What a delight it is to host Jane Kelley today! She wrote a completely original and endearing novel, The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, which I read (disclaimer: and blurbed) and loved. Loved! We were connected through a mutual friend in publishing so have never met in person. Note to self: remedy that asap. Today we celebrate the launch of Jane’s newest title, The Book of Dares for Lost Friends.
WRITING ABOUT ANIMALS
My latest middle-grade novel, The Book Of Dares For Lost Friends, has just been published. At the book launch, I read the opening chapter. It’s narrated from the point of view of a cat named Mau, who watches two girls hanging out in Central Park. Lanora and Val’s friendship is about to fall apart. But by the end of the book, Mau will help them find themselves again.
After I read, my young friend Owen asked me, “Why do you always have animals in your books?”
I wasn’t expecting that question! So I didn’t give it the answer it deserved. I needed to think about why I always have animals. Then I realized this blog for Friend Friday gives me the perfect opportunity to respond. Kirby has written so many wonderful books about animals herself. And, after all, animals are our friends too.
Pets are vital parts of many families. We love them because their devotion isn’t complicated. They don’t judge our appearance. They don’t care if we’re cool or if we’re important. We connect to them––in life and in fiction––because they seem innocent compared to humans. They don’t lie or pretend to be something they’re not. They can’t. If we treat them well, they will always love us.
But the animals in my most recent books aren’t pets. In fact, Zeno, the African gray parrot in The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, takes great pride in informing everyone that he is “NOT pet.” Mau isn’t a pet either. She’s a feral cat who prefers to catch her own food. She will accept an occasional offering of tuna from her cat ladies, but only if it’s fresh. Neither Zeno nor Mau are particularly lovable. So then why did I give these animals such important parts to play in those stories?
Animals are still wild. My cat Blackberry purrs as she sleeps on my lap. But sometimes when she looks at me and her pupils narrow into slits, I think, wow––I live with a miniature panther. If she needed to, she can hunt well enough to survive in the woods. Humans have forgotten many of their instincts––or buried them under the skills we need for modern life.
This isn’t totally a bad thing. Reading and writing are relatively recent accomplishments! I would never want to live without language. And yet, certain sensations still strike deeper than words. Like when we watch a horse run across a meadow. Or a snake slither across our path. Or a bird fly across the sky.
If we remember to look up at that bird.
So that is why I put animals in my stories. To inspire us. To humble us. To remind us of a time when we were part of the natural world. To connect us to parts of ourselves that we shouldn’t forget.
Because, after all, we ARE animals too.
Jane grew up in Mequon, Wisconsin, right next to a magical woods. She learned how to inhabit characters by studying theater at Northwestern University. She was the 2013 Thurber House Children’s Writer in Residence. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center placed Jane’s third novel, The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, on its 2014 best-of-the-year list. Her most recent novel, The Book of Dares for Lost Friends, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. Jane and her husband and Blackberry the cat live in Brooklyn, but they are about to embark on a sabbatical to find new inspirations.