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Wag More, Bark Less

ae_2_1Lifelong dog friendship inspires children’s book series ‘Adventures of Jack and Rugby’

It was the dogs that brought them together. Tory Beale and Cynthia Messer had known each other throughout their sons’ schooling, but it wasn’t until the two families coincidentally adopted puppies within a few months of each other that they began to meet for weekly play-dates. Puppy play-dates, that is.

“As the dogs got to be good friends, we got to be good friends,” says Messer. Amidst those first years of puppy teething and potty training, little did the women know that their adventures with the dogs would form the makings of a children’s book. And as that first book evolved, they wrote another; and then two more. Finally, they had a series.

The two authors will bring their children’s book series, “The Adventures of Jack and Rugby,” to Capitola Book Cafe on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. They will read from the books, talk about their experiences with the beloved dogs—as well as their experiences as authors—and sign copies of the books. Children are encouraged to bring their favorite stuffed animals to the reading.

Each of the four books begins with an introduction to the dogs:

“Jack is a medium-sized Labrador retriever. His fur is smooth and shiny. He is full of energy, very alert, and sometimes a little worried ... Rugby is an enormous poodle. His fur is soft and curly ... He is fluffy, floppy and happy-go-lucky.”

ae_2_2Part of the attraction of these books for children is that they feature real-life photographs of the dogs. They are also written entirely from the dogs’ point of view—which happens to be not so far from a child’s point of view.

During an informal interview of some young readers, one wide-eyed 7-year-old girl quips, “Did they really just drop the dogs off and let them go off on adventures on their own?”

And that’s how the tales are presented to children: as the series progresses, the dogs venture farther from home—much like the journey that each child faces in growing up. In the first book, “Best Friends,” Rugby is simply going for a play date at his buddy Jack’s house. In the next book, “The Birthday Ball,” the dogs take a journey to Carmel, where they go to tea at the elegant Cypress Inn (an actual boutique hotel that does welcome canine guests), followed by a wild romp on the beach.

In “The Sleepover,” Jack takes the big step of spending the night at Rugby’s house—but not without his special sleeping blanket and fluffy skunk. “The Big Trip” involves a venture even farther out, where the dogs travel to Gray Eagle Lodge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (another real-life pet-friendly venue).

“There was never a point at which we weren’t thinking about a child’s point of view,” says Beale. “We were documenting the dogs, but also (documenting) how much they are like children. They may have a little slight concern, a little worry—but there’s always reassurance because of their friendship.”

Both authors have had extensive experience working with children, in addition to raising families of their own, so they found it natural to slip into a child’s worldview. Messer was an elementary teacher and reading specialist for several years, and is now a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children. Beale is a licensed clinical therapist who has both worked with special-needs children and taught preschool.

But when the authors began documenting the adventures of their canine companions, they didn’t set out with the goal of writing a children’s book. They started by taking pictures and pasting them into a scrapbook as something their families could enjoy.

“Neither of us would have considered ourselves writers,” explains Messer. “It was the farthest thing from (our) minds.”

Then after one particularly exciting day at the beach, the authors spent 10 minutes laughing at Jack and Rugby as one dog jumped in the van and the other jumped out, then the one jumped out and the other back in, and so on. During the drive back home, the women reflected on the day and it dawned on them that the adventures of these silly dog friends would make a great children’s story.

So the human friends began to amp up their scrap booking efforts, taping lines of text beneath photos of the dogs. The adventures they wrote about weren’t contrived—they were actual things that the dogs did and the humans followed. Occasionally, a picture they’d taken would inspire them and they’d stage more. For example, in “The Sleepover,” the dogs get into a bowl of whipped cream—something that Beale says they couldn’t resist embellishing.

“If you put down a bowl of whipped cream, two dogs are going to get into it,” she laughs.

ae_2_3The authors joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and began to attend conferences for children’s book authors. Eventually, they converted the scrapbook to a digital rough draft that they then printed out and sent to agents and publishers. Though they received interest in their story, they also received editorial feedback that didn’t fit their vision of the book.

In response to one query, an agent told them they couldn’t photograph black dogs—they would never show up in print. Another told them that the story needed more high drama. All the publishing houses wanted to use in-house illustrators rather than real-life photographs, and the standard length for children’s books was 32 pages, so they would have to cut their tales short.

“We started realizing that the book had a certain feel to it that we wanted to keep,” recounts Messer. “We felt like it was in its own category. We wanted photographs rather than illustrations. To us the heart of the book was that they were real dogs. As soon as you turn them into illustrations, that changes.”

“These are gentle tales—they have their own character,” she adds. “The story was there without us having to make something big and scary happen. Their friendship was there and we wanted to keep that central to the books.”

So, rather than giving up on their vision, the women took their chances and chose the route of self-publishing—a journey that has been met with success. The books are selling and the women are busy with a regional book tour and signing events. The authors continue to receive correspondence from children, educators and dog-lovers, all giving testimony to how much they love the stories.

The only sad part of the tale is that Jack and Rugby didn’t live to see the publication of the books. The dogs died only months before the books came out—and within 10 days of each other. They were both 13.

But for Messer and Beale, the consolation is that Jack and Rugby are living on in the hearts of the many readers who continue to enjoy the stories.

“We used to watch them having fun,” says Messer. “Now I think the dogs are looking down and wagging [their tails] because we’re having so much fun with their books.”


Tory Beale and Cynthia Messer will read from “The Adventures of Jack and Rugby” and sign copies of the books at 1 p.m on Saturday, Nov. 5 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. Young readers are encouraged to bring their favorite stuffed animals. For more information call 462-4415.
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