Friday, April 29, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Racing in the Rain

HarperCollins Children's: Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

HarperCollins Children's: Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

HarperCollins Children's: Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog by Garth Stein, which goes on sale on May 3, 2011. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Children's Books, has helped support the issue.


HarperCollins Children's: Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Books & Authors

Children's Review: Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog

Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog by Garth Stein (Harper/HarperCollins, $16.99 hardcover 9780062015747; $6.99 paperback 9780062015761; 272p., ages 8-12, May 3, 2011)

Why do a young reader's edition of the popular adult title The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008)? Because every child has some of Enzo, a charming lab-terrier mix, in him (or her). With a few adjustments (a slight simplification of vocabulary and syntax, and a reworking of some adult themes), Garth Stein has provided a version of his book that you may hand to any child. Enzo, the wise and observant canine narrator, has advantages and disadvantages. One of the chief advantages is access. People--adults--say things in front of him they wouldn't say in front of others. So Enzo is privy to conversations and information that Denny, his owner, is not. He has nearly full access to the human world, yet, as a canine, he also possesses highly attuned senses. He can smell where Denny has been all day and what he has eaten. He feels the mist of the Seattle skies and the squish of mud beneath his paws, and he can read body language and facial expressions like a secret code. He is fully in the moment--as are children.

He loves Denny and comes to love the mate he chooses, Eve, and he loves the child they have together, Zoë. He cannot tell them because he cannot speak. He can show them, however, by staying at their sides and guiding them without words (and without thumbs, as he likes to point out). One day, Enzo smells something on Eve that is not right. He knows that something is very wrong, long before the doctors discover it. Stein does not shield children from pain and loss. Instead, he shows them that they, like Enzo, have the strength within them to make it through even the greatest challenges. And he often does it with humor.

Zoë has a great deal in common with Enzo. People say things to her--her maternal grandparents, for instance (Enzo "began calling them the Twins because they looked very much alike. They had the same shade of dyed hair. Plus they always wore matching outfits.  And... they both smelled of chemicals: plastics and hair products."),  that they would not say in front of most adults. Zoë is highly perceptive and suspects the Twins are up to something, yet she is powerless to make her own destiny. She must rely on the adults around her--just like Enzo.

When Denny, a racecar driver, leaves the house, he leaves on the TV for Enzo. One day, Enzo watches a film about Mongolia. When a dog dies in Mongolia, his master whispers into the dog's ear his wish that the dog return as a man. "Not all dogs return as men," Enzo explains, "only those who are ready." He learns everything he can to get ready to be a man. Enzo is preparing.

When Eve becomes ill, Enzo, Denny and Zoë must cope with her absence while she's in the hospital. After her release, the Twins suggest that they care for Eve in their home so that Denny can continue working. They also suggest that Zoë stay with her mother. The Twins have a plan: they are gradually taking hold of Eve and Zoë. Enzo and Denny's pack is scattered, their lives are pulled in every direction. This new arrangement stretches them thin--and goes on for much longer than they'd imagined.

Denny's training and success depend upon being in the moment, and forgetting any mistake that could consume his thoughts and cause him to miss an opportunity--or to crash. He must wait for each chance to gain position, slowly moving up to win the race. Enzo, on the other hand, seeks immediate gratification. He wants his pack together. Now. On Enzo's quest to prepare to be a man, he tries to learn from Denny, to persevere, to be patient, to seize the moments when they present themselves. And Enzo is improving all the time.

At first, Enzo resents Eve. But he allows a bond to develop between them. It's different from his with Denny, but it is a bond nonetheless. When Eve gives birth to Zoë, he confides, "I wished, at the time, that the baby would look like me." Zoë is instantly part of his pack, and he is her protector. When Eve has her first crippling bout with her illness, Denny is away racing. Eve takes Zoë and goes to stay with the Twins. In her haste and her pain, she forgets about Enzo. For three days, he is alone. He finds the toilet bowl as a water source; he makes his food last. He even confines his "business" to one mat by the door. But then Zoë's stuffed zebra destroys all of the child's other stuffed toys, framing Enzo for the mess. In his head, Enzo denies the destruction, just as children vehemently deny wrong actions they've committed. Something (the zebra) overtakes their thoughts and they do things they can't imagine themselves doing. It wasn't Enzo, it was the zebra.

The zebra becomes a recurring theme in the book, and a barometer for Enzo's growth. When Enzo learns the Twins' plan to keep Zoë with them, he goes head-to-head with the zebra, and he comes to a realization. "The zebra is something inside of us. Our fears. Our own self-destructive nature," he says. "The zebra is the worst part of us when we are face-to-face with our worst times." This epiphany allows Enzo to take responsibility for himself, and also to keep Denny on track to remain true to himself, too.

We know from the beginning that Enzo is letting go. This is a book about letting go, about keeping those you love with you and honoring them even when they cannot physically be with you. It's also about finding a way to access your best self in the worst of circumstances. It's a valuable lesson, at any age. And Enzo is a great teacher.--Jennifer Brown


HarperCollins Children's: Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Garth Stein: Rendering the Zebra Powerless


What were the seeds for The Art of Racing in the Rain?

I used to make documentary films, and a friend asked me to look at a film called State of Dogs. It was about this belief in Mongolia that the next life for dogs would be as a person. I kept thinking, "I wish I could do something with that, but how do you do that?" It wasn't until I saw the poet Billy Collins who read his poem from the point of view of a dog that's been euthanized that I thought, "That's it! That story can only be told from the dog's point of view."

I raced for about four years as an amateur in a Miata and had a great time doing it. I'm too competitive to be a middle-of-the-pack guy. If you want to be good at racing, you have to put in all your time, energy and effort, and I wasn't willing to do that. The zebra got in the car with me. If I'd been able to say, "Look in the mirror: Is this where you want to be?" I might have stopped. We get wrapped up in our passions, and sometimes the only way to get out of it is to crash.


What made you want to adapt The Art of Racing in the Rain for a younger audience?

I have three kids, 14, 12 and four. When the book came out in 2008, my 14-year-old was 11. The book was at Starbucks and stuff, and people at school were talking about it. My son wanted to read it. I said, "Okay, but there are some mature subjects in there. Let's keep tabs on it, and we'll work through it together." That was great, and I thought, okay, an 11-year-old can read this along with a parent who's willing to work through it with them. I realized that not all kids have a parent who's willing to do that. There was bad language in the book, and the way I'd constructed the plot was too mature for kids. I talked to my editor at Harper, and she said, "I talked with the people at Harper Children's and they would love to work with you on an adaptation that would do what you'd want it to do." Young people identify with Enzo because they feel his frustration in essential ways. [They] are essentially dogs, metaphorically speaking, in that they have fully functioning, very intelligent brains--more intelligent than a lot of adults who've forgotten too much. They have to ask for stuff, for clothes, to go places. The tweens can get a charge out of Enzo, and take some of the same messages into account: self-responsibility, self-reliance. The morals he puts out would resonate with tween readers.


Enzo's relationship with Zoë's zebra is fascinating as a measurement of his maturity and change in perspective. Youngest readers might even believe the zebra is possessed in that first episode. How did the zebra develop as a subtheme?

The true story behind that is this: I didn't know about the zebra before I started writing the book. Sometimes I'll give myself a writing assignment in the middle of a book because I need to know more about the characters. It might not stay in the book, but it helps me explore. One day I went into my office and thought, "I want to see what makes Enzo tick. I'm going to lock him into the house for three days." Right away he finds the toilet bowl so he won't go thirsty. He knows the food is right behind that door, but he can't open the door. If you leave a dog with complete freedom for several days, something will get destroyed. I don't think the dog wants to, I think it happens--he would never do anything to hurt Zoë or her stuffed animals. The zebra destroys itself, too, and leaves him framed for the job. I read the scene over, and thought, "That's going to work!" I went through the outline and thought, "Where else can I use the zebra?" Including the climactic scene [where Denny's about to sign some crucial legal papers]. We all have a zebra. It's the part where we don't want to take responsibility for our own actions--a force beyond our control. Enzo's lesson is: We are the zebra, and we have to acknowledge that, and when we do, we render the zebra powerless.


The red pepper scene (in which Enzo intentionally causes his own stomach upset) and Enzo's notion of "King Karma" are so great in terms of Enzo being able to exact revenge on the Twins in his own way.

It's interesting because that [red pepper] scene is tied in with the zebra. Right after that scene, he goes in and growls at the zebra [in Zoë's bedroom]. In a sense, that's a big transition moment. He's using the tools he has available, and he's going to express his dissatisfaction. He's standing up for himself and taking charge of his zebra. Crapping on the rug is kind of a key moment for him.

Enzo is not an unbiased narrator. He's very opinionated. And he's very possessive of his family. The demonization of the Twins is through Enzo's eyes. Adult readers who I come in contact with forget that. I would dare say the Twins probably aren't that evil, but they're evil in Enzo's eyes. If we saw it through a different perspective, like an omniscient narrator, perhaps we'd see them differently. They're wrong, they shouldn't be doing what they're doing, but they want the best for their granddaughter. They're incorrect in their assessment, but we run into that in the world all the time. I don't believe that politicians whom I disagree with want evil in the world; they differ in their opinion in how things should get done.


Denny has a lot of compassion. He has to have compassion when he presents her grandparents to Zoë in the best light. He also has to have compassion in that key scene with Zoë's grandmother. And then there's the compassion that the head of Ferrari shows to Denny. Does that have to do with karma, too?

Yes. Absolutely. The deal with writing is this: I don't get to control much, but it's a conversation between the reader and the writer. People will ask me what message I want them to take away. It's presumptuous of me to suggest what that is. If they want to put the book down and say that was great entertainment, that's fine. But there are things I put in for a reason. If you want to dig deeper, you can uncover these things.

The idea of listening without interrupting. When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who said, "When someone else is speaking, you can't raise your hand. If you're raising your hand, you're thinking about what you want to say while they're speaking, and you're not listening." It's fundamental to our society, and sometimes it's lacking. I'm going to listen, think about it and then respond.

Denny's perseverance, being patient. Going to the driving metaphor, if you're behind in a race and there are five or eight laps left to go, the worst thing you can do is force the issue. You're taking the focus away from where it should be. Look for your opportunities, and when it appears, you have to take it. That's what Denny does with Trish [the grandmother] on the street. The reason it works is because Enzo is his alter ego. They're each other's yin and yang. Denny's got perseverance; he's balanced, he's looking for the moment. Enzo wants to take Zoë and go to Canada. He thinks, "I really wanted to take a couple of his fingers" when Maxwell [the grandfather] hands him the red pepper. He voices the impulses that we feel, too: "This is not right, somebody do something!" We identify more strongly with Enzo. Then we learn the lesson of the book, which is we must approach our lives with balance and patience, and we should not force issues that shouldn't be forced. If we can do that, we will win the race.


Do you think we get to choose when we die?

Enzo phrases it my "will to die." People talk about a will to live but rarely a will to die. I do think, on some level, we can be in control of that. I don't think everybody is in control of it. It's probably not easy. But I do think there's a lot more that we can be in control of than we give ourselves credit for, including our own healing and our own sicknesses. A lot of times you get that cold or flu in the middle of extreme stress. You could say your body is more susceptible. It might be your body saying, "If I don't do this, you're going to have an aneurysm." We tend to look at these things as victims, and I don't think we have to. This is the whole idea of the zebra again.

That's the kind of stuff I want to work with in my writing. I believe in the transformative power of fiction. As a writer I have to strive to transform people--you have to put in a lot of effort to read a book, and make pictures in your head that work. If you're going to put in the time, I want you to walk away with some thoughts and ideas that will stay with you.


Behind the Scenes with Editor Alyson Day

While Garth Stein was thinking about how he could adapt his adult book for younger readers like his 11-year-old son, Alyson Day and Phoebe Yeh at HarperCollins Children's books were talking about the exact same thing. "I devoured the adult book. I stayed up late reading it and wanted to hand it to everyone I knew," Day said. "The voice of Enzo stayed with me." When she discussed with Yeh the idea of approaching Stein about a book for younger readers, she agreed. Day said, "It had a poignancy and a humor, and a message of hope that we felt translated to young readers in the same way." She believed that children could relate to Enzo's perspective, observing what's unsaid and picking up on body language. To emphasize that identification, Day said they wanted to bring Denny and Eve's young daughter, Zoë, more to the forefront in this edition, and emphasize the relationship between them.

Day then approached Stein's editor, Jennifer Barth, in the HarperCollins adult division, who told Day, "This is fortuitous because Garth also mentioned this to me." The author had received letters from librarians and teachers whose students couldn't read all of the book because of adult language in some sections, and because of allegations of sexual molestation in the grandparents' efforts to gain custody of Zoë. Stein explained, "The only reason the allegation is in there is because that's one of the only ways a biological father can lose custody of his child." Day found another: charges of neglect. In this case, both are trumped-up, but by tying Denny up in the courts, the grandparents were able to drain him of his finances.

But as Stein put it, "The book is about how we lead our lives and the choices we make and how we see the world around us." For Day, those themes seemed ideal to bring families together in conversation. "When we set out to create the [young readers'] edition, it was in that spirit, that the parent and child can sit side by side and read it," she said.

Day's main objective was "to stay true to Enzo's voice and the tone of Garth's writing overall." She and Stein went through the manuscript and "tried to hone and strengthen and clarify Enzo's philosophies, while still focusing on grappling with these great notions of Enzo coming back as a person and being all that he could be," she said. Early in the book, Enzo sees Denny as a wonder: "He is so brilliant. He shines. He's beautiful with his hands that grab things and his tongue that says things." Day pointed out that children are making similar discoveries about themselves and their own development. "We take these things for granted and we shouldn't. Kids are discovering their abilities in this way, and coming into their own in the same way Enzo is," she said. "Enzo sees things in the ways kids do, those things that are unsaid, the nuances, the body language, the pauses," Day observes. "That's why it's a wonderful way to enter the story."


Book Brahmin: Garth Stein


On your nightstand now:

The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh; A Good American, Alex George; The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson; Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin. (I was hoping to have In the Garden of Beasts on my nightstand by now, but a certain friend of mine who shall remain nameless [his initials are Erik Larson], is pretty stingy with the ARCs.)

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beverly Cleary

Your top five authors:

John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare

Book you've faked reading:

The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper

Book you are an evangelist for:

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

Book you've bought for the cover:

Oxford-English Dictionary (20 volumes! Seriously!)

Book(s) that changed your life:

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth; The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda; Kim, Rudyard Kipling

Favorite line from a book:

"Sometimes--there's God! So quickly!" --from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien



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