Animals play a key role in Cynthia Lord’s fiction—and in her own life. In addition to her middle grade novels (among them the 2008 Newbery Honor book, Rules), Lord is the author of the Hot Rod Hamster picture book series and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series. In Because of the Rabbit, her latest middle-grade offering, Lapi, the bunny that fifth grader Emma rescues and adopts, provides emotional support as she adjusts to big changes in her life. She’s attending public school for the first time after being homeschooled and feels abandoned by her older brother, who has a posse of new friends; Lapi helps pave the way for her friendship with Jack, a classmate who is apparently on the autism spectrum. Along with her husband and two children, Lord shares her Maine home with three rabbits adopted from an animal shelter, a dog, and two guinea pigs. She has also fostered more than two dozen bunnies to prepare them for adoption, an experience that inspired her February picture book, Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits (FSG). Lord spoke with PW about drawing from multiple facets of her life to write Because of the Rabbit.

Is it safe to assume that your obvious love of animals is rooted in your childhood?

Absolutely. I adored animals as a child, and I wanted a house full of them—but unfortunately that was not my parents’ plan. They did let my sister and me get a pet turtle, and we finally got a dog when I was in fourth grade, and that dog was the light of my life. As I result, I’ve let my own children have all the pets they want!

As an adult, why have you gravitated toward rabbits, as pets and now in your writing?

I was volunteering at an animal shelter when I met two bunnies, Blueberry and Muffin, and I totally fell in love with them. They had been through a lot—one had been abused—and they definitely needed to be together, so I brought them both home. We’ve had them for six years now. It makes me happy to be giving them the life I wish they’d had from the beginning. And when I started fostering bunnies, I was surrounded by them. And whenever that happens, a book often follows.

In this case, two books.

That’s true. I thought quite a bit about how bunnies are often misunderstood and about how surprising they can be. My own pets are staid, calm bunnies, but when I began fostering, I discovered that not all bunnies are like that. One that we fostered would suddenly jump up on tables and the couch, and I’d never seen any rabbit do that before! Every time we bring a new foster bunny home, I’m reminded that there’s a certain magic to bunnies. I hadn’t seen many books about real-life pet rabbits, and when one of our bunnies had a litter, my husband and I decided that we wanted to document their growth, because they change so quickly. Since he’s a photographer, he took lots of pictures, and I began writing—and it eventually became Borrowing Bunnies.

How would you describe Lapi’s role in Because of the Rabbit?

Lapi connects everything in the novel. Emma names her rabbit after Monsieur Lapin, a mischievous cottontail who was featured in the stories her late grandfather always told. My father-in-law was also a wonderful storyteller who loved nature, and though he died before our children were born, my husband and I keep his memory alive for them through retelling his stories. Lapi helps Emma connect with her Pépère and his storytelling, and she uses his stories for healing, for opening herself up to new possibilities, and for understanding others. Lapi also gives Emma, who misses her brother, something that is just hers.

And Lapi also helps Emma connect with Jack, her first friend at school.

Yes, Jack loves animals—and rabbits especially appeal to him. They are quiet and funny, and Jack loves knowing all the facts about them. I have a son with autism, and rabbits are his favorite pets. Our dog and guinea pigs are more sensory and make sounds that bother him. Emma and Jack’s friendship starts as many do, with a common bond, and that is Lapi. The rabbit stretches Jack and also stretches Emma.

Emma and Jack are both experiencing school after being homeschooled—what inspired that plot element?

I am a former public-school teacher and a strong believer in public-school education, but my son didn’t fit into that schooling model. The school building itself was an issue, given his sensory sensitivities, so I started homeschooling him. And my daughter was so jealous that he got to be home with me that I decided to homeschool her, too, from the end of third grade until she was ready for high school. She really enjoyed being homeschooled but was very excited to go back to public school. She and I had many honest conversations for this novel about the excitement and hard parts of starting public school after homeschooling.

Given the multiple personal threads you wove into the novel, did writing Because of the Rabbit come easily?

Not at all. I started this book over at least three times, but that’s not uncommon for me. This is my fifth novel, and four of them I had to start over at least once, usually after that first edit letter came. When that happens, you have to do your best to take all the parts and make them work harder to get the story you wanted to tell.

Any chance readers will encounter Emma and Jack again?

I do love Emma, but I love each of my characters! I’ve never been moved to do a sequel, but if the right story about Emma shows up, I would consider telling it. And I feel that Jack has more to say to the world. I always end my books with a bit of an opening that gives readers the opportunity to take the next step without me. The most powerful books, the ones we can’t stop thinking of, are not tied up with a neat bow. Kids will often tell me what they think should happen next in my stories. One reader actually wrote me saying, “I’ve written the next chapter, and here it is. It’s okay with me if you want to publish it.”

What can your fans expect next?

I’m now working on a new chapter book series and have an idea for my next novel, but I won’t start it until summer since I have so many school visits scheduled. And my husband and I want to do new another photographic picture book—this one about guinea pigs. Our two adorable guinea pigs are not opposed to posing in toy cars and other spots. As long as treats are involved, they are happy to do anything! And in terms of books beyond that—we’ll see. But it’s likely that animals will be involved.

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-545-91424-6