My post today is an interview with Michaela Muntean, the author of the remarkable book, Stay: The True Story of Ten Dogs (Scholastic, April 2012). Michaela is the author of many children’s books, including the hilarious and wonderful Do Not Open This Book! (Scholastic, 2006), illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. She lives on Shelter Island, New York, with her husband, Nik Cohn, and their rescue dogs, Beau and Tess.
Hi Michaela! Why don’t you start by giving us a recap of what Stay: The True Story of Ten Dogs is about.
(M): After a horrific fall ended his acrobatic career, Luciano Anastasini took in homeless dogs with behavioral problems. Focusing on what the dogs liked to do, he worked with them to create a successful circus act. It’s a story about not giving up; about second chances, and about believing you can do something when the odds are stacked against you.
How did you meet Luciano?
(M): A friend of mine was working at Big Apple Circus, which performs every autumn in a tent behind Lincoln Center in New York City. I asked him what his favorite act was; he told me it was Luciano and his dogs. I knew I had to meet this man, so I called him and he agreed to talk to me. I didn’t know if there was a book there or not, but I wanted to find out. For the next three months, I spent most mornings as an audience of one in a circus tent, watching Luciano and the dogs practice their routine. Then we’d walk the dogs in Central Park. I spent many hours with Luciano, listening to his stories about growing up in the circus, about his family, and about his accident. He told me how he’d found each of the dogs and why their previous owners had given up on them. There was indeed a book there. Actually, there were several possible books. I picked one and started writing.
The writing in Stay is so lyrical and lovely—it reads like a storybook, and yet it’s all true. What advice would you give to an elementary school kid who wants to improve her writing?
(M): I had never written nonfiction before, nor did I have any interest in doing so. My whole background was in storybooks, so thank you for such a lovely compliment. I had gotten to know Luciano and the dogs so well. I loved all their quirks and different personalities. I felt an obligation to them, to bring them to life on the page and to do their stories justice. I would tell any writer, no matter how old: pay attention, take chances, surprise yourself. Surprise is good for you. I surprised myself about writing nonfiction.
The pictures in Stay are amazing. How did that work? Did you have the photographers take the pictures first, and then you wrote the story, or did you write the story first and then tell the photographers what pictures to take?
(M): K.C. Bailey and Steve Kazmierski are fantastic photographers. They both come from movie backgrounds. K.C. specializes in still photography on movie sets, especially movies about animals and about dance. They have cameras—and instincts—capable of capturing movement with astounding warmth and clarity. As I was writing, they photographed at performances and during rehearsals. When I finished the manuscript we sat down together and worked out what else needed to be photographed. They ended up taking over two thousand pictures.
Have you taught your own dogs any tricks?
(M): My dogs, Beau, a foxhound, and Tess, a collie mix, are totally trick-less. That’s not their fault; it’s mine. It was enough for me to teach them to come, to sit, and to stay. If I took the time, I’m sure they could learn to jump through a hoop or over a hurdle.
I have a dog named Rosie. Do you think I could teach her tricks the way Luciano does?
(M): Of course you could! As Luciano says, be kind, consistent and patient and you can teach a dog all kinds of things.
Can you name a few of your favorite nonfiction books?
(M): We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson is a terrific book. His artwork is also amazing.
I have long been a fan of Jane Goodall and her incredible work. If kids don’t know much about her, The Chimpanzees I Love is a good place to start.
Poop Happened!: A History of the World From the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee is a fascinating approach to the history of sanitation (among loads of other information on the subject), told with humor and style.
Aww, thanks! And finally, please finish this sentence: