We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.
The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.
Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.
TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?
CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.
TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?
CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!
TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?
CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.
TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.
CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.
TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?
CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.
TBD: What is your next project?
CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.
TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?
CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.
TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?
CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.
Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?
CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.
Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.
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We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.
ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED GETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)
Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.
Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).
I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.
TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.
I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.
TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?
SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?
SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.
As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.
TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?
SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.
About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?
SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).
TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?
SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.
I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.
TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?
SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.
- Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
- Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
- Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
- Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
- Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
- Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
- You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!
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We first met Roxanna Elden at Miami Dade College where we were teaching a class on publishing. From the second she opened her mouth (which she did frequently) it was obvious she was a published author waiting to happen. She asked so many questions. And they were good questions. She was funny, she was engaged, and she had a great idea for a book. In fact, after many trials and tribulations, she got that book published, and now she has a second book coming out. So we thought we’d check in on her and see how the process went.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: After the success of your first book, See Me After Class, what made you want to write a picture book for kids?
Roxanna Elden: The idea came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities–pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after Rudy’s first new human was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger. She already had two kids at the time, and she noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works.
TBD: Since your first book was nonfiction, did you have to find a new agent, develop new social media outlets, or find a new publisher?
RE: Same agent: magnificent Rita Rosenkranz. New publisher: marvelous Sky Pony Press. There is a bit of crossover from the audience of See Me After Class, because some elementary teachers have told me that they’re reading the book with their students, and high school writing teachers sometimes do picture book projects. And, of course, lots of teachers are moms and dads and dog lovers. We are in the process of posting lesson materials on a popular lesson-sharing site called Teachers Pay Teachers. Despite the name of the site, everything in Rudy the Dog’s “store” will be free.
TBD: Obviously your two books are in very different categories, but what did you learn from your first book that you were able to apply to this new book?
RE: The whole publishing process, from pitching the book to working with editors to looking for ways to connect with readers, was actually similar for both books. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published was my road map through the process the first time, saving me years of trial and error. For this book, I reread the sections I needed to review and also ordered a copy for Ginger. The main lesson I learned from my first publishing experience is that marketing a book is (a) ongoing, and (b) unpredictable. With See Me After Class, I’ve done hundreds of different things over the past ten years to get the book into the hands of teachers who would love and benefit from it. These efforts ranged from epic to tiny, and the results ranged from total wash to big break. There hasn’t been a recognizable pattern. For authors, if you do 100 things and only 6 pay off, the temptation is to wish you could have saved the time of doing the other 94 things. But it’s important to remember that what “worked” wasn’t the six lucky breaks you got. It was the fact that you tried 100 different approaches.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal for your new book?
RE: Our agent, Rita Rosenkranz, showed it to Jenny Pierson at Sky Pony, and she made an offer on it immediately. Having gone through the publishing process already, I knew this was pretty rare. We all had a conversation and by the end of it, Ginger and I both agreed that Sky Pony would be a great fit for the book.
TBD: How are you planning to promote and market this book?
RE: We have a website, www.rudythedog.net, where people can sign up to have Rudy send birthday cards to their favorite little humans and pet birthday cards to their pets. Also, because Rudy the canine-narrator is based on my real-life dog, we made a stamp out of Rudy’s paw so he can “paw-tograph” books at book signings. We’ve authorized kids in six different cities to be paw-thorized paw-tograhers. They have a stamp and a notarized letter that lets them sign copies on behalf of Rudy. And I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking of dog-related puns.
TBD: Have you learned anything about picture books from being a teacher?
RE: No one knows better than teachers how important it is to read to kids as often and as early as possible. I’m hoping that as both a teacher and children’s book author, I can find creative ways to help more parents read to their children in ways that encourage a love of books and develop early reading skills. We’ve already put a reading guide on the website that describe some skills any adult can help kids develop, and we’re working on more materials now.
TBD: What was it like working with an illustrator?
RE: In most cases, the publisher buys the book and then chooses the illustrator, so our experience is unusual, but in this case I pitched the book as a team with illustrator, Ginger Seehafer. The two of us are longtime friends–we met about 20 years ago as the only female caricature artists at a Six Flags theme park. That was the end of my career as an artist, but Ginger went on to become a top professional illustrator, doing work for big companies like Glade, Tropicana, and Hotels.com, all the way down to small companies just getting started. She had done my sample cover art when I was pitching See Me After Class, so I knew how good she was at turning verbal ideas into pictures without losing anything in translation. While discussing the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book.
TBD: How did you determine how much text and how much picture would be on every page?
RE: We have a pretty good sample size of kids in the 2-6 year old age range, so for early drafts we just thought about what they would understand. Then we worked with the editors at Sky Pony, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and helped get the book into its final form.
TBD: What you want readers to take away from this book?
RE: We hope it will help older siblings adjust to having a new baby in the house–and reassure them that it’s okay to have mixed feelings about sharing attention with another little human. (From what I’ve heard, I was horrible when my sister was born, and now we are best friends.) We also want to calm the nerves of new parents whose dogs used to be the baby of the family and who are now experiencing “pet parent guilt” as they find themselves juggling vet and pediatrician visits, dog feeding and baby feeding, and yeah… maybe have forgotten to clip the dog’s nails for a while, okay?
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for picture book writers?
RE: Young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show that he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Ginger Seehafer is an illustrator who works as a commercial storyboard and
concept artist in the Chicagoland area. She studied at the American Academy of Art and started her art career as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. Ginger loves making art that inspires joy and creativity, especially in children who may become future artists themselves. She lives with her husband, two little humans, and two cats in Roselle, Illinois.
Rudy Elden has been a professional dog for eight years and is making his literary debut as the canine narrator of Rudy’s New Human. He likes lunchmeat, cheese, long naps, and medium-length walks.
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