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May is Celiac Awareness Month and I’m thankful to have author Michal Babay here to talk about her new book, I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG (Albert Whitman) which just released in April. It’s narrated by service dog and poodle-extraordinaire Chewie, and is based on the true story of his partnership with Michal’s daughter who has celiac disease.  

Michal, blog readers always enjoy learning how an author gets an idea for a story. This one comes from personal experience. Can you tell us a little about that?

Yes. 2019 was unfortunately a terrible year for my family because my daughter had been in and out of hospitals. Once she was finally healthy and we had recovered emotionally, I really wanted to write a book about her celiac journey. (I knew it would be therapeutic for both of us to share her story.) However, every writing attempt came out too heavy and serious. Since I normally write humorous stories, I struggled to find the right way to tell her story and stay true to my real writing voice. Luckily, I have AMAZING writing partners! Shannon Stocker suggested flipping things around and writing this story from our service dog’s point of view—and that was my door into the manuscript! As soon as Chewie began narrating his own story, the entire thing finally fell into place. Anytime I got stuck on a scene, I just looked over at the poodle racing around my house and I knew exactly what he’d say or do in that situation.

There’s a lot to learn about Celiac—how did you write it in such a way that’s digestible for young readers? (See what I did there?)

HA! Nicely done! And actually, that’s very similar to how I wrote about celiac. I used humor and a goofy dog as the narrator to keep the story interesting. By having Chewie sniff items like salad dressing, vitamins, and shampoo, I was able to show that gluten hides in unexpected places in a very kid-friendly way. It was my way of writing about celiac (and how it affects everything that we use) without saying it outright. After all, if Chewie needs to check things like medicine or lotion for gluten, then the reader automatically realizes those products could be unsafe for Alice or anyone with celiac disease. Additionally, there’s one spread in the book where Alice is too sick to do almost anything – she can’t even go to school anymore. All she wants is to feel healthy and normal again. I wanted this spread to be a window into the physical and emotional realities of celiac disease in a kid-relatable way. Luckily, my editor Andrea Hall also wanted us to include informational backmatter for parents and caregivers. So I was lucky enough to create a story that kids can enjoy, and still have a page for adults with celiac facts.

Chewie is so adorable that this book will appeal to kids who don’t have celiac, too. How can I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG help these children understand the disease?

This book helps create empathy and understanding of how invisible diseases can affect the day-to-day lives of people. After all, even though Alice “looks” healthy, kids learn how sick she actually is. I hope readers use this book to show children how to look beyond surface appearances and listen with their hearts.

Chewie’s story also answers questions kids may have about the training and use of service dogs. Learning about Chewie’s training takes away the mystery of a working dog. I wanted to give readers a window into the amazing world of service dog training, and to demonstrate how important these dogs are for maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of their handlers.

Michal, thanks for sharing your personal story and Chewie with the world! This book is a wonderful way to spread awareness of this invisible disease.

Blog readers, you can win a copy of I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG! Just leave one comment below to enter. A random winner will be selected soon!

Good luck!


Michal Babay is a former elementary school teacher and current picture book author. She lives on the west coast with her human family and an ever-increasing amount of animals, including three dogs, one cat, a fish, a snail, and a rescue bearded dragon named Gus Pirate Potato. Visit her at michalbabay.com and follow her on Twitter @MicBabay.

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BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

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illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
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Little, Brown
2022

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