The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Shana Silva and Review of A Dog's Guide to Being Human
Shanna is an author and Award Winning Broadway Producer. Sometimes, Shanna also writes for grownups. Her work appears in the parenting blog, Kveller.com, Bella Magazine, Twins Magazine, in the anthologies Multiples Illuminated I and II, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Shanna's the author of Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups (Apples & Honey Press, 2018) and Passover Scavenger Hunt (Kar-Ben, 2017). She's also written 45 hi/lo books for the educational market.
Her newest picture book, A Dog's Guide to Being Human (Yeehoo Press), releases August 23rd.
Shanna, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
Thanks for having me! I think I was always a writer, but I didn’t know it. All my jobs in different industries over the years had a writing component (newsletters, marketing materials, financial reports, etc.). I didn’t start writing for myself until about ten years ago. My favorite books to write are picture books, although one day I’d like to venture into middle grade territory.
I usually write on my desktop in the office my husband and I share. Coffee is a must. Often, I listen to classical music or white noise to put me in my own cocoon where I can hear myself think. I tend to write in spurts, take a break to do something in the house (but am still thinking about what I’m working on), and then go back. I am a pantser, that is, I usually don’t plot things out. I go where the writing takes me. On the rare occasion that I make an outline, I typically just use it as a thinking exercise, and then go another way. I admit – I am not a disciplined writer, although I aspire to be. Everyone’s creative process is different, and mine is well, messy. But it works for me.
We all have to do what works for us. and your method seems to be working so far. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I was an extra on an episode of Royal Pains. Shooting was a long, exhausting day. I’m glad I did it, but am in no rush to do it again.
I loved that show. Have recently seen the numerous repetitions/retakes that everyone went through for one scene of a movie, I can just imagine your day. But it would have still been cool. Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?
These past couple years were rough on everyone. There were many times that I didn’t have the bandwidth to focus or write. I gave myself permission to listen to that inner voice telling me when I needed a writing break. Just because I’m not sitting at the desk actively writing doesn’t mean that I’m not engaged in the process. My brain is still in it. I think about writing as I’m folding laundry, cooking, and walking my dog. Sometimes, the ideas flow more freely by not writing. Inspiration comes from everyday moments and activities.
The past two years I also participated in the January Storystorm from Tara Lazar. Every day, I’d take time to read the blog/prompt and write down at least one idea. At the end of the month, I had over 30 ideas. Not every concept is viable but I have an idea bank to draw from.
I think of children’s books as tools to spread goodness in a world that often doesn’t feel so good. While my inspiration ebbs and flows, I keep an “Ideas” folder that contains scraps of paper with story ideas, character names, titles, and phrases. Revisiting the folder when the inspiration well feels dry is always a good jumpstart. My character’s name, “Smudge” came out of the Ideas folder.
Great advice! What was your inspiration for A Dog's Guide to Being Human?
During the pandemic, I spent a lot of time looking at dogs on social media. I didn’t have a dog at the time, but I found comfort in their sweet faces, silly behavior, and loving ways. Dogs make me happy. Thinking about the relationship between dogs and their humans sparked the idea for my book. What if…a dog was welcoming a new baby into the family. How would it act? What could it offer to the child? How would the child be impacted by having a dog in the house? The rest flowed from there.
I got a puppy in 2021, just as the world was reemerging. (In retrospect, it was the best worst decision I’ve made.) Many people think I wrote the book about my Drake, but the book came first. Drake, however, has provided me with a lot of material for sequels.
Ha! How many revisions did A Dog's Guide to Being Human take from first draft to publication? How did this compare to Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups and/or Passover Scavenger Hunt?
A Dog’s Guide to Being Human was an anomaly in my writing/revising process. The idea came to me, and I was able to get it polished within 4 or 5 revisions. Because it’s only about 150 words, I knew it had to be tight and concise. There wasn’t a lot to revise. The sparse text would need a great illustrator to realize the characters, enhance the humorous bits, and express the loving relationship between the child and the dog. I had Yeehoo Press in mind from the beginning because I thought it would be a great fit for their incredible list. It was acquired pretty quickly. That is not my usual experience!
Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups was a long-haul project. It started as a prompt in a writing class I was taking at Hofstra University. It went through my critique group and many, many revisions. I deleted and restarted several times. When I finally submitted it to Apples & Honey (years after I began it), it was rejected with some constructive feedback. Feeling discouraged, I put it away for many months. Looking at it with fresh eyes was helpful, and I revised again. I realized my main character was one dimensional, and I needed to raise the stakes to make her conflict and resolution meaningful. I resubmitted it to Apples & Honey and waited. And waited. An editor reached out to me and said they liked the book but not the ending. Would I be willing to rework it? Um, yes. The third time was the charm with this book.
Passover Scavenger Hunt was another long journey before it was acquired by Kar-Ben. It floated out in the ether for years. I still remember that ecstatic feeling of having my first book published. I’m legit! It was surreal.
I have received many, many rejections. Some were a surprise to me because I could just see the manuscript as a published book. Why weren’t the editors seeing it, too? It’s frustrating to shelve something you’ve poured your heart and time into, but I have to believe that it’s all worthwhile. You just never know what things will lead to.
Never give up on them totally, some books have taken 18 years and many trips to the "shelve" before they were published (Owl Moon, for instance). So what was the toughest aspect of writing A Dog's Guide to Being Human?
The toughest aspect of writing A Dog’s Guide to Being Human was keeping the word count low. My other books tend to be in the 800-1,000-word range. This 150-word book is high concept in that it’s not linear plot driven. Each word had to count. There was no room for unessential words. Character details needed to be communicated in a very simple way. I knew it would depend heavily on illustrations.
It was a departure from my usual writing style but it actually came easier. I guess I’m one of those people who makes things unnecessarily hard for myself.
Or one who just likes a challenge. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book?
I was an avid reader from an early age and books were my treasures. They provided glimpses into other lives and worlds and made me feel less alone. I keep that in mind when writing for children. It’s a space to learn, encourage compassion, and make sense of the larger world.
I was obsessed with the Trixie Belden series by Julie Campbell Tatham and Kathryn Kenny. They were girl mystery books. Think Nancy Drew, but cooler. I still have the images in my mind that I conjured up from reading and rereading the series. The characters made an indelible impression on me and I remember feeling like I knew them personally.
Other favorite authors include Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Eve Bunting. I am still discovering more favorites as an adult. The cool part is that I personally know so many of them! I have a robust home library of picture books and I derive enormous pleasure from getting lost in their pages.
I love your description "glimpses into other lives and worlds." I've often found books to be escapes or full of friends. Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from A Dog's Guide to Being Human?
There is so much universality to my book with lessons that everyone can understand. Kindness, sharing, loving, facing fears, and trying new things are an essential part of both the human and canine experience. People can relate to that in their own way.
I also think there’s much to learn and admire about a dog’s pure love and devotion. It’s such a life enhancement and gift that I’m happy the book portrays for all readers.
When you first saw Agnès Ernoult’s illustrations did anything amaze or surprise you? Which is your favorite spread?
In my head, I pictured “Smudge” to look like my own sheepadoodle puppy, so seeing a different breed was interesting. Initially, I was startled to see a hound, and I had to wrap my head around it. I can’t draw, so I truly admire and respect the talent that goes into the art. How could I not love Agnès Ernoult’s take on Smudge? With his long ears and pointy nose, he won me over immediately.
Yeehoo Press generously included me in the discussion of illustrator choice and subsequent early sketches. I wanted someone who could capture the humor, make Smudge lovable and goofy, and understand the broader meaning of the text. I was concerned that the illustrator wouldn’t “get” me and my vision from my mere 150 words. Agnès nailed it! Her work is exquisite and more than I could ever hope for. There is so much fine detail that I am still discovering new elements.
My favorite is a double spread from the ground point of view. We see the bottom half of the girl walking in her rain boots, and Smudge is nose to the grass, taking in all the smells and exploring the world. That is such a dog thing!
