Family Friday: A Conversation With the Creative Team Behind “Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog”

Several years ago, I wrote about an abandoned Golden Retriever, Levi Journey, who was rescued by a retired teacher and became a therapy dog. Last year, I wrote the happy news that Levi’s story was becoming a book. Now, I am thrilled to announce that Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog has been published here .

I recently spoke with Author Julie Iribarren, Illustrator Martin Peers (Toast Cartoons), and Palm Beach County Library Children’s Librarian Vanessa Rossel about how this charming and touching book came to be.

Julie lives in Florida and Martin lives in the UK, but the illustrations fit the story so well.  How did you find each other?

Julie: That is pretty remarkable. I discovered Martin on Facebook through his mother, who is on the page devoted to commemorating the development of the Golden Retriever breed in the 1860s by Lord Tweedmouth in Scotland. Browsing Facebook last March, I found a charming Golden Retriever cartoon that had been posted by Martin’s mother. I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew I had found my illustrator! 

Martin: I’ve been drawing cartoons all my life, and I especially enjoy drawing animals.  Ever since my family owned the first of several Golden Retrievers, I have been drawing cartoons of this characterful, handsome dog breed. When Julie reached out to me in March, it was perfect timing, because I had just quit working for the railroad and was devoting myself to cartoons and illustrations full-time. I loved the idea behind her book, and accepting her invitation to be the illustrator was a commission from heaven!

What were your concerns and expectations going into the project?

Julie: Well, this was my first book, and so it was a rough start. I knew the story I wanted to tell — in fact, I’d been telling the story to children across Palm Beach County when Levi and I visited for the Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program. It was one of the Royal Palm Beach  librarians, Vanessa, who pushed me to write the book.  Each time Levi and I visited Vanessa’s library, she had a new idea, a new approach, how it might begin, a website to check out. She was marvelously relentless! 

Vanessa: I watched how the children and their parents reacted to Levi’s story, and I knew Julie needed to tell the world this inspiring tale — from abandoned and alone, to rescued and loved, to  serving a greater purpose as a therapy dog. I adopted my own dog, so the story broke my heart. It was amazing how Levi calmed the children’s nerves and helped them want to read just by his presence. Telling the story seemed a fitting tribute to his journey. And when the pandemic hit, the libraries closed and ARF was suspended, I knew Julie was going to use the break to create the book. 

Martin: Last year, I set myself up as a freelance illustrator and this was my first big commission.  I was not at all concerned by this project – on the contrary, I thought it was a brilliant story and I couldn’t wait to get going!   I knew exactly how I should approach the illustration work and went through Julie’s manuscript in meticulous detail to work out how the illustrations should look, what sections of text would be best served by illustrations, and most importantly to capture a character design of Levi in cartoon form that Julie was happy with. 

Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons
Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons

How about the project’s challenges and joys?

Julie: I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know how. As a retired teacher, I wanted the book to be a teaching tool, but I got bogged down in the details and Levi’s sad beginning made the story so dark. Then, the West Boynton/Wellington Florida Writers Association critique group and another writers group that also meets at the library gave me some starting points, but it was when Martin and his artistry came on board that the story sprang to life.

Martin: I knew right away that the “voice” needed to be Levi’s, and when Julie made that change the book became much more fun and engaging and suited the illustrations even better. She gave me room to create while providing me with photos of all the people and places in Levi’s life, so that the illustrations could have the right look and feel.

Vanessa: I’m in the illustration of the library ARF program!

Julie: And our neighbors and their pets, rescue volunteers Joe and Diane, and Dr. Del La Torre (aka Dr. D.) from the animal clinic used by Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue have all loved seeing themselves in Martin’s cartoons. 

Martin: I am very particular in everything I do for clients, so it was really important to get these images right. I began with sketches, then full page layouts that showed where the text should go. I was heavily involved with the approval of the final draft with the publishers, as I was adamant that my illustrations should be presented in a certain way, with the correct sections of the text, and that the font sizes were consistent. There was a lot of back and forth with the publishers to sort out these technical changes. I imagine it must have been so frustrating for Julie! But it was definitely worth all the effort. 

Julie: It was intense at times. I am fussy and picky, and it was frustrating not to have direct control on the design side of the publishers, but they were overwhelmed with work — the pandemic brought out the inner author in a lot of us.

Vanessa: The book really captures the emotions of this story. 

Martin: The best part of being an illustrator is that my work brings people so much joy. The positive reactions this book has garnered on release and the enthusiastic response to my drawings feel wonderful!

Julie: It is more than I ever expected this book could be. I’m thrilled with it.

So, what’s next?

Julie: Well, the book is now available through BookBaby. Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges). I’m beginning to schedule readings at schools, libraries, and community center to promote the book. In fact, we’ll be in Kelly’s neighborhood later this week and again in May. 

Vanessa: We are thrilled to have Julie and Levi kick off the library’s virtual summer reading program, and we’ll bring them back to the ARF program when we resume in-person programs.

Martin: Levi’s story has been such a tremendous experience for me as an illustrator, and working with Julie has been great.  It has really shown me what I can be capable of after so long drawing pictures in a non-professional capacity.  I really feel I have done the right thing in transitioning to illustrator and I hope that my work on Levi’s story will be the first of many illustration projects – either working with other authors or, ideally, illustrating my own children’s book!

Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi his story
Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi Journey his story

Julie: This was a labor of love. On the good days during this past year, I could envision a whole Levi series — “Levi Goes to the Beach,” “Levi Goes to the Farmers Market.” But there were so many challenging days that my husband made me promise that this was going to be the only book, otherwise the Levi series would have included “Levi Meets His New Daddy.”

Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog is available through BookBaby, and Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges).

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