Congratulations on your new rescue dog series American Dog (HMH Books). What can you tell us about the inspiration behind these stories?
Thank you! The books are inspired by one of life’s simplest pleasures: the deep and special connection between kids and their dogs.
That relationship is so unique and sweet, and it’s often one of the first bonds a child has that’s not with parents or siblings. It’s the first relationship that’s theirs.
I remember spending hours just lying on the ground with my dog, Mork (yes, there was briefly a Mindy too!), playing with his ear and having a chat. He was a very good listener, of course, and I was pretty tuned into his snorts and snarfs and yowls.
It was also the first time I felt responsible for another creature’s wellbeing, and I was proud of that.
All of the kids in these books are feeling a little different or separate in some way, but when they connect with a dog, it changes them. There’s a purity to that relationship that is so special, and I feel like each of these books is a fun adventure wrapped around that gooey little heart of a connection between the main character and the dog.
Can you tell us about your research process?
This is the part where I say that when I was my readers’ age, I had to go to the shelf and pull down one of the bound encyclopedias to find 10-year-old information. Or we had to go to the library!
But really, I started by thinking of different regions of the country where there are interesting pockets of culture, and how the dog breeds that are popular in those regions fit into that. They’re popular there for a reason.
Their breed traits are well-suited to the lifestyle, so the people in the area and their dogs complement each other in a very specific way.
So it was just a question of finding fun matches of regional cultures and popular dogs.
How does the writing process for a series differ from a stand-alone book?
When the books are discrete stories like these, rather than characters and storylines that evolve, it can be especially tricky not to repeat yourself.
So with each book, you kind of have to hold all the previous books in your head and make sure you’re not treading the same ground. That can be in little details like how a dog’s ear moves when it’s excited, or in bigger plot points, like getting stranded in nature or being at odds with your parents.
If you work on multiple projects at once, what are your strategies for dividing your time and finding balance in your life?
I wish I was one of those people who could tell you that I’m up before dawn every day to write for two hours before the kids get up, or that I write one chapter a week or whatever it is that regular, functional people seem to be able to do.
But I struggle with keeping up and keeping things straight—I guess it’s thought of as executive function issues these days.
I generally have at least two books at various stages at any one time, plus I have a very full-time job that I love, working on a news magazine for kids, and the hours are long. And of course, I want to be with my family as much as possible, especially because my kids are in such interesting stages of their lives right now.
My strategy, if you can call it that, is what I think of as the lighthouse approach. I can turn the beam of light on the one thing that’s right in front of me and has the looming-est deadline—while I ignore everything else (which is generally where this approach falls apart, by the way).
Then I spin around and focus on the next thing, then the next.
I’m trying really hard to learn to focus closely on what I’m doing at any given moment, then put it aside. That’s allowed a lot more joy to sneak into my life.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s/YA writers?
Do it! Keep writing! I had a writing professor who used to say “Pages, pages, pages.” He was right. Just keep producing.
And it’s such an exciting time to be writing for young readers because every day, a book gets published that lets a kid see themselves in print for the first time. There can’t be too many voices and stories out there.
Tell us about any other projects you’re currently working on or have coming soon.
See above regarding strategies for finding balance! I’m starting a historical fiction YA novel with a little bit of magic in it—it’s really fun. And I’ve got some ideas for nonfiction for kids that I want to spend some time with.
What can you tell us about the impact of growing up and raising your kids with dogs?
Funny enough, I only had dogs for a brief period when I was a kid—about a year. (Though I grew up with a family friend’s dog, Benji, who was the coolest dog I’ve ever met—he could jump into his owner’s van through the driver’s side window! What a guy.)
The relationship I had with my dog, however brief, really affected me. I felt so lucky to have him. I wanted that for my kids, as did my husband, who always had dogs growing up and still tells funny stories about them.
A dog really centers your household and brings a new personality and source of joy into the mix. Plus, dogs are just plain hilarious. Like, sneaky farts and guilty looks and silly waggles and snorts and stuff. Who doesn’t love that?
Can you talk about your involvement with rescue organizations and how it impacted your stories?
There are just so many animals that need a home—and every single one of them is bursting with personality and just wants to love and be loved. I couldn’t wait to rescue a dog. I’d rescue another one today if my family wouldn’t kick me out.
And I’m blown away by the dedication of people who have enough respect for these animals that they work very hard to save them, one by one, and heal them and bring them to their new families.
She is also the author of the Hero and Scout series.
A senior editor for Scholastic Action magazine, she lives with her family and Puerto Rican rescue dog, Vida, in Brooklyn.
For the occasional tweet, follow her @jenshotz.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.
She lives with her family and dog, Sadie, in North Carolina.