FQ: First, thanks for writing such a fun and educational book. For those not familiar with the Helper Hounds series, would you tell us a little about the background on the series (how the idea for the series came about, what you hope to teach children, etc.)?
RIVADENEIRA: The idea was inspired by a couple of things—my own rescue dogs who have offered me so much love and support and an amazing organization called Comfort Dogs. After learning about the work the Comfort Dogs and other emotional support animals do, I thought it would be fun to tell the stories from the dogs’ point of view. My goal is less about “teaching” kids things, but offering fun stories that also happen to offer on-ramps to conversations or thoughts about some of the biggest issues facing kids today. But, of course, I do want to show kids that rescue dogs are the best.
FQ: Each book in your series deals with a different topic that children may struggle with on a daily basis. How do you choose what topics to write about?
RIVADENEIRA: My own kids were super helpful. Sadly, there is no shortage of issues that kids today deal with, so it was more a matter of what issues we could address in a compelling way and offer some kind of helpful perspective on.
FQ: Along the same lines, how to you choose what breed of dog to feature in a book? And are they based on real dogs?
RIVADENEIRA: Sparky, Robot, and Penny are based on my own dogs. Spooky and Brisket came from dogs I “knew” via social media. The others…I’m not sure I can even say how they came to be. Obviously having two pit bulls reveals my deep love and affection for Pitties. But I also love mutts and terriers and standard poodles (and all dogs!), so they were fun to include.
FQ: As the owner of a rescued pit bull, I must thank you for featuring one of these wonderful dogs in your book. Please tell us about your pit bull. And is Penny based on your dog?
RIVADENEIRA: YAY! Thank you for rescuing. Indeed, Penny was based on my late dog Sierra (she’s in the author photo on the back!). Sierra could never have been a Helper Hound, however. Sierra loved people, but did not like other dogs. Helper Hounds University would’ve been tough for her! Today, we have two other rescued pit bulls—Vinny and JP. Vinny actually made it into the last Helper Hounds! We see how he failed Helper Hounds U! This would also be true. Vinny loves people and dogs (and cats—we just learned!), but he struggles with anxiety, which causes some behavior issues. JP would be a fantastic Helper Hound. He’s deaf and super-low key. Just wants to snuggle people all day. Snuggling seems to be the pit bulls’ primary trait.
FQ: We meet “The Gray Sisters” on the first page of Penny Helps Portia Face Her Fears and I suspect readers will be surprised to meet them again later in the story. It was a really nice way to wrap up the tale. Was this your plan when you first began working on the story?
|Author Caryn Rivadeneira
RIVADENEIRA: NO! That was a surprise to me too. While I write with a vague idea of where a story might land, the beautiful part of writing is that characters tend to show up—or surprise us. But I do love a good redemption story—so maybe somehow this was always part of the plan.
FQ: Where did the idea for “Helper Hounds University” come from? Is it based on a real training center for service dogs?
RIVADENEIRA: I’m pretty sure I stole the idea from Guide Dogs for the Blind. I’m not sure of other organizations that have an actual campus. Comfort Dogs might. But I just liked the idea of dogs having a university. Seemed like fun! Can you tell I have college-aged kids?
FQ: When Portia meets Penny, she says “Pit bulls are mean,” but Penny soon proves Portia’s misconceptions about these lovely dogs wrong. If you were to talk with someone who is convinced pit bulls are all aggressive, what is one thing you would want to tell them?
RIVADENEIRA: Maybe more than tell, I’d show them some of the 1 million ridiculous snuggle pictures I have of my dogs. But in reality, most people who fear pits or think they are mean have just never met one! In fact, studies show that most people can’t even identify a pit bull. They have vicious monsters in their minds so are surprised to find medium-sized boxy-headed house hippos with silly smiles. So, I do like to ask if people have met one—or if they’d like to meet mine.
FQ: Readers also get to know Portia, a young girl who has been misunderstood because of her Down Syndrome. She really has a lot in common with Penny in that respect (being misunderstood) and I liked how you didn’t dwell on it but rather showed how strong Portia is. What is your hope that readers will take away from the story about kids they may know who have Down Syndrome?
RIVADENEIRA: That’s a great question. My hope was to present Portia as a character with Down Syndrome rather than make it a book about someone with Down Syndrome. I hope that distinction makes sense. Her having DS is integral to who Portia is—but not necessarily more so than anything else. We’re not meant to pity Portia or see her as a superhero. Portia is a person with fears and challenges and courage—like anyone else.
FQ: The illustrations in your books are wonderful. How closely do you work with the illustrator? She must be a dog person since the sketches are so “spot on.” Do you discuss what scenes should be illustrated? How you want Penny and the other characters to be portrayed?
RIVADENEIRA: I was so fortunate to have such an amazing illustrator and illustrations! But, I can take zero credit for any of it. As is typical in publishing, the fine folks at Red Chair Press lined up Priscilla Alpaugh. I believe I did send pictures of my own dogs—but otherwise, Priscilla just really caught the vision and did amazing work.
FQ: Are you currently working on the next book in the Helper Hounds series? If so, would you give our readers a little “tease” about the story?
RIVADENEIRA: With eight books in the series, we are probably done. I don’t have anything else to tease! However, part of me believes there’s a rescued Old English Sheepdog with a story to tell…And maybe an Afghan hound…I could write about dogs all day!