Simply put, there is nothing like it. Dressed in baggy overalls stuffed with tennis balls, poop bags, dog treats and leashes, I’m sitting on a folding chair in front of 45 six to eight year olds. The kids are sitting cross-legged on the floor, their eyes glued to my face as I read the story of a mother dog and her puppy who were abandoned at a garbage dump.
As the story, which is based on true events, unfolds their expressions are like mirrors, reflecting sadness, concern, disgust, laughter, and finally joy when the dogs are rescued and find their forever homes. The moment I read, “The End,” hands fly into the air as the kids compete to share their own stories and ask questions:
“Why did the people abandon their dogs?”
“What did the dogs eat when they were at the dump?”
“Did they have to fight the vultures for food?”
“Why do you think black things like vultures are so creepy?”
“What happened to the homeless men who lived at the dump?”
“Who’s helping the dogs now?”
As always, the kids knock my socks off. The questions they ask are smart, intuitive and full of compassion. They have thrown their hearts into the story and want answers that make sense. They want what I am hoping my stories give them – a way to see and be in the world that respects, values and cares for other creatures. I want them to learn that stories can help them figure out who they are and what really matters to them.
Afterwards, as the kids are gathering their things and putting on their backpacks, a six year old with red hair and freckles flings her arms around my waist, hugs me tight and says, “It was perfect.”
Like I said, there’s nothing like, but it took me 53 years and many sidetracks to discover that my love of animals, storytelling, drawing and kids could be harnessed to change the world. For most of those 53 years I was the proverbial odd person out. I never fit comfortably into the boxes corporate America and Japan assigned me. I questioned authority, shared ideas that were not part of my job description, and expressed my opinions freely. In Japan, where women are expected to keep low and pretty profiles, I was told I had “a bad personality for a woman.” Back home in the states, I launched a career as a freelance journalist. The fact that I managed to support myself says more about my tenacity than my skill. Though I met and interviewed many remarkable people I was never happy telling other people’s stories.
Then in 2008 I made two huge course corrections. First, I came up with the concept for CritterKin – a loveable pack of mixed breed mutts and their leader Ms. Jenaia. Together they are on a mission to teach kids that animals (critters) are family (kin). Second, I met and agreed to work with Martin Keltz, the Emmy award winning producer of such acclaimed children’s programs as “The Magic School Bus,” “Goosebumps,” “Charles in Charge” and “The Babysitters Club.” Marty, as he insists on being called, has a long and fascinating history in children’s education. A former teacher, who pioneered using 8 millimeter filmmaking in classrooms, and editor of Media and Methods Magazine he went on to be the co-founder and president of Scholastic Productions. Since then he has followed the evolution of education with interest and concern. He firmly believes, and I agree with him, that we have an obligation to foster emotional as well as intellectual intelligence in kids.
Marty took one look at my outlines, character sketches and illustrations for CritterKin and said, “You’re Ms. Jenaia and you’ve got to do this!”
Fast forward to here and now. I’ve been embodying and giving voice to Ms. Jenaia for more than six months now, and the experience continues to startle and touch me. As Ms. Jenaia I live both as an illustrated cartoon and as a character who walks from the pages of books into children’s lives. The moment I put on those baggy, faded overalls, put my plastic daisy pen in my pocket, and clip my poop bags to my leash, I leave my day-to-day existence behind and step into the world I have imagined for and with the kids. Together we leap feet first into stories: embody the characters, practice their voices, draw their faces, and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. For our short time together I am Ms. Jenaia, the champion of dogs and the kids who love them. What more could a writer ask for?