills at a snowy Utah ski resort. For upcoming books, I have met an actor dog in Atlanta, and taken part in a search and rescue canine training session in the California desert.

My advice to anyone conducting research for any kind of project is this – don’t hesitate to contact the experts about your subject matter. Visit settings if you can, too.

While experiencing a location, one may notice rich details that can add something special to a story. In Utah, I saw a sign stuck in the snow inviting guests to that day’s avalanche dog demonstration. This sign, along with other details I observed, became part of the book.

Writing With Rules
Before setting out to write this series, I considered length, number of chapters and something else – the rules of my fictional dogs’ world. For example, in some books, dogs can speak to each other or other animals or even humans. They can sing Happy Birthday or grumble to the cat. Since this new series realistically portrays many aspects of a working dog’s day, I am sticking with the rule that my canine characters can’t talk to humans, except through the usual doggy methods – tail wags, snuggles, etc. And they cannot speak directly with other animals, but can respond to and interpret the meaning of another animal’s actions.

Presenting a story within the confines of a 24 hour or less time period is another rule. Featuring flashbacks in which dogs recall their puppyhoods, however, offers a way to include scenes of past training and other experiences that shaped my canine heroes.

Relating to the Reader
In a realistic story about dogs with big jobs, there will usually be an adult handler involved. Still, I try to be sure the dog has at least one encounter with a child character that is similar in age to the young reader. This, I hope, brings the protagonist a little closer to the reader and provides an opening for children to imagine themselves interacting with the dog in the story.

Something to Ponder
Finally, while aiming to tell an exciting story, I look for ways to illuminate ideas young readers may not have considered before. For example, what does it mean to coyotes and other wildlife when livestock guardian dogs, rather than other possible safeguarding methods, are used to prevent predation of sheep? (Hint: it may ultimately
save the predators’ lives.)

I’m excited about these new titles, and wish to all the experience of creating something that brings true happiness. I am indebted to my editor and designer at Albert Whitman, as well as illustrator Rosa Francesca. And I want to express my appreciation to all the dogs and the dog people I’ve met who’ve enriched my journey with memories that will last fur-ever (sorry, had to leave you with just one more).

Catherine Stier is the author of the new A DOG’s DAY chapter book series, which received a starred review from Kirkus and debuts April 1, 2020. She is also the author of several honor-winning children’s books, including IF I WERE PRESIDENT.  Stier holds an MA in Reading and Literacy and has served as a magazine writer, newspaper columnist, writing instructor and a children’s literature researcher.  Born in Michigan, she now resides in San Antonio, Texas

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