[Ed. Note: McCall's offering a book giveaway - see end of post!]
Emily Dickinson said, “Dogs are better than humans because they know but do not tell.” I agree wholeheartedly. Some of my fondest memories of childhood involve time spent tromping through the North Georgia woods with a dog, or curled up on the couch with a scary story and a good dog. The thing that I love about my dog friends, old and new, is that they love so easily, so unconditionally, and so nonjudgmentally. Plus, they’re really good at keeping our most personal secrets.
I guess that’s why I return again and again to writing stories about dog-human relationships. My first middle grade novel, Stella, is part of Shadow Mountain Publishing’s empathy-building lineup and is told from Stella’s point of view. Stella just so happens to be a beagle who is forced to retire from her explosive detection work after an accident at the airport leaves her without her handler and struggling with PTSD -- which is a very real condition in dogs, especially dogs that have seen active duty in places like Afghanistan. Because Stella was a fraction of a second late in detecting the scent that signaled the impending explosion, she feels responsible for her missing handler and best friend.
In our current world environment with all the isolation brought on by a global pandemic, we need more practice than ever working on our empathy skills. As educators, authors, parents and readers, we know that reading fiction increases our ability to feel empathy—to walk in another’s shoes. Spending time with dogs has many of the same physical and emotional benefits as reading for pleasure. So, in my opinion, reading good stories about dogs must be a win-win.
Writing from a dog’s point of view allowed me to write about my daughter’s battle with anxiety and PTSD in a more metaphoric way. In fact, Stella’s story is a mirror that has allowed me to safely reflect on my daughter’s journey as well as the role I played along the way as her mom. I didn’t always know how to help her, just like the humans in Stella’s life don’t always know how to help her.
I hope that Stella’s story will also provide a window for readers unfamiliar with anxiety and PTSD to see what it looks and feels like to struggle with anxiety and PTSD as well as what it looks and feels like to be the person who loves someone struggling with debilitating anxiety.
After three unsuccessful attempts in foster homes and because of the accident that she believes is her fault, Stella is convinced that she is a bad dog. Her anxiety causes her to bark, dig, and chew when faced with loud noises or when left home alone. She even exhibits self-harming behaviors like repeatedly rubbing her nose against her kennel. The pet-dog owners in her world are not equipped to deal with such serious issues. But when she’s just about out of chances, a professional dog trainer and her daughter, Cloe, step in to give Stella one last chance on their sheep farm in the mountains.
Cloe has epilepsy, and Stella quickly realizes that she’s the only one who can smell the chemical changes in Cloe’s body that precede her seizures. But she doesn’t know how to communicate her knowledge to humans. Even if she could find a way to communicate what she senses to Cloe’s mom, she still wouldn’t be able to use the information to help Cloe until she learns to find healthy ways to deal with her own anxiety.
Stella deals with some very serious issues, but Cloe’s optimistic, can-do attitude, and Stella’s humorous interactions with new animals like the sheep on the farm balance the heavier content nicely.
Ultimately, Stella must learn that just because she made a bad mistake doesn’t mean that she’s a bad dog. I think that’s a lesson that bears repeating to kids and adults alike. We all make mistakes, but with love, kindness, and patience for ourselves and others, we can all make great strides in overcoming great obstacles. We have to learn to forgive ourselves as much as we have to learn to forgive others.
Reading fiction, spending time with a good dog, and improving our ability to empathize might just be the first steps toward a kinder, gentler world.
McCall is generously offering some hardcover copies of STELLA for a giveaway (US/NA only). Just:
1) Follow her on Instagram @McCallHoyleBooks
2) Follow us on Twitter @novelmindkidlit + tweet us the word "STELLA."
Winners chosen at random in about a week.
McCall Hoyle lives in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains with her husband, children, and an odd assortment of pets. She is a middle school teacher and librarian. When she's not reading, writing, or teaching, she's probably playing with or training one of many dogs. You can learn more about her, find free videos and reading guides for educators, and signup for *live* virtual author visits at mccallhoyle.com.
You can view the following video in celebration of Read Across America Day: