When Dori Hillestad Butler’s adult daughter visited for the first time after adopting a cat, it was obvious her childhood dog – who still lives with Butler – noticed there was a newcomer in the family.
“He just went nuts, just sniffing her all over, and I started to imagine what he might say to this cat if he could talk to him and what the cat might say back,” Butler said.
From there sprang the idea for “Dear Beast,” the first in a series of early chapter books. The books are fully illustrated and meant to serve as a bridge between picture books and chapter books.
In Butler’s series, the original pet is the cat, Simon – also the name of Butler’s grandkitty – and the dog is the newcomer. She had already written books from the point of view of a dog, so she wanted to do something different this time.
“I also thought it was more realistic that the cat would be the one who was jealous of a newcomer,” Butler said.
The stories are written in letters between Simon and the dog, Baxter, delivered via snail mail – an actual snail. The two share the same boy, Andy, but not the same house. Simon lives at Mom’s house, Baxter at Dad’s.
“It’s about a cat and dog who learn to share this boy,” Butler said. “But they both have different ideas about what the boy needs, both in a pet and in life.”
It’s a story “about two unlikely friends finding things that they agree on,” said Kevan Atteberry, who illustrates the books.
The second book in the series, “Dear Beast: The Pet Parade,” was released earlier this month. Butler and Atteberry will have an online reading on Sunday through Wishing Tree Books. It will feature a virtual pet parade and a tutorial on how to draw Simon and Baxter.
Often, authors and illustrators don’t work together or know each other. But in this case, Atteberry has been part of the story from the beginning.
The real Simon was given to Atteberry by well-intentioned friends after his wife died, but he didn’t want a cat at the time. Atteberry and Butler both live in the Seattle area and are in a writers critique group together.
So, when Atteberry told the group he was looking for a new home for a cat, Butler suggested her daughter. Cat and daughter were a match.
Then, Atteberry helped critique the story in early drafts. But, he wasn’t thinking about it as an illustrator. “I just thought her writing was hilarious,” he said.
Later, Butler sold the story. She told her editor the book’s backstory and wondered if Atteberry could be considered for the illustrations.
“Nobody else could draw that cat the way Kevan could, because Kevan had that cat in his house for a couple weeks,” Butler said.
Atteberry had recently published a book with the same publisher, Holiday House, and the company was interested in working with him again, so it all worked out.
“Dear Beast” was Atteberry’s first early chapter book, and he said the process was a lot more intensive than for the picture books or middle grade books he’d illustrated before. (He also writes pictures books, and adults might know his work as the creator of Clippy, the paperclip helper in Microsoft Office.)
Just the sheer number of illustrations needed – 70 vs. 12 to 20 for a typical picture book – was more work. Plus the characters and plotline were much more developed.
“I had to work a little harder and had more to work with,” Atteberry said.
He knew what Simon looked like, but coming up with Baxter’s look took a while, he said.
For Butler, the tricky part involved writing Baxter’s story, and dealing with the dog’s bad spelling.
“It can be kind of a controversial thing, to be introducing spelling errors at this age,” she said. “But I think it can also support beginning readers.”
The publisher has a reading specialist who looks at the books and checks that the misspellings are realistic – and that they are readable.
Baxter is like any child, Butler said. “When Baxter slows down and checks his work, he does improve.”
But, one reason she likes including the misspellings is that she wants to show writing, especially letter writing, is for everyone.
“If you think you can’t spell and therefore shouldn’t write letters, that’s wrong,” she said.
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