By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 14, 2012
Kate Klimo is the author of many books for young readers, including 12 titles in the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library series. As a former VP and publisher of Random House Young Readers Group, she is also responsible for developing in-house brands like Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones. We talked to Klimo about her newest DOG DIARIES series, in which each book tells a dog’s story from a dog’s point of view.
Bianca Schulze: In your new DOG DIARIES series, each book focuses on a different dog. Starting with a Golden Retriever and then a German Shepherd, each installment is based on a true dog story or on true-to-life situations. Would you say it is harder or easier to create a work that is fictitious in nature but built around facts, versus a work of fiction that is purely imagined?
Kate Klimo: It’s neither easier nor harder. It’s just that the challenges are different. When you’re making something up out of whole cloth, it has to have a certain internal consistency in order to be believable. You’re making up the facts from scratch. When you pull from archives, real life gives you that ready-made consistency. It also gives you an armature upon which to hang the story. But it has to be more than a frozen model, a diorama. The history has to spring to living breathing life.
BS: Each book tells a dog’s story from a dog’s point of view. When you talked to us in 2012 about character development for your book Daughter of the Centaurs, you wrote, “The inimitable Martin Scorsese says that you have to know what is in your characters’ pockets before you can put them on the screen.” How do you work on character development for the starring dogs when they have no pockets?
KK: What a great question! Dogs may not have pockets, but they do have experiences—sometimes even jobs!—and they have human companions, who do have pockets. All of these factors provide me the kind of detail, of specificity I need to create a believable character.
BS: During your time as VP and publisher at Random House you were very clever at developing in-house brands like Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones. Did you see a gap in the market for a series based on dogs and decide to go for it? In essence, I guess I’m asking the cliché question of the inspiration behind the series.
KK: As publisher, I came up with the idea of Horse Diaries, which wound up being a very successful series. The Horse Diaries were inspired by what is inarguably the greatest horse story of all time, Black Beauty. Anna Sewell did a brilliant job of getting inside a horse’s head with great compassion, without over-anthropomorphizing. That’s what we aimed for in Horse Diaries and the series wound up being very breed-based, because we were going for collectability, a sort of Breyer Horse set you could read. I came up with the idea of Dog Diaries a couple of months before I stepped down from being publisher. My successor (and oft-times editor) Mallory Loehr, and I agreed that writing these books would be a plum job for some lucky writer and—gosh-darn it!—who deserved it more than I? Like the Horse Diaries, the new series started out being breed-based but then I quickly realized that there are so many dogs who were famous, even legendary, present at important times in human history—and that here was a rich trove of stories that had never been told, or at least not from the dog’s pov. And I haven’t even mentioned the dozen stalwart canine companions I have had from the age of six until my kids left home. (Since then, horses have replaced dogs.)
BS: With so many dog breeds out there, why did you decide to write the Golden Retriever tale first (Dog Diaries 1: Ginger)?
KK: One of the points I make in my book-talks is that people and dogs have lived together for so long (some say as many as 37 million years) that we have rubbed off on each other. I ask folks in the audience to look to their left and right and say what kind of “dog” is sitting on either side of you? What kind of dog are you? I’ve always thought of myself, both physically and temperamentally, as a golden retriever. So that’s where I started. I also wanted to say something, without getting too preachy, about the ills of puppy mills, because so many parents still buy their kids’ puppies from pet shops whose suppliers are, more often than not, mills. I also wanted to get across the particular resilience of this particular dog. Ginger is very much a Joe-blow kind of dog. She’s not famous. She played no role on history’s stage. But she survives the ordeal of living in many different homes and winds up finally in the right one. She’s got a good heart and is a good-natured survivor. After writing Ginger, the dogs I have chosen were taken from the pages of history if not ripped from the headlines.
BS: You have German Shepards and St. Bernards covered with books two and three. Which breeds should we expect to see in the following books? And how many Dog Diaries books do you think you will write?
KK: I’ve already written #4, Togo, the Siberian husky who is the “real” hero of the serum run (sorry Balto!) as well as #5, Dash, the Springer spaniel who crossed over on the Mayflower (along with a bull mastiff bitch). Diary #6 is probably going to be about the original dog who played Lassie. #7 will be Sergeant Stubby, the most decorated war dog in history, who was in the trenches in the Great War. Sergeant Stubby is my hero. He was a pug mix, no bigger than a minute but they say he could smell the mustard gas before it was released and once even caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. I’d like to do a Stone Age dog, a president’s dog, an explorer’s dog. I have dogs lined up for at least 6 other Diaries, but how many I write depends upon how many books are sold. I hope I have many Dog Diaries ahead of me because there is something about writing these books that is good for me, heart and soul.
BS: In your website bio, you talk fondly about many childhood experiences with your best friend Justine whom you met at a library. What was it like sharing your love of books and your reading experiences with a close friend? Is it a nice thought to imagine that there might be some dog-loving besties-to-be checking out the Dog Diaries together?
KK: Sharing books is, to this day, one of the things that makes reading such a pleasure. It’s truly a sacrament. It’s one of the things I don’t like about my Kindle (and, believe me, I use my Kindle plenty). You can’t take a book you’ve read on a Kindle and loved to bits and run and put it in a friend’s hands or pop it in a jiffy bag with a rave review or a book mark and send it to him/her in the mail. It’s a nice tip to tell somebody you read a book on the Kindle that you loved, but it isn’t a gift from the heart. When Justine and I read and loved the same books growing up, it was like our individual worlds melded with the author’s and became one wonderful shared world. It was safe. It was comforting. It was magical. We still recommend books to each other a continent apart from one another. Of course, I love the idea of friends sharing the Dog Diaries. Bobbie Pyron, who wrote the wonderful Dog’s Way Home and Dogs of Winter, works in a library and recommended Dog Diaries to a little girl who had fantasy fatigue, then also recommended her own book A Dog’s Way Home. She said it did her heart good to see this little girl walking off clutching her book and my book, like our books were play-dates together with this brand new reader. Books are companions as much as people—and authors and dogs are.
BS: From avid reader to publisher to author, you’ve really covered all of the bases in fully understanding the world of children’s literature. Have you ever dabbled in any illustrative work?
KK: I’ve done quite a lot of embroidery which is illustrative, but paint scares me. Justine grew up to be an illustrator, mostly decorative art, but I love the idea that maybe some day she could illustrate a book I write.
BS: Last year, you left your position as VP and publisher of Random House Young Readers Group. What exciting things have you been up to? I read that you now focus on turning books into TV shows?
KK: My focus these days is primarily on writing, reading, and riding my horses. Me and my production partner have a couple of irons in the fire but things move so slowly in the world of kids TV! Oi! If that’s all I did I’d have to come up with some riveting hobbies real fast or risk turning into a moss-covered stone.
BS: What should we expect to see from you next?
KK: I’m working on a middle-grade novel about unicorns. And I’m perfecting my seat at the gallop.
For more information, visit: http://www.kateklimo.com