Jennifer Li Schotz is the author of the new American Dog series of middle grade novels for kids. The first two books in the series--which focuses on rescue dogs--are Brave and Poppy. Her other books include Max. She is a senior editor for Scholastic Action magazine, and she lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the American Dog series, and for Brave and Poppy specifically?
A: Overall the series is inspired by one of my favorite childhood memories: lying on the floor and snuggling with my doggo while he exhaled hot puppy breath on my face.
I think kids in general have a deep and special connection with their dogs, and when times are a little tough or you’re feeling isolated or confused, it can really get you through.
My dog—okay, his name was Mork, and yes, there was a Mindy too for a little bit—was just such a great, goofy, big-pawed guy, and I loved taking care of him. He made me feel responsible and grown up. That relationship is the heart of what I wanted to capture in these books.
I’m from California, so Poppy was very near and dear to my heart. For Hannah to feel so lonely and displaced against the backdrop of that blue sky and that air and that beach—that just makes her experience and Poppy’s role in it extra meaningful.
I have family in Texas and have spent a lot of time there—and love it there—so Brave felt special too.
Q: Have you always been interested in rescue dogs, and can you tell us something about your own dog, Vida?
A: For the record, I feel it’s important to state that I am also a cat person.
Moving on…I’ve always known that I would rescue a dog, and it sounds nuts but Vida was the very first dog we met when we decided it was time to adopt.
My husband warned me that I wouldn’t make it past the first dog, and he was right! I would have brought every pup we saw home, so maybe it was for the best that we met her first.
Vida is a sato from Puerto Rico, brought to New York by an amazing organization called Animal Lighthouse Rescue, and she’s the best bad dog ever.
She can open baby gates with her snout and destroy any kind of containment device you can dream up, and she stuck her head through a window trying to go after a raccoon (neither dog nor raccoon got hurt!).
She’s incredibly sweet, super loving, deeply needy, and—like me and everyone else in my household—as stubborn as an old mule. We took her to a training class and the trainer gave her a 9.2 on the stubborn scale. She’s sitting right behind me as I type this and huffing at me—almost as if she can read what I’m writing.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write these two books, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Researching different breeds and learning which dogs are popular in certain regions—and why—was interesting. I can fall deep down the rabbit hole when I’m digging into little details, like the shape and structure of an open-sided barn or how a cow moves its legs. But more than anything: surfing dog videos.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from these stories?
A: Well, first of all I hope readers know that dogs rule and they should tell their parents they won’t do their homework until they get one.
For real though, I hope kids recognize that feeling different or lonely or even angry is really hard but also really normal. It’s impossible to imagine, but everyone feels that way at some point. And we all make mistakes and bad choices.
The best thing you can do is connect—with a friend or a parent or a sister or brother…or a pet. Just connect.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Besides my day job working on a news magazine for kids, which I love, I’m starting a historical, slightly magical YA novel that I’m really excited about. And I’ve got some ideas brewing for nonfiction for young readers as well.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We’re all doing the best we can. Keep it up.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb