Illustrator Kathryn Selbert has just published her first children’s book, War Dogs, a picture book about Winston Churchill’s bond with his miniature poodle. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about sketching poodles and introducing young readers to history.
Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Churchill’s bond with his poodle, and how did you decide to write this extraordinary story?
Kathryn Selbert: At the time, I was frequently dog sitting a miniature poodle and was hoping to find a poodle related topic I could focus a book on, while using the dog as a reference for the illustrations. There are a lot of anecdotes about the breed and their intelligence. Poodles are and were often used as circus dogs because of their great memory and ability to learn tricks and as aquatic retrieval dogs. Their coats were clipped in a distinctive fashion to make swimming easier.
Along with this information, I found a few small quotes about Churchill and his poodle Rufus. I loved the recollections of Churchill interacting with his poodle: Admiring the landscape of Chartwell with his fractious poodle; watching Oliver Twist with Rufus and covering his eyes while Bill Skyes was drowning his dog; Churchill having a place set for Rufus at the family table and no one eating until he was served.
The idea of the two of them walking around London, exploring the Blitz bombings was really striking. I decided to try and focus a book on that image and their companionship.
Kidsbiographer: In addition to images of Churchill and Rufus, War Dogs includes depictions of wartime London, battle scenes, and Churchill’s underground office. Can you discuss the research you did to write and illustrate this book?
Kathryn Selbert: There was a period of time in-between the creation of my initial book dummy and me actually starting to work with a publisher. I had a lot of time to research and correct what I had written. The time gave me a chance to read as many books on Churchill and the war rooms as I could in preparation to understand what the war rooms would look like and Churchill’s attitude. While I didn’t end up using all of the research in the book, I found it helped me portray war time London in a more accurate way. I was also more able to collect the quotes from Churchill we used on most pages. Originally, I had written some dialogue for Churchill and Clementine, but we decided in the end that it would be more faithful to use his own words.
The book Churchill’s Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London by Richard Holmes was the most helpful for discovering Churchill’s daily routine and what life in the war rooms was like. Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham is also an excellent book to get an idea of what Churchill’s political interpersonal relationships were like during the war (I unfortunately read it after I finished War Dogs).
Kidsbiographer: War Dogs is written entirely in the present tense, reflecting both Rufus’s perspective as a dog and the sense of immediacy Churchill would have felt as a wartime Prime Minister. How did you decide to structure the narrative this way?
Kathryn Selbert: The book was originally a more intimate portrait of Winston and Rufus’ daily life together, but overtime grew to be a more broad view of wartime in London and the history of the war. My editor, in one of the first passes of the draft, decided that to match this urgent atmosphere, a present tense structure would give the book a more pressing and engaging tone. I agreed.
Kidsbiographer: Throughout War Dogs, winsome illustrations of Rufus are juxtaposed with grim depictions of the Blitz’s devastation. What are some of the challenges inherent in representing such different moods and scenes in a single book?
Kathryn Selbert: While writing and illustrating War Dogs, I was very concerned about keeping a balance between the benefits one gains from a canine companion and the historical atmosphere of the war. I didn’t want the book to be too scary for kids, but for it to be an introduction to WWII, I needed to show some of the more frightening realities of the war – not just Churchill’s day-to-day meetings and speeches. Focusing on those subjects wouldn’t really show the gravity of the situation. When I was little, it took me so long to understand WWII because the events of it weren’t really revealed to me until high school. We learned a little about the Holocaust and the war was referenced, but never really discussed, probably because of its complexity. I wanted to introduce the subject in a gentle, meaningful way while helping open the door to history for kids a bit earlier.
Kidsbiographer: Throughout this picture-book biography, you insert apt and stirring quotes from Churchill in the various spreads: these appear as bits of paper tacked onto the illustrations. I’m curious to learn the story behind this clever incorporation of language and design: how did these spreads evolve?
Kathryn Selbert: Originally, I wanted the text to be separate from the illustrations so that they would seem more serious. As we decided to feature his quotes, the book’s designer suggested they feature in separate blocks visually. I think I suggested having those blocks resemble the look of the notes on the global map in the main war room that features in the book. The designer of the book took care to find the exact font of the Churchill’s typewriters that may have been used to create the notes on that wall. The notes fit really well, I think.
Kidsbiographer: What lessons or thoughts do you hope young readers will take away from War Dogs?
Kathryn Selbert: I only hope to pique a love of history and an appreciation of friends.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Kathryn Selbert: I’m working on a few new kids’ books at the moment, but the one I’m working on the most feverishly is about Roald Dahl. Too early to really talk about it but it’s going to be a lot of fun!