The text reads:
Enjoy all the nature around you.
Roses may smell nice, but they are prickly when you nose them.
Dandelions are better.
His curiosity, expression, and closeness to his human are all so beautifully illustrated.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I always have multiple projects brewing. There are 3 or 4 picture book manuscripts on submission (and I’m waiting SO patiently). I’m also working on a YA dystopian hi/lo book and have decided it’s the summer to read through old manuscripts and determine if there’s anything worthy of resurrection. I’d like to complete 2 or 3 picture books over the summer. It’s an ambitious goal, but it will help put me in the right mindset to pace myself and start working.
Good luck with them all and we'll watch for news. Last question. what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I love this question! The first place that came to mind is the Redwood Forrest in California. I’ve never been there but always wondered at those massive redwoods. I imagine it’s quite humbling to stand next to the mighty trees and feel their historic fortitude. It’s definitely a bucket list item.
Thank you, Shanna for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about Shanna Silva, or contact her:
Review of A Dog's Guide to being Human
I'm excited to offer you all a sneak peek at this fun new picture book about a dog's observations about what it takes to be a human (and a dog). Be sure to watch for it on August 23rd.
A Dog's Guide to being Human
Author: Shanna Silva
Illustrator: Agnès Ernoult
Publisher: Yeehoo Press
Dogs, new siblings, humor, love, and being human.
A hilarious and heartwarming picture book sharing a dog's hard-earned wisdom about living a happy life.
Smudge has a new family member: a baby girl. And he has a LOT to teach her about fitting in with the humans. Like don't drink from the toilet (the humans don't like it). But DO share your snacks (especially with Smudge). And make as many friends as you can--yes, even the occasional cat. There's so much to go through, but as Smudge knows, it's every good dog's job to welcome home their family.
From author Shanna Silva and illustrator Agnès Ernoult comes a hilarious and heartwarming picture book sharing a dog's hard-earned wisdom about living a happy life. Hand this book to all animal lovers and growing families!
My humans have brought home a tiny baby.
It is up to me to teach her how to fit in!
What I LIKED about this book:
When Smudge's parents bring home a new family member, he takes it upon himself to be sure she knows how to behave. Hilariously written and illustrated from the dog's point of view, this book will have dog owners and new parents laughing and commiserating. The universal message of "share," from Smudge's point of view, means dolling out snacks - especially to him.
Text © Shanna Silva. 2022. Image © Agnès Ernoult. 2022.
Some advice, such as not drinking from toilets, tissues are fun to shred, and being sure to open the window "so I can eat the wind and flap my tongue," are so perfectly 'dog-like' and accompanied by wonderfully detailed and lively, yet soft - colored illustrations.
Text © Shanna Silva. 2022. Image © Agnès Ernoult. 2022.
While other advice from Smudge is universal - be brave (in the face of storms), persistent ("when you fall, get back up."), and "make friends with other good humans. And dogs. Sometimes cats are okay too." Smudge also introduces his girl to kindness, love, and trying new things.
It's fun to watch their relationship and affection grow as the girl grows. From a toddler understandably distressed when Smudge chews the head off her bear to a young girl joyfully sharing a bath after their grand, muddy adventure. I especially enjoyed the knowing, sly, and at times conspiratorial looks which passed between Smudge and his girl.
Text © Shanna Silva. 2022. Image © Agnès Ernoult. 2022.
Smudge's voice and personality will be familiar to many a dog owner. The joyful abandon, innocent faces, and the almost magnetic attraction for dirt and messes if we listen, dogs and other pets, regularly remind us to cherish and live in the moment. And to take care of those important to us. This is a story that many people - even cat owners - can relate to. A book that is pure fun to read and share.
- make a paper bag puppet, origami, or paper puppet dog. Pretend it's Smudge (or your own dog). What advice would you give about being human?
- what do you think is an important thing about being a dog?
- do you think a cat, guinea pig, fish, or rabbit would have the same advice? What might their advice be to a kid?