Puppy farming is a subject which has gathered much deserved (and needed) momentum to educate more dog lovers in recent years. But while many adults are still learning how to spot the signs of a puppy farmer, how do you teach the next generation?
That was the task author and puppy farm campaigner Janetta Harvey was posed with as she finished writing her second book and started work on her third. This time, she wanted to go in a different direction reaching younger readers with fictional characters but with the same theme in mind: puppy farming.
There's a reason I'm driven to write on this single theme; the injustices suffered by dogs the world over in the breeding industry can never be written about enough in my view until the suffering ends.
This is Twinkle, who inspired 'Saving Maya'
Till the day comes that dogs are not kept in confinement for the sole purpose of producing puppies I will keep writing for them. Giving them a place in the world where their stories are told and their lives matter. It's the best contribution I can make to efforts to one day bring the industry that subjects dogs to lives of misery to an end.
Making the decision to write for children on this sombre subject was surprisingly easy. Children enjoy all kinds of dark stories; we only have to think about examples in classic children's literature like Black Beauty or Watership Down, to see that tales about injustices and cruelty to animals have a firm place in many childhoods. Getting started on writing though was much harder, as I quickly realised that as someone who doesn't have children or much regular contact with any, pitching it right might be a challenge.
But I knew this was the readership that needs to know the horrible truth behind the millions of sweet puppies for sale around the world today. Educating children on puppy farming and the cruelties that are rife in the puppy trade is critical if we're to make any difference in how puppies are sourced in future. My firm belief is that if we can reach into the minds of future puppy buyers with good campaigns, it will affect how they source their canine friends.
As my writing is my campaigning, I wasn't to be deterred by the small detail of never having written for this readership before. I found a brilliant quote from the author of Charlotte's Web, E.B. White, which pushed me on:
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”
I was sure I could do that. But I needed help.
That came in the form of Annabel Wilson. Annabel is a primary school teacher, mother, dog lover and artist. When I first approached her with a request to illustrate what eventually became 'Saving Maya' it was still just a fledgeling idea but one I knew I'd make happen one way or another. I know I can't draw and drawings would be needed but quite what, I had no idea, or real brief to give Annabel. I also knew I needed more than an illustrator and I planned to pick her teacher-brains.
There was no proper storyline beyond me wanting to contrast the lives of dogs kept for breeding in puppy farms, and those that live happily in regular homes. Normal dogs, in other words, not abused breeding machines. I didn't know at that early stage how dark a story it would or could be for young readers. My chosen illustrator would have a key guiding role, although she didn't know it at that stage. Thankfully Annabel liked the kernel of an idea and jumped on board. I was relieved, she was excited.
Illustrations by Annabel Wilson for 'Saving Maya'
Being a teacher and parent, early on Annabel helped me see the full potential of writing a book on this subject for a younger audience. I'd grown up in a household where reading was encouraged but I'd forgotten how I'd talk about whatever I was reading with my mum. Annabel reminded me how children do this.
In my focus on writing for a younger audience, I'd completely overlooked the potential of children educating their parents having read the book. I'd invited Annabel to illustrate and knew she'd be invaluable in helping me pitch it right. But more than this, she'd provided an insight which galvanised me to use the story to influence a broader audience than my immediate target readership.
Once I realised that 'Saving Maya' could influence parents in discussions and decisions made about getting a family dog, I was well away. The story came, the words flowed and the book steadily took shape. I wrote what I would have liked to read as a child, knowing what I do now about puppy farming. I got into the minds of the main characters who are based, as all my writing is, on real-life dogs who I know.
Maya, the central character is a compilation of my three dogs rescued from the worst kind of breeding places, barren puppy farms where the lives of dogs are nothing but suffering. I drew on all the research I've done over the years and imagined how my dogs must have felt existing in the filthy dark breeding sheds they were confined in for years. And I tried to forget I was writing for children. I wrote for the dogs and knew that way, I'd write honestly.
Annabel's input throughout the book was essential. I knew I needed illustrations in the book but it wasn't until I started closely working with an illustrator that I fully understood the impact of art on a reader. This is particularly important with children's books involving animals. Annabel sees the images in 'Saving Maya' as essential components in helping the story, and messages within it, resonate with readers:
“Art has a subtle impact which complements writing. In the context of reading and interpretation of a story or message, an illustration can be 'read' as much as the words can. Empathy created by the words is enhanced by a sensitive illustration. In 'Saving Maya' both words and images play a part in influencing the reader's mindset and emotional response to the plight of dogs in the terrible world of intensive and cruel dog breeding for profit.”
As well as educating on the stark reality of what life is like for dogs in the breeding industry, a major aim for me with all my writing is to encourage pet adoption. By adopting dogs, it takes the market away from the puppy farmers. The story includes several canine characters with back stories heard daily in rescues everywhere: dogs abandoned because they're old, or the novelty has worn off, or a baby comes along. Children learn from loveable, engaging characters within gripping stories and the additional rescue dogs in the story enhance the book's central message.
Reader feedback, early reviews and talking with children who have read it, confirm that what Annabel and I have produced will sit in the minds of readers and affect their actions in future.
There's a deep engagement with the issues; after reading 'Saving Maya' children are explaining why it's wrong to treat dogs in the way depicted in the story.
There's a real sense that they want to right the wrongs that were done to animals who they closely relate to as friends. And it's not just children who are engaged, the book is appealing to readers of all ages, something not quite accidental, and entirely pleasing as I strive to impact puppy buyers thoughts and actions through all written means possible.