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Sheila Keenan's New Dog Days

Former graphic novel editor Sheila Keenan has jumped over to the other side of the business and is now a graphic novel writer. She shares three stories of  man's best friend helping us out in some of our darkest times: in wartime. In Dogs of War, her new book with artist Nathan Fox, she jumps through three periods of wartime to show some truly heroic canines. Here, she gives us the scoop behind the stories.


Congratulations on releasing Dogs of War! How long did you spend working on it?

It took me over a year to research and write the manuscript and panel/art specs for the three different stories in Dogs of War. Then Scholastic hired Nathan Fox and there was a fairly long period of routing and reviewing sketches, inks, lettered/colored pages, etc. I have to say, Nathan’s powerful artwork blew me away!


Why did you want to focus on dogs in wartime? What drew you to the subject?

Serendipity and my backlist! I’ve been a nonfiction author for some time now and have written about animals before because I’m interested in the intersection between us and other species, hence my earlier book, Animals in the House: A History of Pets and People. Then I chanced upon a really cool photo of a WWI messenger dog (in the recycling pile in my hallway!) and the idea started percolating.


I’m fascinated by war stories because to me, war is unimaginable. I guess I think if I read enough soldiers’ letters and memoirs, watch enough war movies and documentaries, bone up on history, I’ll somehow “get it.” And that’s what my characters are trying to do in Dogs of War, or as the young soldier in the WWI story says, “I wanted to be in the club of men who look each other in the eye…and know something.” So what I’m exploring in Dogs of War is the price of joining that club and the complications of gaining that knowledge. And because kids (and adults) are so empathetic toward animals, the relationship between a young man and his dog is the perfect storyline for exploring the complexity of war. Through the graphic format and the historical fiction/adventure genre, I’m also acknowledging the bravery and brotherhood of battle and the deep emotional bonds between a soldier who’s responsible for the life of a dog who might save his life. 


Do you have dogs yourself?

Alas, no. But I have a canine wish list and some day….


How did you team up with your artist, Nathan Fox?

Scholastic liked my proposal and acquired Dogs of War and after I turned in the manuscript and panel/art specs, Phil Falco over in the Scholastic art department had the excellent idea of bringing in Nathan Fox as the book’s artist; we all agreed Nathan was a spot-on choice --- and you can see what an amazingly powerful job he did with these three stories. Really excellent work, he nailed it!


You spent several years working as a graphic novel editor and then left to begin writing full-time. What are some of the things that you learned as an editor that you applied to yourself while writing this book?

I still work as a freelance editor in addition to writing my own books. Dogs of War is my first graphic novel and I used the full-script method. It did indeed help to have been an editor in this field, particularly in terms of balancing text and visuals. As a prose writer, it’s hard to learn to go lean, but still provide enough context and drama for your story. But that’s part of what you work on with a creator when you’re editing --- so I had to give myself a taste of my own medicine! 


What made you choose these eras --- World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War --- to focus on?

My WWI story takes place during a Christmas truce incident. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of soldiers deciding on their own not to fight for a day, so I wanted to build a story around that. WWII is perennially high-interest for kids, so that was a must, but I wanted to cover something a little different from the usual battles. In my research, I discovered an interesting memoir, War Below Zero, published in 1944 about building military bases in Greenland and knew I’d found my story. And the Vietnam story, which is closest to my heart, just had to be in there. That was the war of my childhood, so it is the most vivid to me, never mind how important it was --- is --- in terms of our national psyche. 


Do you plan to do more dog tales from different wars?

Since dogs have been used in military campaigns through the ages, there are many more stories I could tell. I already have the synopses worked out for three more stories, so I guess we’ll see how Dogs of War does and then hope for volume two.


How did you research this book? I imagine there were a lot of fascinating discussions with soldiers and dog trainers about how dogs work in military settings.

I feel like I’ve talked to so many people because I’ve read so many military memoirs, collections of soldiers letters, and visited so many K-9 web sites and the sites of military buffs. There are tremendous resources out there. Researching Dogs of War was fascinating historically, heartbreaking on the human level, and sometimes just plain cool, like when you read stuff like an Army comic book on military courtesy or an illustrated military dog training manual.


What surprised you most while researching this book?

I was surprised to learn that military dogs were considered “equipment” in the Vietnam War and left behind, vs. being demobilized as many dogs had been after World War II. That fact inspired my Vietnam story. Since I had already written a nonfiction kids’ book, Animals in the House: A History of Pets and People, I already knew about dogs’ keen faculties, which make them excellent scouts, guards, trackers, etc. But still it’s pretty awesome to think that dogs can be trained to work with “silent” signals like hand movements or that even given all our military technology, there’s still room for canine heroes like the SEAL dog used in the bin Laden raid.


What are you working on next?

I just finished the manuscript for a picture book collaboration with my husband, Kevin Duggan, about a whale rescue. A far cry from war, but another example of my ongoing interest in how we interact with other species and a follow-up to our first picture book, As the Crow Flies. And building on Dogs of War, I’ve got another proposal in with my publisher for a new series of historical fiction in the graphic format, which I think could be a big hit, especially considering all the buzz about Common Core.