I’m so excited to have author Michal Babay on the blog today to discuss how she turned a personal family struggle into a picture book. Michal’s debut, I’m a Gluten-Sniffing Service Dog, was published by Albert Whitman earlier this month. What makes this book special? So many things! It’s bursting with heart and humor, and it’s inspired by a personal story—one that wasn’t easy to write.
LL: Welcome, Michal, and congrats on your recent debut! I’m so happy to have you on the blog.
MB: Hi Laura! Thank you for having me on your blog. It is such fun working on an interview with one of my critique partners!
LL: So, I know this book was inspired by real-life events: your daughter Elina’s very serious experience with celiac disease. What made you decide to turn a personal struggle into a story?
MB: A few things went into the decision to write about this tough part of my life:
1) I was searching for an agent and needed a story that would help me stand out from the pack.
2) Before writing I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG, I mainly wrote stories that were heavier on humor and lighter on heart. These stories got interest, but no agent offer. Finally, when my daughter was healthy again and I could think calmly, one of my wise critique partners (Shannon Stocker) suggested writing about this time in our life from the dog’s point of view. Brilliant! This way, I would have enough emotional distance to be able to tell the story, and Chewie is such a goof-ball I was still able to incorporate the humor that’s an essential part of my writing.
3) Lastly, but actually most importantly, I had a compelling need to tell the world how serious celiac disease is, but in a non-preachy way. So many people (including some doctors) dismiss celiac as “just a tummy ache” or “not a big deal.” But that’s absolutely wrong. It is a serious autoimmune disease.
In our case, even though my daughter was diagnosed at 10 years old, her health continued to deteriorate. After 5 years of being strictly gluten-free, Elina was so sick she couldn’t attend school or go out with friends. We ended up flying across the country to work with Dr. Alessio Fasano, one of the world’s leading celiac specialists, who put her on an even more restrictive food regime to eliminate any possible gluten contamination. He finally put her on steroids to allow her gut to heal.
As you can imagine, after years of pain, my daughter felt hopeless about ever becoming healthy again. Unfortunately, we later learned that gut inflammation can lead to inflammation in many other places in the body, including the brain. My child’s celiac inflammation and the ensuing hopelessness became a life-threatening depression. So, now that she’s finally healthy physically and mentally, both of us feel strongly that we need to reach out to anyone in the celiac or gluten-free world who may be struggling with their health.
My hope is that I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG allows readers a glimpse into the world of someone with an invisible autoimmune disease, and that it allows people with celiac disease and other invisible disorders to feel seen.
LL: That sounds incredibly scary. I’m so happy she’s doing better now, and I’m glad you’ve been able to tell this important story.
I know you know this, but some readers might not: I write humor exclusively—drawing on personal experience is not one of my strong suits. This is just one of many reasons why I so admire authors like you, Lauren Kerstein, and Kelly Jordan, who can layer so much heart into your stories. I’m curious, did having a personal connection to this story help you or hinder you when you were trying to get it written?
MB: Both! Having a personal connection to this story helped because I was highly motivated to finish it. I NEEDED to get it out into the world. However, being so connected to the story also proved problematic, because I kept dumping everything that happened (in 5 years!) into the manuscript. And as you can imagine, it ended up waaaay too technical.
You mentioned Lauren Kerstein as a writer who knows the secrets of layering heart into a story. She and Kelly are MASTERS at this, as are a number of our other critique partners. Lauren gave me a suggestion that changed everything—she said I could create emotional distance between myself and the story by changing the main character’s name. So smart! And it worked. Once I stopped writing about Elina, and started writing about “Alice,” I didn’t feel the same drive to include every single fact or painful setback. By creating a fictional main character (even though it’s based on my real child), I was able to shift my focus to Chewie’s voice and his journey to graduation, rather than becoming mired in our personal challenges.
When my agent, Laurel Symonds, and I were revising the story, she reminded me that it was ok NOT to dump everything into this book. Just because it happened, doesn’t mean it needs to be included. She suggested that I focus on telling Elina’s story BETWEEN the lines, and focus the main story on Chewie’s journey.
So, once again, thank goodness for writing partners and agents! Every time I shied away from the heart, these wise ladies gently reminded me of the story I wanted to tell. A story filled with heart AND humor, just like our real lives.
LL: Something I love about this book—which I also think is so fun for readers—is how you portrayed Chewie’s thoughts. Chewie is supposed to be focusing on work, but keeps getting distracted by things like bugs, birds, and a slice of pizza on the ground. The way you wrote these scenes is so comical, and perfectly captures how our furry friends tend to act. How were you able to infuse so much humor when writing about a serious topic?
MB: I think the short answer is that my sense of humor is the same as an eight year olds. My attention span is ridiculously short at times, so I could easily imagine how a puppy would be distracted by everything. I mean, who can focus on work when there’s a perfectly wonderful pizza slice just lying around?! Not me, that’s for sure. I tend to look for humor in every situation, no matter what. It’s my coping strategy for life.
LL: Agreed! Laughter is a powerful thing.
You’ve talked about looking to the challenging aspects of our lives for inspiration, as well as mining the funny moments. I know I’m constantly writing down goofy things my kids say, or spinning story inspo from ridiculous real-life situations. Where else can writers look for story inspiration?
MB: Honestly, every single part of our lives can inspire stories. Focus on writing something that
holds YOUR interest. Trust that there will be enough of an audience out there who are interested
in it too. Mine your own life for inspiration, mine the lives around you (sorry dear family! Everything is fair game in love and writing), and most importantly, dig deep into the things that fascinate you.
LL: That’s great advice! Speaking of, I love to provide practical tips on the blog, so what are your top three tips for other picture book writers?
MB: I love writing tips too! My top three would probably be:
1) Write what you want to read. Write for yourself.
2) If it makes you laugh, write it down. If it makes you cry, write it down. If it makes you bored, erase it and write something else.
3) Find your critique people. These are creators who GET your weirdly wacky humor, your lyrical writing, your deep thoughts. Find the people who support your writing style and really, truly want you to succeed. These are the people who will read your stories one billion times and still give you honest feedback, even if it’s not what you hoped to hear. Find the people who are your support group, your therapy group, and your cheerleading group.
LL: Thanks so much for joining me, Michal! Where can readers find you on the web if they want to connect?
MB: My website is Michalbabay.com. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram: @MicBabay
Michal Babay is the author of I’M A GLUTEN-SNIFFING SERVICE DOG (Albert Whitman & Company, 2021). After many years as a teacher and elementary resource specialist, Michal now spends her days writing stories, wrangling teenagers, convincing her three dogs to stop barking, and searching for the perfect gluten-free donut. Michal lives in Southern California with her family.
If you enjoy my blog and want to connect, you can follow @llavoieauthor on Twitter to see all the weird, wacky, and wonderful things that pop into my head, or on Instagram for book recommendations, blog post sneak-peeks, and pictures of cookies with way too many sprinkles.