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5 Questions With... Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (DOGS ON DUTY)

by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
 | Nov 09, 2012
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent has written more than one hundred books—mostly nonfiction and photo-essay for children—including ALA Notable Children’s Book and Orbis Pictus Honor Book WHEN THE WOLVES RETURNED: RESTORING NATURE’S BALANCE IN YELLOWSTONE, SAVING AUDIE: A PIT BULL PUPPY GETS A SECOND CHANCE, and THE RIGHT DOG FOR THE JOB, which earned a starred review from School Library Journal. Dorothy is cofounder of iNK THINK TANK, an innovative online company dedicated to connecting young readers and educators with dynamic nonfiction books and their authors. Dorothy lives in Montana with her husband, cookbook author Greg Patent.

You often write about animals in the wild and about nature in general; what intrigued you about the military dogs in DOGS ON DUTY: SOLDIERS' BEST FRIENDS ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND BEYOND?

I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people and animals, especially dogs, since I’m a dog nut myself. In reading about military working dogs I could see that the bond between these dogs and their handlers is especially strong and deep, since they depend on one another for their very survival every day when on the job, and I wanted to be able to explore and honor that bond.

Our bond with our domesticated animals also provides us with a window into the nature of wildness and of ‘other,’ since they are able to experience the world very differently from the ways we do. For example, our primary sense is sight, while dogs experience the world most intensely through their sense of smell, which gives them a completely different perspective on the world around them.

One reviewer described DOGS ON DUTY as “clear-eyed” and notes that you mention the injuries dogs sustain in military work. As a self-proclaimed dog lover, how did you stay true to the story while discovering some of the hardships these dogs face?

Reading about the experiences of dogs in war and deciding what to include and what not to include in a book for children was the most difficult part of writing this book. I decided to keep my focus on the most important aspect of this work—that these dogs save lives—as I read and wrote. It became like a mantra to me.

I also wanted to show the added emotional benefit that a wagging tail or doggy kiss can provide to a weary and perhaps discouraged human warrior. I try always to keep the spirits of my young readers in mind when I write about difficult topics like this one, and I hope they are able to view the work these dogs do the same way I do.

As a part of iNK THINK TANK, you participate in matching students and classrooms with nonfiction texts that are appropriate based on the Common Core State Standards. Why is quality nonfiction so vital to meeting the Standards and improving literacy in general?

For one thing, scientists have shown that readers remember information that’s presented through good writing better than information that’s presented poorly or in an uninteresting fashion. More than 20 years ago, a study showed that information written up by linguists or composition teachers was not remembered as well by teenage readers as the very same facts and figures presented through the writing of professional writers, Time magazine editors to be specific. The first two kinds of writers don’t need to be concerned about grabbing their audience, but the Time editors certainly do. The results of this study are striking—the students reading the editors’ versions recalled over 40 percent more than those reading the other versions.

As a parent, my one fear as my sons went through school was that they might get bored and turn off to learning. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but many children come to dislike school because they must use boring textbooks and don’t have their curiosity sparked by information presented through engaging writing. People who write trade books for children have to write interesting prose that grabs their readers or they won’t succeed. Our books convey our own enthusiasm for learning and leave our readers wanting more.

Lastly, every time we take on a new project, we live the CCSS. We do intensive research and evaluate our sources. We organize the material to make it fun to read and easy to absorb, and we challenge our readers to think about what we have to say and about what more there might be to learn about the subject. And we know how to help young people learn to do the same.

You live on the edge of a national forest in Montana, and spend time in Yellowstone regularly. That gives you access to wilderness that most students have never come in contact with. What inspiration do you find in nature and how can that be communicated in an increasingly urban/suburban society?

When I talk in city schools, I like to point out to the children that even in the city, nature is all around us and poses interesting questions if we just stop and observe. For example, some of the trees in the city park lose their leaves in the winter and others do not—why is that? Just about every city has pigeons that go about their normal behavior and make great subjects for anyone interested in animal behavior. Nature is really everywhere if we just take the time to stop and observe.

I also believe children’s lives are enriched in many ways when they have pets, since all our domesticated animals originated from creatures that live wild. Kids can see that there’s more to the world around them than they personally experience when they watch their dog energetically sniffing at a tree trunk or observe the activities of an ant “city” living between glass plates.

I hope that this kind of awareness can make it easier for young people to realize that humans as well differ in the ways they experience the world. Some people may think this is a far-fetched idea, but I believe that once we can expand our consciousness beyond ourselves we’ve triggered our empathic abilities for other humans.

In your career you’ve covered a myriad of topics, but lately you’ve written a couple books about canines making comebacks (SAVING AUDIE and WHEN THE WOLVES RETURNED). What broader values and lessons for children can be found in these redemption stories?

I see several important things children can learn from these stories. One is that there’s always hope, even when things seem really dark. It takes courage, determination, and patience sometimes, but where there are caring people willing to devote time and attention to solve problems and right wrongs, it can be done.

Another is not to take the easy route of just believing what other people say or write. My younger son, Jason, never fails to catch me when I get caught up in someone’s drama having only heard one side of the story. He always asks for the other side and reminds me to do the same. For example, up until the mid-twentieth century, pit bulls were the most popular family dog in the United States! Then, the combination of increased backyard breeding for fighting and media attention whenever a pit bull bit someone, fear of these loyal, smart, loving dogs took over.

It’s also important for children to realize that what we believe today isn’t likely to be the “whole truth.” Back in the 1920s, people believed that predators, like wolves, were “bad,” while grazing animals like elk were “good.” Now we know that ecosystems need all the major players in order to function in a healthy fashion.

© 2012 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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