For her latest novel, Raising Lumie, a June 16 release from Viking, author Joan Bauer immersed herself in the “fascinating” and very cuddly process of raising the puppies that will become guide dogs for the blind one day. In her story, 12-year-old Olive takes on the role of puppy raiser, and the experience helps her process the recent death of her beloved father and find her footing in a newly reconfigured family and living arrangement. Bauer spoke with PW about why she wanted to approach this topic and what it was like to do puppy-centric research.
This is your 14th book; how long have you been writing for young people at this point, and what does it feel like to have created such a library?
I’m sitting here in my office, looking at the poster for my first book signing, for Squashed, and it came out in 1992. Squashed was born out of a real time of adversity in my life. I’d had a car accident and all this stuff was going on and I’d never even thought of writing something with a teenager in it. And this crazy voice of Ellie started rising as I was going through my recovery. And she was so compelling. She was strong and I wasn’t; she knew what she wanted, and I had no idea. I had sort of let my dream [of writing books] go and said, “Oh, this isn’t going to work; this car accident was awful.” I’d never known that a character could kind of grab you by the hand and say “Look, you need to write this story.” It wasn’t audible or anything like that, but it was that compelling. And so I knew that I was in good hands and I hoped that she was too.
I also found that the humor of that book, and the metaphor about having a big dream, is something that I’ve carried through a lot of the stories I’ve written. I always had a job when I was a kid and I loved that. It was responsibility and I earned money; I loved all those things. It’s wonderful to look back now. There’s just something about the number 14. It feels like I should be a boxed set or something. It’s fun and it’s satisfying and they’re all still in print—it’s a good place to be.
What drew you to the world of guide dog training and puppy raisers? And why did you want to write about it for young readers?
I have always been fascinated by service dogs, ever since I was little. I don’t really understand what that crack in the universe is that you have an idea you’re sort of interested in and then all of a sudden it’s like, “whump,” this is the time. I’d had a very successful dog book with Almost Home [Viking, 2012] and my editor and I were talking about what would be another good way to continue that love of dogs because I really enjoyed writing about them—and there it was. I love writing about heroes, too. So, all of a sudden it just seemed to me that service dogs and the people who train and raise them are very much my kind of hero, one who isn’t going around saying “I’m a hero, here’s my cape.”
Puppy raising is something people do because they want to give back. I love that what’s required is 24/7 commitment to just put yourself out there. I knew that this was a community of people I wanted to get to know, because they really are everyday heroes.
When I started doing research, all the books that I could find were about the older dogs that would lead a blind person and do all sorts of marvelous things. But there wasn’t anything about the actual training of these little dogs. What does it look like to be a pre-hero? What does it look like to have the right stuff, what are they looking for? That fascinated me. Because you don’t think of a little baby hero as having to pee every 13 minutes, but they do!
But the trick then was, who was my protagonist? Then one of those life coincidences happened. A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak at a bereavement camp in Morristown, N.J. called Good Grief. They were using my book Almost Home at this camp to help tell their stories. I went, and let me tell you, I loved these kids. They were just amazing. They were walking through grief and they were honoring their loved ones who had died. They were laughing, they were not awkward, they were right out there talking about it. It was just so real and powerful. The moment I arrived at that camp I knew that my 12-year-old protagonist Olive was one of those kids. She was walking through the loss of her dad in this real and powerful way.
Then my brain clicked to all the resilience research I’ve read over the years about kids. One of the best things you can do for a hurting kid is to help them focus on something they’re good at that gives them joy. Well, Olive is, in her words, the greatest dog lover in North America. I knew putting all that together that I’d found my next story.
What kind of research did you do?
It was arduous. I hugged so many puppies, I would come home exhausted [laughs].
It began with a puppy raising group in Silver Spring, Md. They invited me in, and I got to meet the dogs. The group’s leader was an extraordinary source of wisdom for me as I went along the path of this book. I watched all the interaction. They really want to have the dogs together and dogs have to work certain things out for themselves. You could see the community and how they support each other. They would meet a couple times a week and just tear up this man’s backyard. It was so wonderful. You see this naturalness of dogs, because they have to learn that part too.
There’s another part of the research that’s fascinating to me—even when the puppies are very young, the raisers acclimate them to noises so they begin to feel comfortable and not feel worried about that. Apparently, but not always, there are rare puppies that are just OK with all of that, thank you very much. They definitely have their own attitudes that they bring into the world.
I want to give a shoutout to two places. I went to Guiding Eyes for the Blind and visited the puppy raising class. Then I went to The Seeing Eye, which is the oldest group—I think they’re over 90 years old now. I got to spend half a day on their campus. I was so impressed with all the people involved in this. The whole thing is about dignity. And all of these hands and hearts coming together to help one dog help one blind person have freedom… I tell you, it wrecks me, it really does.
It was amazing to see the training, to see these dogs being loved as part of a family and trusting people. I came away feeling this world’s a pretty good place. I had way more research than I needed, and my great task was just to take the diamonds of it and show that year [of puppy training].
After the training, when these dogs get their blind companion, that is their whole world. You see them looking up. And that’s one of the hardest things [as a puppy raiser], when you say goodbye. [In the book] Olive is Lumie’s world, she is everything, and now to change that focus and to not have that black nose looking up at you is hard. I love some of the life lessons for us about where are we really supposed to look in life. Look at the good stuff. Look at the people that you trust. Look at the ones who are helping, and train yourself to really want to do something for somebody else.
What are you working on now?
I can’t really talk too much about what’s coming next. But I’ve been asked to work on a screenplay for one of my books so that’s kind of fun. I started out as a screenwriter.
I also have an idea that I haven’t even talked to my editor about yet. I’ve been working on a very funny book for middle grade kids. It’s a little bit different than what I’ve done before, but I’m really excited about it. So, if she reads this, she’ll probably ask me what’s going on.
You know, with all these things happening in the world right now you think, “Oh my goodness, my book’s coming out in the middle of a pandemic,” and yet, I’m really glad it is. I think there’s something in this book that encourages readers to keep going and to not give up, to hold on to who you are and to walk through grief. And sometimes grief has hope sitting there in the backseat. So, I’m excited for it to come out and I do hope that it will help people and really get kids to see a new role that they can play, to find a voice and to step out and make a difference.
Raising Lumie by Joan Bauer. Viking, $16.99 June 16 ISBN 978-0-593-11320-2