A dog's life in his own words,
as imagined by Orinda's Jennifer Dodd
By Lou Fancher
A first-grade classroom is the perfect incubator for a children's picture book -- so says Jennifer Dodd, in her 10th year teaching first grade at Orinda's Del Ray Elementary School. Surrounded by favorite books on a daily basis -- by Kevin Henkes, Leo Lionni, Peter H. Reynolds and others -- the 17-year teaching veteran has written the first of a planned series of children's books, "Life According to Cosmo."
With illustrations by her sister-in-law Christina Olson, an artist in Tacoma, Wash., the imagined thoughts of Dodd's real-life onetime family dog, Cosmo, are the book's impetus.
Dodd will be at The Storyteller bookstore, 3506 Mt Diablo Blvd. Suite E, starting at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Growing up in Modesto, Dodd said her family always had dogs. Graduating with a degree in managerial economics from UC-Davis, she worked for one year in a bank and then realized, "This isn't my thing." She loved kids, and watching them learn, and mostly, she loved books. And dogs.
Dodd returned to school, got her teaching certificate and never looked back. Cosmo was a 5-year-old lab Dodd, her husband and their two daughters adopted in 2010.
"It was like magic, like he'd always been ours," she said. "Sadly, he got nasal carcinoma, so we only had him for 18 months before he died. But before that, my younger daughter and I would make up stories about what he was thinking."
As their (Cosmo's) ideas proliferated, burning dog questions, like "Why do they call me 'Buddy' if my name is Cosmo?" or whether fetch was invented for dog or for human pleasure, triggered Dodd's long-seated desire to write her own picture book. Soon, the canine psyche that powers crumb hoovering, pizza fetishes, tummy rubs and tennis ball obsessions formed a firm narrative and a voice for what is planned as a series of Cosmo books.
"I've already written the second book, "Love According to Cosmo." It'll be out next spring," Dodd said.
Published by Alive Book Publishing and the Alive Publishing Group, an Alamo-based imprint, Dodd's book reflects an emerging trend. Writers in the post-self-publishing era are utilizing a kind of publishing hybrid -- half DIY, half someone-else-does-it.
"They did all the (design and production) work, but I funded it. I had the control, but I had professionals doing the work for me," Dodd explained. "When I submitted it to (traditional) publishers, they told me it was too long and young readers couldn't handle it. As a first-grade teacher, I knew that was wrong."
Of course, a good part of "doing the work" for a book happens long before it lands in a publisher's hands. At a book launch event at Orinda Books on Oct. 23, Dodd showed early manuscripts and numerous rough book dummies (layouts) to an audience.
"I wrote on sticky notes and had them all over the house," she said. "Then I gathered all of them and made my first draft. It just flowed ... here it is, all handwritten on blank, stapled paper."
Holding the layouts up for the elementary-age children clustered on the floor at her feet, Dodd did the teacher thing, asking if they had made books in the classroom and related questions. Acting like a chorus, they chanted "yes," or "no," as if on cue.
"Anyone can do this," Dodd advised. "Just keep writing your stories down. Even if it's not perfect, just try. That's what editing is for; you have to start someplace."
An appreciation for literacy, Dodd said in separate comments, starts with connecting good books to the rest of learning. She said Common Core is doing that and she doesn't participate in the furor surrounding the new teaching standards.
"The longer you teach, the more flexible you become," she said. "You learn what clicks with different kids. Just like when you are a parent, you start to understand different personalities and what motivates them."
"Life According to Cosmo" is available at Orinda Books, Read Books at Blackhawk Plaza in Danville; Towne Center Books in Pleasanton and Rakestraw Books in Danville, as well as at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.