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Rescue dogs, debut picture books and advice for young writers: Interview with TOBY author/illustrator Hazel Mitchell

Cover from TOBY copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Congrats to my friend and agency sister Hazel Mitchell on the launch of her debut solo picture book, TOBY, published by Candlewick Press! Even though I’ve never met the real-life Toby in person, I’ve been following Hazel’s photos and posts about this sweet rescue dog via social media. And like many other Toby fans, I was genuinely distressed when I heard about Toby getting lost and I cheered out loud when he was finally found, safe. You can find out more about the real-life Toby’s adventures in this post by Hazel and LOTS of info, activities, free resources and other bonus info on the TOBY Bonus Page.

Synopsis of TOBY (Candlewick Press, for ages 4-6):

“When a young boy and his father move from one house to another, they decide to adopt a dog from the local rescue shelter. But their chosen dog, Toby, is having a tough time adjusting to his new life outside the shelter—howling all night, hiding fearfully from his new humans, forgetting where to go to the bathroom, and chasing a ball through the flower bed. The boy has promised to train his new companion, and he’s trying his best, but Dad is starting to get exasperated. Will Toby ever feel comfortable with his new family and settle into his forever home, or will Dad decide he’s not the right dog for them after all? A heartwarming story about the growing bond between a child and a new pet—inspired by the author’s experience with a rescue dog of the same name.”

You can find out more about Hazel and her work on her websiteblogTwitter and her TOBY Facebook page.

Congrats on the launch of TOBY! I love this story and illustrations so much.

Thanks so much, Debbie. And thank you for inviting me to Inky Girl … and for being the launch day blogger for ‘Toby’!

Q. What are your favorite bits of the book and why?

 Gosh. That’s a hard question, (as you know yourself!) So much changes when you’re working on a book. Bits you loved, suddenly you hate. Sometimes your favorite parts of a book get cut. (kill your darlings .. yes it happens in picture books too, folks!).

 One of my favorite parts of the book that I had to lose was a scene where Toby comes into the boy’s bedroom and licks his hand when he’s asleep. That happened to me with Toby the first week he was with us – he was SO afraid and he could only touch us when we were asleep. But that’s not what you asked me! My favorite parts of the book (that are still in the book) are … hmmm … I think when the boy and Toby see each other for the first time in the rescue shelter, when Toby is still in the cage. It’s kind of love at first sight and Toby has such a way of looking at you (in real life), like he is worldly wise.

 I also love the bit where Toby has had an accident in the house and Dad is mad with him. I feel so sorry for Toby and Dad is SO harassed, a typical parent look on his face. And then there is the scene in bed, where the boy is cuddling Toby and Toby is cuddling his toy rabbit. It took me a long time to get that scene right. I had to show the boy’s worries and Toby’s worries and even the rabbit’s worries.

 So I am quite pleased with that one. And it never fails to make me tear up. And I gave Toby a tennis ball, because my agent (Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd, NYC, loves to play tennis!).

Q. Did you face any challenges in putting own dog into a picture book story? If so, how did you solve them? Do you have any advice for writers and illustrators about fictionalizing a real-life pet (or person)?

Yes I did. Not least, because it was the first time I’d attempted or thought about doing it. It happened like this: I was at a retreat and talking to children’s editor Harold Underdown about ideas I was knocking around for a new dummy, but nothing was getting me excited.

Harold suggested I write about Toby … this was at a time when I was posting online a lot about Toby as we’d just fostered and adopted him. A lot of people were following Toby’s progress and had taken him into their hearts. I HAD thought about writing about Toby, but then so many people seem to write about their dogs, right? And quite frankly I thought a story about how Toby came to live with me and my hubby was just boring. I couldn’t think of a story arc around that, apart from Toby’s progress from fearful dog to trusting dog. And THAT was taking a long time and is still ongoing.

I needed a story that would hold the attention of a child. So I toyed around with it a bit and thought, why not give Toby a different family? He could still be the real Toby, but in a different setting. I needed a child in the story that young readers could relate to and to create emotional energy with Toby.

So I sat down to sketch and the boy in the story appeared. He was just right. Not too young, not too old. At first I put both parents in the story, but when I was brain storming at Candlewick Press with Liz Bicknell (editor), Ann Stott (art director) and Carter Hasegawa (assistant editor), we decided maybe just the boy and his mother would be more interesting. And then I went home and thought, no, he is just with his Dad.

We don’t know why it’s just Dad, the reader can fill that in. That created a nice emotional triangle between the boy, his Dad and Toby. At the beginning of the story they’ve just moved house and the boy is lonely. They adopt Toby, who turns out to be much more of a handful than they expected. Dad isn’t coping very well (again the reader can fill in the spaces as to why) and thinks Toby may not be the right dog for them.

The boy has to try and solve the problems with Toby and we see his frustrations too – as well as Toby’s lack of co-operation. So that created the crisis. Does it all turn out well? You’ll have to read the book! I do like that there are unanswered questions in the book, that a lot is left to the reader’s imagination and that the ending is a bit like real life – open ended. Not everything is cut and dried. There is room for discussion.

Looking back, what started out as a straight forward adopt-a-dog book turned into a book that looks at the emotional undercurrents that even a small child can understand – when things don’t turn out like you hoped, when a parent gets overloaded, when there seems no solution and everything might go wrong. I am totally of the opinion that children understand so much more than we give them credit for. (As do dogs!). I hope that readers will find deeper emotional currents in the book than just the surface story, and that that’s what will make a child want to read it again.

So my advice to writers and illustrators telling a story about a real life animal (or person) in a fictionalized setting? Ask yourself: what’s at the heart of the story? In my case it was the emotional development of Toby and friendship and trust with the boy. That stayed true to my real life experience, (having a fearful animal can be very frustrating!). I was able to create a story arc with new characters that were age appropriate.

Always consider the same elements: theme, mood, setting, voice, POV, arc and most importantly, story. What I found worked best in this story was simplification. It’s a story any child can understand told from a child’s point of view. It’s quiet and emotional about real life ups and downs. It might be more difficult to do this with a real person, although we all take bits of people we know and put them into our characters, right? But I am not sure I could give a real person a fictional life. Animals and inanimate objects seem to be easier!

Click image above to watch the replay of Hazel’s TOBY webinar.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers and illustrators?

My best piece of advice is read and read and read.

And if you want to illustrate – draw and draw and draw.

Study the writers and illustrators you love and see how they put their stories together and how they create their illustrations.

Nothing can replace practice, both in writing and illustrating, or in any artistic profession.

Get to know what you like, what interests you and write and draw about that, about what’s in your heart.

And spend as much time around seasoned authors and illustrators as you can.

But most of all – don’t stop creating.

Q. What are you excited about nowadays?

I am always excited to start on a new project. And to finish ones that are languishing in my ‘in tray’. Alongside a couple of picture book dummies, I have a middle grade mystery novel set in England that I REALLY want to revise and send to my agent. That’s a real departure for me … and new things are always exciting!

Hazel Mitchell has always loved drawing and still cannot be reliably left alone with a pencil. She has illustrated many books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? ‘Toby’ is her author-illustrator debut from Candlewick Press. Her work has received several awards and been recognized by Bank Street Books, Learning Magazine, Reading is Fundamental, Foreword Reviews, NYCReads365, Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, Charlotte/Mecklenburg , Chicago and Maine State libraries among others. Originally from England, where she attended art-college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. She still misses British fish and chips, but is learning to love lobster. Find out more about her at and is represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd., NYC.

For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.