Valerie Egar didn’t know that her first picture book, Oh No! Reindeer Flu! would be shaped by a poster she spotted while working as New Jersey’s deputy attorney general. The flier on a cafeteria bulletin board showed a picture of a husky at the Bucks County SPCA. The dog’s time was nearly up. “There was something about the idea of the husky that really caught me,” Egar explains. She walked around the office encouraging her co-workers to adopt the husky. “Finally, one of the people said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you go get it?’ ” she recalls.
As a sixth grader, Egar exercised her young writing muscles and submitted an article to Reader’s Digest about an “unforgettable character.” Her choice was her beloved puppy, Greta, whom her family had to give away. As a child, Egar moved frequently, so despite her love of dogs, they had not played a large part in her childhood. As an adult and the mother of the “original it-followed-me-home kid,” Egar had welcomed four cats into her home. By the time the husky needed rescue, she wasn’t sure her home would be the right place.
She called her son, who was then almost 18. “Well, Mom, we have to go and get her,” he said. “Even if we find a home for her, we have to go rescue her.”
So Egar and her son spent the next day at the shelter, meeting a husky who would transform Egar’s life—and be one of the inspirations for her debut picture book, Oh No! Reindeer Flu! In Egar’s story, which Kirkus calls “a lively holiday tale,” Santa’s reindeer have gotten the flu the night that Santa is supposed to deliver the gifts. A group of lovable, stalwart huskies volunteer to pull Santa’s sleigh, saying: “I never understood why Santa chose reindeer in the first place.” Keeka, named for Egar’s first husky, interrupts her games with polar bears to be on the sled team that comes to the rescue. Phoenix, the current husky member of Egar’s family, is also among the canine heroes. A small pup named Frost, sure to be kids’ favorite, is really too small to help—but Santa embraces his efforts.
Although Egar’s primary career was in law, she had been writing poetry and stories for children well before her retirement. When she retired and moved from New Jersey to Maine, she became a regular columnist for the Biddeford Journal Tribune. “There’s a challenge to having an idea for a story every week,” she explains. “I had to come up with an idea. Sometimes it flowed, and I’d have an idea early in the week, and I’d know I could write that piece. Sometimes, it was the night before deadline, and I would be walking around my office going, ‘OK, story idea. Door. Can I write a story about a door? No.’ But I had to do it, and I always did, which gave me confidence that if one sits quietly and reaches deep, there’s an abundance of ideas in the world, and one can find them.”
After Egar’s stories run in the Biddeford Journal Tribune, she publishes them on her blog, Snickertales, which has an international following. On her blog and on social media, she can view feedback on each story, seeing how many views each story has received and reading comments on the tales that have made an impact on her readers. (Snickertales is named after another rescue dog, Snicker, whom the family found in a park.)
Oh No! Reindeer Flu! originally appeared in an earlier incarnation as one of the most popular Snickertales stories, which is why Egar chose it to become her first picture book. After polishing the manuscript, she worked with illustrator Tamara Campeau, whose painterly style brings the characters to life, especially the expressive faces of the huskies. “I love Tamara. She is such a professional,” Egar says. Aside from a collaborative decision about a daredevil pilot who offers Santa help, Egar stepped back and let Tamara do her work. “She took it, and she ran with it.”
The choice to show a female pilot was very intentional for Egar. “I grew up in a time when in reading books, the women were moms,” Egar explains. They were home cooking; they had aprons on. One could get through high school and college without realizing that women contributed anything.” While most of the characters in her book are huskies, Egar made sure that a woman plays an important role.
Still, it’s the huskies who really steal the show. Part of that, Egar believes, is how people respond to huskies in the real world: “When we walk Phoenix through our little town of Cornish, people will stop. People respond to huskies, and children really love huskies.” It struck Egar as surprising that she’d never seen huskies—who are trained to pull sleds—pulling Santa’s sleigh in a picture book. Frost, a pup with two different colored eyes—a common trait among huskies—is desperate to be included in saving the day. Children “want to help... but sometimes you’re not big enough to do it yet,” Egar says. “It’s nice when an adult lets you do something.”
Keeka, the rescue dog who stole Egar’s heart, lived with her family for nine years before she died of old age. “She really taught me a lot about love,” Egar says. “A dog’s love is unconditional. And we live in a world where most love is pretty conditional.” Egar may one day publish a collection of poems she wrote from Keeka’s point of view. But though Egar loves huskies, she expects to move on to other animal tales. Her next project, an audiobook, involves a man writing letters to his resident mice to convince them to find a new home. As for her next picture book, she may choose a story about a cat instead.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.