Putting Your Best Paw Forward
by Jennifer Swanson

Who’s an animal lover? Come on raise your hand. Do you own a pet now? Did you once? Besides being empathetic friends to us when we are down or energetic reasons to exercise, pets can also be great inspiration to aspiring picture book authors. What child doesn’t love to read about the crazy antics of the myriad of dogs in Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman. And of course, who can forget the hours of enjoyment from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Suess or even the best known hippopotamus friends, George and Martha by James Marshall. Animals or pets in general are found in abundance in children’s picture books.

So, why not use your own pets for inspiration? That’s what I did when I created my dynamic canine detective duo, Penny and Rio. My two real dogs (who are also named Penny and Rio) served as the creative map for my characters.

Luckily my real dogs had very distinctive personalities and were always doing crazy things. That’s what caught my imagination.

In this picture, Penny had just dug out our flower planter at the end of the deck. She used to lie in this for hours, just staring at the yard.

Naturally, this meant to me that she was a pet detective determined to solve a mysterious case. This is how I got my plot for my first book, Penny and Rio: The Mysterious Backyard Meeting.

For me a mystery was the logical choice as I have been a die-hard Nancy Drew fan since I first began to read, but you could have your pets do anything.

Perhaps your cat will become an astronaut and fly through space to land on a planet inhabited only by mice. Or your pet fish possesses super powers so that at night it flies out of the tank to save the lives of the Palmetto bugs living in your garage. Maybe the fireflies you catch at night are really beings from another planet and wish to take over the world.

Your imagination is limitless. So next time you are stumped for a picture book idea, take your notebook and observe some animals. Go to the zoo if you can. See how they interact. Then give them human characteristics and situations. Make the elephant set out on a quest for magic peanuts. Have the lion be a bus driver. Whatever you want? The more outrageous the better.

If you are still stumped, read the newspaper or the internet for articles on humans or animals. I’ve actually written several stories from the ideas I’ve seen in the newspaper.

Whatever you do, have fun and don’t forget to always, put your best paw forward.

Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of the Penny and Rio early reader series.

Jennifer is generously giving away a signed copy of Penny and Rio: The Locked Doghouse Mystery.

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