Author Interview: Robert McCarty

When his kids were young, Robert McCarty would create stories to share with his kids. He had hoped that they would encourage his kids to get excited about stories and reading. Now, he is sparking that interest in children everywhere. Those original bedtime stories morphed into the Planet of the Dog, an illustrated chapter book fantasy.

Although he didn’t originally envision the book becoming a series, as he began to explore the characters and events, he saw a need to add some history and context to the characters and events of the first book. In 2007, Castle in the Mist arrived; and in 2008, Robert published Snow Valley Heroes, the third title in the series. The fourth book, A Travel Guide to the Planet Of the Dogs, is due to be published next year.

planet_of_the_dogsRT: Welcome to the Reading Tub® and congratulations on the success of your fantasy-adventure chapter book series, Planet of the Dogs. The books are drawn from stories you used to tell your children. Where did you draw the inspiration for those tales? Did your kids ever add their ideas to the stories?

Robert: I was an avid reader as a child. As a father, I read many books and made up stories for my children in hopes that they would love stories and reading. The kids asked many questions and asked for repeat stories. I believe those experiences have influenced my writing.

RT: Planet of the Dogs is the first book in your series. Had you planned to make this a series when you first started writing?

Robert: I was not thinking of writing a series when I started. The ideas for the series came as I was writing Planet Of The Dogs and I thought about other times and places where the dogs could come to planet earth to help people. I have imagined events that took place before and after the stories now in the books – the history of the Stone City warriors, for instance: where did they come from? how did they become powerful? how did they acquire their horses? Or, how did Daisy and Bean’s family come to live in Green Valley? Where were they from? Why did they leave their home place? In writing, each book generates questions and ideas for other books. Editing the plots in order to maintain clarity and pace is a challenge for me. I am currently working on the fourth book, A Travel Guide to the Planet Of the Dogs. This book will include visits to places like Shepherd Hills, Retriever Meadows and Muttville. Stella is currently working on the color illustrations, and it will be published in 2010.

RT: You spent most of your career working in visual arts, as producer, writer, and director of (largely) documentary film and video. How did you find the transition to fiction writing? Is there a difference between creating a story designed to be shown on a screen and one that’s played in our mind’s eye?

snow_valleyRobert: I visualized Planet Of The Dogs as an animated film when I wrote it. Imagination also played a part in the educational and training films and videos I worked on. In my experience, there are parallels in writing for print or writing for the screen. You always hope to take the reader or the viewer on a journey involving both the mind and the mind’s eye.

RT: Several reviewers have commented on the “detailed, stunning drawings” and how they add to the story. Can you tell us more about the illustration process? Did you have ideas on what you wanted the visuals to be and share them with your illustrator? Or did the illustrator read the story and select scenes that she thought would work best?

Robert: The illustrations are by my wife, Stella Mustanoja-McCarty. The style of the illustrations, the elements and arrangement, and the final results are all her work. We talk about each book before I start and then as the writing moves forward. I often read passages to her. At the same time, she starts the illustrations, usually, but not always, telling me the idea behind an illustration. I rarely ask for a specific illustration. I did ask for a drawing of Stone City in Planet Of The Dogs, but even then I was as vague as I could be because I don’t want to encumber her creativity. In the Stone City illustration, the ominous feeling, the dark birds soaring overhead, the banner with the axe, the architecture, and the mountains in the background are all from Stella’s imagination. I actually avoid looking at a work in progress – unless she asks me – until near the end.

RT: Reviewers have described Planet of the Dogs as a book for kids “4 to 12” and “8 to 12.” On your blog, you identify the ages are “6 to 12.” Those descriptions suggest distinct audiences, and in fact you talked about this on your blog. When you wrote the book, did you envision parents reading it with children or kids reading it themselves?

Robert: Both. As for the appropriate age, I don’t want to seem contrary about the issue of appropriate reader age. Some kids are more advanced readers than others. We have letters from mothers reading the books to 4 and 5 year olds who have become very involved with the story and characters. A second-grade teacher said her students loved reading the books to dogs. Other people have told us that the books are too advanced for challenged readers, but they are great for reading aloud. Our suggestion, subjective though it may be, is based on the fact that the first-hand reports we have received tell us that kids from 6 to 12 have enjoyed reading our books.

RT: The Planet of the Dog series has a number of things that seem to be geared to reluctant readers: short chapters, full-page illustrations, and lots of action. Was this by design? Do you have any personal experience with struggling readers that inspired you to create books for this audience?

castle_mistRobert: There were no personal experiences with reluctant readers that influenced the chapter structure. With the first book, I had asked my daughter and a journalist friend to look at an early draft. They both told me to be careful not “overwrite” the story; keep the writing clear and the action moving. I’m sure I also learned from reading to my children and grandchildren.

RT: In a number of places, teachers have used Planet of the Dogs as part of their reading development programs. Some kids read the books to specially-trained therapy dogs who listen while kids read to them. You and your wife have gotten very involved in promoting this work. Can you tell us more about how we can help?

Robert: It seems that libraries have taken the lead in initiating therapy reading dog programs, and they are proliferating rapidly. Although educators and teachers have been slower than librarians to use this resource to help children embrace reading, there is movement in this area. We became involved in the program after working with Julie Hauck a teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Ms. Hauck is part of the Pages For Preston program that helps second- and third-grade readers.

Simply by talking about therapy reading dogs in this forum and others, you help raise awareness of the benefits of therapy dogs to leaders in the world of children’s books and reading.

RT: What were your own favorite books (if any) as a child? Did you see those same interests in your own children as they became readers?

Robert: Albert Payson Terhune’s Real Stories of Real Dogs; Babar books; The Hardy Boys series; Treasure Island; and Gulliver’s Travels, as well as works by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. My children all enjoyed reading as do those of my grandchildren who are old enough.

RT: Were there any books (or books to film) that inspired you in to become a visual arts professional?

Robert: My entire life has been influenced by books, from childhood favorites to James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway and a multitude of others in adulthood. I have had two careers. My first career in film and TV was also influenced by a number of film directors: Pare Lorentz, Robert Flaherty, Willard Van Dyke, Kubrick, Renoir, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Wadja, DeSica and Eisenstien. Books like The Little Prince have influenced my second career as a children’s book author. In writing the Plant of the Dogs series, I draw on early history, from Herodotus to Duncan Norton-Taylor’s book, The Celts. This may seem somewhat over the top, but there are very real parallels with the events and ways of life in early history and those in our books. I sometimes write about these connections on our Barking Planet blog.

RT: We talk a lot today about how 20th Century kids grew up in a more visual world where they were drawn to get their stories from television, videos, etc. Your children not only grew up in that environment, but lived it first hand, as you produced visual arts. Now that they’re grown, are your children more inclined to read a book or watch a movie? Do you see the same tendencies to pick books over TV in your grandchildren?

Robert: They are more inclined to read books. All of my grandchildren enjoy books and have been limited TV watching. They all enjoy watching feature length animated movies on DVD or in theatres. This seems to enhance and compliment their interest in books. Two of my grandkids are avid readers, and my 10-year-old grandson, Alec, enjoys writing multi-chapter books and stories.

RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Robert: I would like to thank librarians and teachers for all the good that they do, especially when they nurture the gift of reading in the young.

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