Author Interview: Kelly Milner Halls on Wild Dogs: Past & Present

Wild Dogs: Past & Present by Kelly Milner Halls (Darby Creek, 2005). An extraordinary look from the ancient miacids (ancestors of cats and dogs) to the family poodle with an focus on the Canidae family. Readers are drawn into the world of the wolf, fox, dingo, and jackal. A feast for the eyes and mind. Ages 7-up. A Junior Library Guild selection.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Oddly enough, my editor Tanya Dean had to slam on her breaks driving to work in Ohio one day because a wild dogy — a coyote she thought — ran across her path. She called me and said, “I think we should do a book about wild dogs.”

She’s a dog lover. I’m an animal lover, dogs and cats (and yes, Wild Cats is in the works). So we decided I’d slip on the writer shoes. That was the inspiration.

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

This one was very interesting because in a sense, the topic is VERY broad. It’s not like dogs that don’t bark or dogs too small to survive in the wild. It’s just wild dogs, and that’s a global proposition. Couple that with the fact that it was Tanya’s vision first, and there is degree of challenge to master. How do you carve such a broad topic down to children’s book size? And how do two people sync their visions? The two made this book take a little longer than the other two I’ve done with Tanya (Dinosaur Mummies and Albino Animals). But it wasn’t so long, even with that factored in. I think it was a seven month gestation, spark to final revision.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Ooops, I guess I kind of answered this above. Deciding what NOT to include was the biggest challenge. And that comes from another challenge of nonfiction — how much research is too much? How much is not quite enough? That balance is difficult in children’s books, especially for me, because I think they deserve as good as adults get. Another challenge, anytime you write nonfiction is the impossible task of pleasing everyone.

Pick one zoologist’s theory to spotlight or endorse, and his arch enemy will call your work inaccurate. And from his point of view, he’s right. When it comes to science, that’s a tough pill to swallow. No matter how hard you try to be factual, some expert may take issue, if he or she disagrees. But you do the best you can do. In that case, I admit I’m a journalist reporting on a topic, not an expert. And they can always write a book of their own if they feel strongly enough about their cause.

But when I hear from experts with opposing viewpoints, I do try to find some forum to research and write about their ideas too, whenever possible. It seems only fair.

Though the ALA’s Sibert Medal is an important step forward, I worry that children’s non-fiction doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Am I right to be concerned? If so, what are the challenges, and what can we do to help?

You are absolutely right. And here’s the irony. It’s not the KIDS who ignore it. It’s the adults. Kids LOVE nonfiction, if it’s written with kids in mind — sparky rather than textbook driven. But I think many adults think the only valuable stories to consider are fiction. They miss a world of possibility when they speed walk past nonfiction. From Grossology to Wild Dogs, there is a lot of magic between those nonfiction pages. I hope someday the collective mindset shifts.

A lot of authors are promoting banned book week, but you have a big logo on the front page of your site and several pages dedicated to fighting censorship. Could you tell us more about your passion for free speech and youth literature?

When I was in high school, I was on the staff of the school newspaper. The editor was my best friend. He wrote a story about a Vietnam veteran and used a direct quote that included a tough, culturally unpleasant slang term. But it was the guys quote. And it was crucial to the feature. Our principal censored the story…cut the quote. And it didn’t even make sense without it.

We were enraged. We were being schooled in journalism, the importance of a free American press. And they censor us. So we called the ACLU and they agreed to take the case. We were set to go as far as we had to for the cause. But when the principal threatened to disband the journalism program, rather than face a lawsuit, we had a tough choice to make.

Do we win on principle and lose the paper? Or do we protect the paper for classes yet to come, and pie the principal on graduation day? We opted for the pie — $25 bought a senior from a rival school who sort of force fed our principal banana cream on the quad. It was AWESOME.

I learned a valuable lesson about the reality of censorship that year, and it stayed with me. That same sense of urgency and principle re-immerged when I discovered young adult literature and the propensity for its being challenged and banned. Except this time, I could fight a little harder. And this time, the pie option didn’t apply — at least not so far.

In addition to writing your own books, you’re also a journalist who frequently covers children’s/YA literature. What inspires you to spread the word about other authors’ work? What do you learn from them?

Man, the brilliance of story inspires me to write about other authors. The fact that we as an industry are so underappreciated doesn’t hurt. I grew up feeling not quite good enough, so there is an ache in watching OUR books slip into that same secondary ranking. I like the idea of trying to help boost it up. I like the idea of demanding our place — of insisting we really DO belong.

What have I learned? Countless things…the most important being relativity. Reviews suggest that some books are good and some are bad. But every book is good to the one kid who falls in love with it, for reasons that will always be expressly his or her own. I love that very private relationship, one kid with one author, every page of the book. I have learned that THEY have the only opinions that really matter, and I have learned that by interviewing authors. They are as different as fall and spring, these authors, and that’s just how it should be. That way every kid has a chance to fall in love with a book no one else would understand. Diversity makes the world a better, richer place — in every element of life.

Cynsational Notes

While an all-around dog fan, I have a particular affection for wolves. My office actually features a photograph of a gray wolf and a painting of a howling wolf by Donald Vann. I enjoyed pouring through Wild Dogs and intend to keep it handy as a research reference.

Cynsational News & Links

“Endings that Excite: How to Make Your Readers Keep Reading” by Loretta Acosta Russell, in the Story Plot section of Writing Tips from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “The Power of Books Upon Kids:” a guest chat with Uri Shulevitz from ICL.

Short Talk with a Prospective Children’s Writer by author Astrid Lindgren of Pippi Longstocking fame from The Horn Book, June 1973.