Do you find yourself making up stories about your dogs that you think would make a good children's book? I have a million. Like the one about the girl who creates a very, very, very long leash so she can sit on the couch watching Millionaire Matchmaker, while her dog wanders the neighborhood creating havoc. Or the adventures of two black mutts called the The Licorice Twins, who track down missing food.
I didn’t say they were good and I never imagined these little riffs could really lead some place but for Shellie Braeuner that’s exactly what happened. The Nashville nanny recently won the first-ever Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories New Author Contest for her tale, The Great Dog Wash/El gran lavaperros. A special, English-Spanish edition of the book, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, is available free inside 1.5 million boxes of Cheerios. A standalone version, published by Simon & Schuster, goes on sale in July.
I caught up with Shellie Braeuner on her cell phone in a parking lot outside a Nashville grocery store last week, just hours after tornadoes touched down nearby. She was shopping for the special Cheerios boxes with the book inside to give away at the fifth birthday of Elizabeth, the youngest child for whom she is a nanny. The book is dedicated to Elizabeth and the dog they share, Fluffy.
How’d she do it? “It was the last day of the contest, and I really didn’t have anything finished that I wanted to submit that felt right,” says Braeuner, who has long written for personal pleasure and enjoys telling stories to kids. She was washing Fluffy, when she noticed Elizabeth singing, “dog wash, dog wash, dog wash.” “I thought, ‘you know, if she’s having this much fun just singing dog wash, there’s got to be a story in here somewhere.’ It all kind of came together that day, and it was the day it needed to come together if I was going to enter.”
I was happy to discover Fluffy might inspire future Braeuner-penned stories, including one based on the day Shellie and the kids brought him home from Happy Tails Humane, a no-kill animal shelter in the Nashville area. “We all came down with stomach flu the night after we adopted him,” Braeuner says. “And I’m thinking, ‘five-and-a-half-month-old puppy, new house, everyone feeling awful—gonna be crazy.’ And this dog just lay with us, just happy to be with us.”
The other big news for the fledgling author is Cheerios’ donation of 10,000 copies of her book to R.E.A.D., the reading assistance program that provides therapy dogs as reading companions for children. The largest single book donation in the organization’s history marks its 10th anniversary.
“To me that’s the best thing,” Braeuner says. “If I won the lottery or something and I kept all that money to myself, I wouldn’t be happy. But knowing that this is helping dogs and this is helping kids and that someone could go in with their WIC card and come out with a brand new book before it even hits the bookstores—that makes me feel so good.”
The key gap between me and a $5,000 grand prize? A good idea for starters. But that shouldn't stop others. Watch your dog for greatness and pick up your pens, the third New Author Contest runs through July 15, 2009.