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).

Family Friday: What I Learned About My Grandfather in His Eulogy

He was what you saw: a simple, forthright, kindly, gentle man of utmost integrity. In fact, he leaned backward to avoid any pretense.

Reverend Harold Rekstad’s eulogy of James T. Robb

I was bent on surviving seventh grade as a first-timer in a Maryland junior high when my mother’s father, Grandpa Robb, died in April, 1967. He was only 69 — three years older than I am now — brought down by prostate cancer. I didn’t know that his illness was the reason for the trip my sister and I made with our mother from Bogotá the summer before sixth grade, or that the last time I’d see him would be in a Winona hospital, where he noticed my stylish pale pink lipstick. Brief visits to Winona were all I’d known of Grandpa until the week that my grandparents spent with us in Colombia, when we connected as fellow writers in a way that felt very special.

Grandpa had a quiet smile on his face as he wandered over to a bench and pulled his notepad and pencil out from his jacket breast pocket. I recognized the unseeing gaze — he was building a poem. I hoped he would share it with me, like Mom shared my poems with him in her Monday letters home.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Bogotá, 1964

Dad was five thousand miles away setting up press for the Pan-American summit in Uruguay that April, so my sister and I stayed with next door neighbors while Mom flew to Minnesota alone.

Laying in the Murrays’ guest room bed, I realized that I would never again hold Grandpa’s soft, creased hands, never again hear his voice reading my poetry back to me over the telephone, never again seek his counsel on a rhythm or a rhyme. The void was as big as the night sky over the White House the night we stood vigil for President Kennedy.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, The Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Rockville, 1967

Just this week, I discovered the typed-out eulogy that Grandpa’s pastor and close personal friend, the Reverend Harold Rekstad, delivered on April 13 at the First Congregational Church in Winona. Reading it, I felt that I was sitting in those pews but also sitting with Grandpa.

Quality of character

Jim would be greatly distressed if he thought this would be a sad or mournful occasion. He would dislike even more any kind of flowery eulogy. However, he manifested many qualities of character which we want to recall, not in eulogy, but as an inspiration for ourselves in the years to come!

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Soul of a poet

There was neither sham nor guile in his makeup. Jim had the soul of a poet. He sensed and saw the world about him and felt deeply what is missed by the casual observer.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Compassionate man

Jim was a man of genuine compassion. He cared about others, and expressed his concern In quiet, thoughtful, unobtrusive ways. He was a man of genuine religious faith, the kind that comes from the heart by deed and thought, not rote or ritual. Of all the possessions he might bequeath his loved ones, this would be the choicest, for it was was plain and simple.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Grandpa’s Bogotá poem: A Call and Farewell (1964)

I cannot leave this place

This town

Or any land

But must look back

And then I see

One beckoning

And gently waving hand.

Weekend Wildcard: Poet Kate Hutchinson’s Abecedarian Pandemic Poem

Today, I am sharing a timely and thought-provoking poem by fellow blogger poet Kate Hutchinson (bio below) as she looks back at the year of pandemic. It’s an abecedarian poem, a new term for me but a logical one: she takes a look at COVID, from A to Z. I found it inspiring my thinking back with gratitude, sorrow, and perspective.

It All Matters

Antiseptics. Air for our lungs and air hugs for our hearts.

Boxes of beans plus blue skies and bikes and bare feet.

Clorox on the shelf along with cat food, chocolates and coffee.

Doctors, yes, and drive-thru windows and drive-by birthdays.

Exercise, elastic waistbands, evergreen trees in the yard.

Facts over falsehoods . . . and Facebook. Food kitchens.

Gloves and newly-gray hair and grandparents on screens.

Hospitals full of heroes plus houseplants and hummingbirds.

IV drips, igloos outside restaurants. Vivid imaginations.

Jeans, jammies, jigsaws, Jeopardy! and Jupiter kissing Saturn.

Keeping our distance but keeping the faith. Kindness.

Libraries, leaves greening then falling on lawns. Love.

Masks and music and movies and mothers and miracles.

Nurses, oh yes. Newspapers and neighbors on the front porch.

Oximeters, ovens full of bread. Open minds, open hearts.

Personal protective equipment. Pets on laps and leashes. Poetry.

Q-tip swabs and questions on quarantining.

Remdesivir plus reading, reading, reading.

Steroids, sourdough starter, and solos on balconies.

Too much toilet paper and time on treadmills. Tireless teachers.

Ultraviolet light and unsung heroes all around us.

Ventilators. Vaccines! Vegetables from our own gardens.

Windows kept open and long walks and wine.

X-rays of lungs, experts who temper our expectations.

Yeast and yarn and yoga and yearning for normal.

Zoom gluing us together under zillions of stars.

~ Kate Hutchinson

The golden sunset peaks through the clouds above the horizon on Juno Beach, Florida last Thanksgiving. Photo: Jane Kelly Amerson López

From “Both Sides of the Window,” Kate Hutchinson’s blog:

Kate Hutchinson recently retired from teaching high school English, and she has on occasion taught poetry writing at a local university.  Her first chapbook of poetry, The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 and is available at their website (linked to the right). A full-length collection of her poems and prose-poems, Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity, was released by THEAQ Press (Rosemount, MN) in 2015.  It is available through Amazon or directly from the author upon request.

Kate has had poems and short essays published in many literary magazines and anthologies since she began writing professionally in the early 2000’s, and several of her pieces have earned recognition in local or national contests.  Her poem “Fowler Ridge Wind Farm,” winner of the 2010 Mobius literary magazine poetry contest, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  A second Pushcart nomination came in 2018 for a golden shovel poem written on the day of Elie Wiesel’s death, which uses the Emily Dickinson line, “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.”

Blogging is Kate’s way of forcing herself to write and think about the deeper elements of life amidst the daily demands of job, family, and home.  

Twas the Write Before Christmas

Liz Balsameda’s touching article in The Palm Beach Post tells us the story of Tom Gregory, a Palm Beach Gardens writer who has nurtured his daughter’s budding creative skills for many years. My father, too, was a word-smith, and he shared the delight of writing with me his entire life.

Letter from santa

Gregory conveyed his support in a letter from Santa ten years ago, using the meter and rhyme of Twas the Night Before Christmas. The jolly old man tries to talk the child into wanting traditional toys.

“Readers read, and thinkers think.” So flow the words from Santa’s red ink. “But writers, they are a different breed. They fail over and over before they succeed.”

Tom Gregory

The girl realizes that her letter has generated a unique response.

“If my letter to Santa a thought did purvey, then I must be a writer!” she did excitedly say. “Not just a writer who combines paper and ink, but a writer who writes so her readers can think!

Tom Gregory

Gifts from my father

Both of my parents encouraged the creative impulses of my sister and me. Susie took the lead in music and art — she is still a huge fan of all kinds of music and has a wonderful collection of art on her walls. I carved out a dancing and writing niche — I followed my mother’s muse with a brief dance career and a lifetime of teaching movement, and writing is still the drive that gets me up in the morning.

Mom shared her love of reading and Dad gave me writing tools. I learned calligraphy at his side with my own pen and ink set. Dad gave me the Roget’s Thesaurus that is never far from my desk on Christmas in 1966, when I was just 12 years old. That morning also revealed his gift of Clement Wood’s The Complete Rhyming Dictionary with the following inscription:

To Jane — We hope, through the years, when the muse appears, and you’re in the mood poetic, You’ll take this from the shelf while expressing yourself, and [… uh, magnetic? Frenetic? Come to think of it, why don’t YOU just look over page 383, and we’ll let this end with “yourself”] Dad

Today, let me finish the poem. “Let fly your skill genetic.”

Christmas wish

So Santa did say, On that cold winter’s night, “Merry Christmas to all, And to all A GOOD WRITE!”

Tom Gregory

Hey, writers: who was your special Santa?