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Author Showcase

Spring 2007 Featured Author Nancy West

RT: Each of your books has taken a different approach to telling a story. Kali Leads the Way is a picture book for an early reading audience. Chips the Hometown Hero is an historical novel for kids ages 9 and up. Did you find one genre easier to write than the other?

Nancy: Although both books are fiction, I found Chips a Hometown Hero easier to write. I enjoy the longer distance that a novel affords to tell a story. I also think that writing for younger audiences is extremely difficult. A lot of information has to be conveyed in very few words. With Kali Leads the Way, I had to distill a 3,000 word story with a fairly complex topic into 1,200 words. In fact, Kali will probably be reissued in its longer version as a 60-page novella — although it will continue to be for ages 8 and up.

RT: Having written for different audiences, which is your favorite? (Why?)

Nancy: I definitely enjoy writing for older kids, say, grades 4 and up, because they can sustain a more detailed plot. I also love doing the research required for historical novels. I am currently working on a YA [young adult] novel (ages 10 and up). Although it’s not historical fiction, it does require a great deal of research into early American history. I especially love working with novels because they allow time and space to develop characters and plot.

RT: Kali Leads the Way is a picture book that introduces an elementary-aged audience to the concept of landmines. Did you find it difficult to write the story so that Kali's job had the proper context, but without creating a grisly tale?

Nancy: This is an interesting question. I first became interested in the topic of landmines two years ago when I was invited to watch the lead US Army explosive detection dog team conduct a demonstration on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. The dog, a small black lab, had been doing a phenomenal job in Iraq — trying to keep our soldiers and innocent civilians safe. This led me to do some research into humanitarian mine detection dogs and the international landmine crisis. I rapidly discovered that the scope of this problem stretches across continents from Eastern Europe to Asia, Africa, and South America, and has political, social, economic, and environmental ramifications. Even today, unexploded devices are occasionally discovered in the fields and woodlands of Western Europe — a sad reminder of the wars that ravaged those landscapes.

As far as presenting this to young children, both the United Nations and the Marshall Legacy Institute have developed educational programs to introduce this topic to young audiences. Although I am not a fan of the recent trend toward graphically mature topics in children’s literature, I did not have a problem with Kali Leads the Way because it is really a story about how a young dog earns the respect of her trainer through doing the job she has been taught to do. The water-color illustrations are colorful and upbeat. No one is hurt or injured, and all remain safe because of Kali’s valiant efforts. Kali is a positive story of hope as it celebrates a young dog’s acts of goodness and bravery. That is something every child can identify with.

RT: Was your story of Chips the War Dog the inspiration for the TV movie that Disney produced?

Nancy: The film Chips the War Dog predates the book. I have never seen the film — although I understand that it is mostly fictional. When I uncovered the story of the real Chips, I was able to interview his youngest owner, John Wren, who had been a child at the time of World War II. The book is based on these recollections as well as news articles and the memories of those who were raised in the same village as Chips.

RT: All of your children's books have dogs as the principal character. What drew you to writing these stories?

Nancy: I have always loved dogs, and I was an enormous fan of Albert Payson Terhune’s books when I was a child. Terhune’s characters — the collies he raised at Sunnybank, his estate in northern New Jersey — taught me that humans can learn much from listening to and observing other species. I have always believed that dogs, with their unfailing devotion and loyalty, have a lot to teach the human race. Children can easily identify with dogs as characters. But beyond this, I believe dogs are a great vehicle for teaching children about friendship, nature, service to others, and many different aspects of “life.”

RT: Although Chips, Kali, and Bear are the main characters in your books, you also talk about the relationship between the dog and his partner. How important is this element to the stories?

Nancy: Dogs and humans have been working partners for thousands of years. Whether it is a military dog, a search and rescue dog, a mine detection dog or just a best pal, humankind and canines serve and support each other through life’s journey. Being of service to a fellow creature is a great role model and lesson for all kids to be exposed to and to learn from.

RT: How do you find the dog stories you want to write about? Do you have in mind any particular service dogs that you'd like to learn more about?

Nancy: As I mentioned earlier, I became interested in landmine dogs while observing a demonstration done by an Army explosives detection dog team. I discovered Chips’ story while researching a magazine article about World War I Red Cross dogs. I became interested in Bear’s story (Bear: Heart of a Hero) when I literally tripped over him at a cat show where he was receiving an award from the cats! Although I am currently working on a book that does not have a dog as a central character, I have been researching another story about women and their search and rescue dogs. This book will probably be geared for YA readers. I have been gathering information for this over the last five years — including taking online FEMA disaster management courses. I hope to do some hands-on search and rescue training in the near future.

RT: When you decide to write a book, are you driven by the events(s) first and the dog's skills second, or vice versa? Are there specific canine traits you're looking for when deciding whether or not to write a book?

Nancy: Character is always the driving force behind what I write — this includes both fiction and non-fiction. It can be a specific dog’s character as it was in the case of Chips; or it can be a more generalized canine character as it was in the case of Kali where I became intrigued with the highly developed scenting skills of labs in general — and black labs in particular. Chips was a rambunctious giant of a dog that took a unique place in history. Kali is representative of the hard-working service dog that performs, along with her handler, heroic acts each and every day. The “jobs” that dogs have in our lives continues to grow and expand as we learn more about their capabilities.

RT: On your website there are teacher's guides for both of your books. What drew you to offering this additional material for the books?

Nancy: Both of these books are educational in nature. Chips a Hometown Hero is an historical novel and includes a glossary of World War II related vocabulary words. The plot in Kali Leads the Way gently introduces the topic of landmines — a global challenge for upcoming generations. Given the nature of these books, I felt that teacher guides could enrich and support the reading experience.

RT: Can you tell us a little bit more about Off Lead Publications? Is there a way people can send you ideas for dog stories or manuscripts?

Nancy: We are always happy to review manuscripts and ideas for dog stories. Contact information is given at the web site: http://www.offleadpublications.org. Off Lead Publications also enjoys working with not-for-profit organizations that are dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for all creatures, great or small. Readers should contact us if we can be of assistance in their fundraising efforts. I, personally, enjoy visiting schools and libraries in the greater northeast to talk about working dogs and the important role they have in our lives.

RT: Can you tell us more about the art contest to design a medal for military dogs? Where did this initiative start? How can people learn more?

Off Lead Publications is sponsoring an art contest for kids in grades 3 through 5 to design a “Hero Medal” for military dogs. Currently, military dogs receive citations for their years of service but “medals of honor” such as the Purple Heart are reserved for humans only. For those who are familiar with Chips’ story they will remember that he received the Silver Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross, but all were revoked because he was “only a dog”. This contest is to create a fantasy heroism medal for war dogs such as Chips. In other words, if dogs could receive medals, what might they look like? Guidelines will be posted by May 15th 2007 and judging will take place in October 2007.

RT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would simply like to say that I think that the Reading Tub® is a terrific organization with a wonderful mission. I hope that both readers and writers will continue to support your efforts to increase literacy for children everywhere.

Website: http://www.offleadspublications.org


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