How can an emotional support dog inspire a children’s book?
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison
When I was ten years old, I read The School Story by Andrew Clements. The book follows Natalie, a sixth-grade girl who writes under a pseudonym and publishes her first novel before her thirteenth birthday. This story takes the reader on a journey through the ins and outs of the publishing process and bursts with kid genius. The heart of the story is that a girl poured her heart into writing and had the courage to share her creation with the world. When I read The School Story, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I would spend hours at my desk, my trusty BIC mechanical pencil scratching across sheaves of college-ruled paper, creating characters and worlds all my own.
Life continued, and as I got older, I got busier with different activities and interests. Writing my own stories got pushed aside to make time for homework, piano practice, and spending time with friends. By the time I got to college, writing fiction had been forgotten.
I was lucky enough to meet my friend Lori Ries (author of the Charlie and Emmett books and the Step Into Spanish collection) in 2019. When she told me she was an author, I mentioned that writing had always been a dream of mine. She encouraged me to write again, and with her mentoring, I was able to polish and submit a manuscript.
My first book, Caesar and Reagan, was released in March of 2023. Writing a book has been a magical experience. It feels like a gift to my younger self and a joyful way to create. To write my story, I drew inspiration from the world around me, created characters, identified the story’s conflict, and followed it through to a resolution. I hope my experience is helpful to those who want to write but may not be sure where to start.
Inspiration for stories is all around us. Dr. Seuss thought the early reader books on the market were dull. He was inspired to create rhyming books that were both educational and funny, like The Cat in the Hat. A.A. Milne watched his son play with his stuffed animals and was inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and his adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. Paying attention to the world and noticing what matters to us sparks our imagination and creativity.
My inspiration for Caesar and Reagan came from my sister-in-law and her dog. During 2020, the pandemic was raging. The stress was taking its toll on everyone. My husband’s younger sister, Reagan, was struggling with anxiety. After much thought and research, her parents decided that an emotional support dog would be helpful.
During the holidays, Caesar joined the family. He was a little ball of cream curls and bouncy energy. He immediately recognized that Reagan needed him and took his role seriously. Throughout the rest of the pandemic, he stayed by her side morning, noon, and night. With his love and friendship, Reagan started to recover. She slept better and was able to take on everyday challenges. It was beautiful to see their friendship blossom.
When restrictions were lifted, Reagan went back to school. Caesar missed her so much! I came over one day to find Caesar sitting on the stairs, looking out the window. At his feet, he had one of Reagan’s stuffed animals from her room. He looked at me, and I could practically hear his thoughts. “Why did Reagan leave? This isn’t right. We need to be together!” That image left a pawprint on my mind and heart.
Caesar’s devotion to Reagan inspired me; I knew I wanted to write a story about a dog and his girl. I had the basis for my characters, and now I had to get to know them.
A writer gets acquainted with their characters by asking lots of questions. Some are basic: “What does my character look like? How old are they? What do they like to do?” Other questions dig deeper: “What scares them the most? What is the most important thing at this time in their life? What do they want? What will they do to obtain it?”
As I explored these questions, characters began to take shape and become lifelike. I experimented with a few different names for the girl and dog duo. Ultimately, nothing sounded right. Even though details had changed and my characters were different people on a fictional adventure, the heart of this story was Caesar and Reagan. I asked Reagan’s permission to use her name in my story, and she graciously agreed.
Remember the Conflict
Author Robert Mckee said, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” If characters don’t struggle, they don’t learn and grow. The story falls flat. By getting to know our characters, we see potential conflicts.
In my story, I knew Caesar cared most about being with Reagan. Separation was his biggest fear. So I thought, what would Caesar do if Reagan had to leave him? I imagined that he would go search for Reagan, and of course, since he’s a dog, he would make friends and have adventures along the way.
I dug a little deeper. Where would a child go that their dog couldn’t follow? What might catch a dog’s interest while journeying through a town? What kind of shops might be seen, and what kind of people might be met? With those answers, Caesar was on his way.
Follow Through to Resolution
A story comes to a satisfying end when the character conquers their conflict. In my story, Caesar makes his way through town to the birthday party where Reagan is playing with her friends. Though it seems like all his problems are solved, that’s not the case just yet. Charlotte (the birthday girl) is scared of dogs, and then it starts to rain. It seems like everything is ruined until Caesar runs out and plays in the downpour. The children are delighted, and soon everyone, even Charlotte, is having a great time.
Stories are memorable and inspiring when characters use their strengths and creativity to solve problems. The results may be surprising, but they are always satisfying.
I’ve learned valuable lessons from creating stories. The most ordinary moments can stand out if you are looking for inspiration. We can learn from our characters and their growth. Resolutions can give us hope and cheer. I found lots of joy in writing Caesar and Reagan, and I have loved hearing how children have felt the humor and heart as they read the story.
Everyone has a story inside them. You can shape your stories and create something wonderful by focusing on inspiration, characters, conflict, and resolution. Take a deep breath, turn to a new page, and enjoy the journey. As C.S. Lewis said, “You can make anything by writing.”
Kate Nilson is the author of Caesar and Reagan.