Anne Wheaton is a champion of kindness.
She cares passionately about rescuing pets and helping fellow humans. After 17 years as a hairdresser, she decided to focus all her time on her true passions. Today, she serves on the board of the Pasadena Humane Society and manages The Foundation To Increase Awesome, which she founded together with her husband, actor Wil Wheaton. She lives in California with her husband, two dogs and a cat. All rescues, of course. Except for Wil.
On a mission to help teach children the importance of having empathy, compassion and kindness, Anne recently embarked on the journey of self-publishing children’s book Piggy & Pug.
The Woolf’s Susan Platt crossed the digital divide to talk to the author and rescue animal advocate about books, pigs, pugs, cats, dogs and Comic Con.
Hello and welcome, Anne. We are thrilled to have you with us for the ‘Belonging’ issue of The Woolf. How did the idea of Piggy and Pug come about? When did you decide to write a children’s book and become an author?
I was a hairdresser for 17 years, but ever since I adopted my very first cat when I was five, I wanted to tell that story and to help advocate the adoption of abandoned animals. In my case I had found out that the orange tabby cat that followed me home from a friend’s house one day had belonged to a neighboring family who moved away and left him behind. My mother allowed me to keep him, and it had felt to me like the cat had gone out on his own to find a new family rather than go in search of his old one. So this idea lies at the heart of the book. And I thought that to make things a little more interesting than the protagonist being your average tabby cat, I’d make him into a pug.
My passion has always been helping rescue animals. And few years ago, I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Pasadena Humane Society, where I currently still serve. I’ve seen many pets that are in dire need of companionship and it was important to me to include an element of empathy in the book, which is why I included Piggy as a character who is in search of a friend. In sum, it is a combination of my experience from when I was five, and my experience from the animal shelter, that led me to write the story of Piggy and Pug.
There is a lot your own life experience in this book.
Yes, even more than I realized. I was recently approached by a resource teacher who told me the story hits home with many of her young students who come from difficult backgrounds where both parents are on drugs, for example, and who learn they can make their own family from the people they meet along their life path. She read my book to these young kids and they immediately connected with Pug going out and searching for his own family, and that it was okay to do that. I had a bit of an epiphany after I spoke to her, that I had been implementing this in my own life the past few years without even realizing it.
And it is an interspecies friendship between the pug and the pig, so that drives yet another message home. Can the young audience of the book grasp that concept?
The book is geared for reading comprehension for five- to eight year olds, but I made it a point to also appeal to younger children, on the one hand, by including a lot of pictures so that children as young as three can follow along. On the other hand, I included more text than your average picture book, so more advanced readers won’t get bored easily, and I know I went right up to the max with what can be done, length-wise. I think they can relate to all the different themes in the story but, to be honest, I just wrote a book that little-kid me would have wanted to read, and 48-year-old me now thoroughly enjoys.
Marrying the images to the words for a story like this seems key. How did you find the right illustrator for this purpose, and what was the creative process to make your characters take form?
The story meant so much to me that I was afraid to go with someone who didn’t know me to do the illustrations. I had a friend who was going to do the illustrations, but there just never seemed to be any opening so I decided to risk it and go with someone I didn’t know. I found a platform called artstation where all kinds of creatives post their portfolios and offer their services. I found an illustrator whose portfolio was chock-full of animals, and I needed someone who could convey emotion in animal faces, so I contacted him and we hit it off. It turned out he was based in Toronto, which meant a three-hour time difference, and he also had a day job. So, the communication was somewhat challenging, but we made it work.
It took us about two and a half months to design the characters. I basically did a stick figure drawing of how I wanted each image to look and he would translate it into a proper illustration. It took 10 months in total to get through the creative process. In a way, it was a bit like going on a blind date, and I never met or spoke to him in person. Everything was done via email and he did an amazing job interpreting all my wishes. Sometimes I just sent him mood boards and stock images of things I had in mind. I created an Instagram account to document this creative journey because it was so new to me. It wasn’t a traditional collaboration like a comic book would be, where the graphic artist has free range to put their own vision on it, but he put a lot of his own touches on the characters.
Was keeping your artistic integrity important?
Very much so, yes. The whole book is exactly what I would have wanted as a kid. Right down to the design and materials of the actual book. I remember how much I hated dust jackets, so I made sure the book had no dust jacket. Also, I wanted to make a cover that is a full panoramic illustration so if you laid the book face down, you’d get a full picture. I also made sure the paper was thick so it wouldn’t tear in little hands, and glossy so the illustrations would shine. I love when little kids come up to me and tell me how much they enjoy the way it looks and feels … and can’t wait for more adventures of Piggy and Pug.
Was this what made you decide to self-publish?
It wasn’t my decision at the beginning. But once I realized I would not get the book I wanted to make with traditional publishing—down to the very last detail—I went for self-publishing. It took me 18 months, from start to finish. I probably could have done it faster, but I lost quite a bit of time hoping my original illustrator would be available. Funnily enough, if I talk to teachers, they tell me that their kids love that it has quite a bit of content, yet when I talk to publishers, they think there are too many words. I do wonder if publishers are really listening to their audience … I am very happy with the route I chose. It was so stressful and so exciting, all at the same time.
In that vein, what were the most rewarding and most stressful experiences?
Getting the first box of books from the printer was so scary, because I was afraid of finding a typo and I knew little kids were going to catch it. But it was also so exciting to open that box and pull out the books. Finding an illustrator was stressful to a degree, but I kept telling myself that everything that is worth doing is difficult I also had to decide how much of my time and energy would go into handling logistics such as shipping the books and customer service, and how much time this would leave for promoting the book. Lucky for me, I have a friend who recently started a distribution company and it works sort of like a co-op. That is saving me a lot of headache so I have time to be on the road and promote the book.
Speaking of which, you’ve been presenting the books mainly at Comic Cons since the launch earlier this year—which is a bit of an unusual choice for a children’s book. How has that experience been?
Great! I chose Comic Cons because there are many people in one place, but the crowd is very diverse: there are actors and artists and authors. Typically, you can’t find too many children’s authors, but it is always a place where parents bring their kids to show them the stuff that they love. I had no idea what to expect, but at the first Comic Con I went to with the books, which was Emerald City in Seattle, I sold all 250 copies that I had brought. The main reason why I chose to do the Comic Con circuit, however, is that everyone there is so supportive of each other and they are all there to celebrate things they love. It’s not about putting each other down or being better at something than someone else. And I found that to be a great environment to promote Piggy & Pug.
With Piggy and Pug having found each other and their way onto children’s bookshelves, what’s next for the pair? Are there new adventures planned?
Yes! I have at least two more stories in mind. I had planned to sit down over the summer to get started, but then I had a major maintenance incident in my kitchen and we were forced to move out of our house. One of my dogs was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease at the same time, so those things took precedent and writing was put on hold. I only wrote four paragraphs in the new book. But I love those four paragraphs. That’s the nice thing about being self-published, though. I don’t have a publisher breathing down my neck.
And, finally, the Woolf special question: what is one of your favorite works of fiction and why?
My favorite book has always been Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But in terms of books that inspired me, animal-wise, I love both Wesley the Owl and The Soul of an Octopus. What attracts me most in books like these is the relationship people have with animals, but also the relationships that animals have with each other, and how we learn and grow from this.
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