skip to Main Content
12 X 12 Featured Author September 2016 – Hazel Mitchell

12 x 12 Featured Author September 2016 – Hazel Mitchell

Hazel and Toby Large 150dpi RGB

Hi everyone, I am SO excited to feature not one, but TWO very special guests for September’s featured author post. The first is author/illustrator Hazel Mitchell, and the second guest is her beloved dog Toby, who is the author of his own story and the inspiration behind Hazel’s latest book.

Like hundreds of others, I followed Toby on social media during his disappearance (see below), and opened Facebook every day hoping for news. Toby walked into the hearts of dog-lovers all over the world during that time. 

Knowing how difficult it can be to translate a real-life story into something that is child-relatable and appropriate for the picture book format, I asked Hazel to share her process of writing and illustrating TOBY with us. Please give a warm welcome to Hazel and her Toby.

Thanks for featuring me and Toby on 12 x 12! It’s a great to be part of such a useful program.

A lot of people know Toby from my (now) years of posting about him since he was rescued back in 2013. For those who don’t know, Toby’s a poodle from a puppy mill in Maine. I adopted him, after a short fostering period. My husband and I decided we couldn’t let him go. Toby became quite famous on social media after going missing for eight days in the summer of 2014 before he returned to us (thankfully!). A story I’d written about him was acquired by Liz Bicknell at Candlewick Press. It will be published on September 13, 2016. It’s my debut as an author/illustrator and I’m very excited to see it on the shelves!

How did the story come about?
I decided to write about Toby after a conversation with editor Harold Underdown at a retreat where he said “Why don’t you write about Toby?’ and I said ‘Doesn’t everybody write a story about their dog?’. But Toby is special and they saA lot of drawingsy write about that which you love. So I decided to give it a go.

I sat down and started to think about a book involving Toby and my immediate thought was ‘Well I can’t put me and my husband in it. That would be just plain boring!’ and I couldn’t think of a story arc to support it. (This was BEFORE Toby was lost, BTW). What if I put Toby in a fictionalized setting? I knew it had been done before. Tad Hills’ Rocket books for example (another real dog). Rocket’s books concentrate on learning to read and write. I didn’t want to do something like that. I wanted Toby’s emotional journey to be very much the center of the story and I wanted to include some of the real things he did in real life in the book.

People are always saying ‘You should write about your dog’, or your kid, or your llama (did Anna Dewdney have a llama? No, not that I can find on google). But how do you actually go about doing it? Well, how do you write any story? Same deal, you give the main character/s a purpose or a problem – teaching reading or writing, like Rocket, or going to the moon or on a sea voyage or rescuing something or making a cake. The list is endless.

Shelter ColourMy first decision was to give Toby a new family. I wanted him to find a home and be loved, just like in his real life. And I also wanted a child in the book for young readers to relate to and for Toby to form a growing relationship with. I immediately decided on a boy. He’s a bit lonely, I thought, like Toby, so they would have empathy. And that would draw the reader close to them. Did the boy have a family? At first I thought he had a mum and dad. But as I started to work on the story I decided it would become more interesting if I gave him a single parent. Mom or dad? I decided on dad. And the dad isn’t coping too well. I didn’t know why he was single and it is never stated in the story. (That’s something the reader can fill in. You know, that space you leave, like accommodating the words on the page when you’re illustrating).

A nice triangle began forming in my head: a lonely boy, a fearful dog,  an overloaded parent (three is the magic number, yes?). I love to show emotion and mood in my illustrations and I could see a lot of potential here. There would be a crisis point for sure (or two).Toby sketches

Next I thought about setting and the motivation for the problem. The setting was going to be a new home. They’ve just moved in. The set up? The boy is feeling strange and an outsider, a bit lonely. That’s the motivation for adopting a dog, to help him settle in. The problem: the dog they adopt isn’t the easy friend fix boy and dad was hoping for. The problem? To send Toby back to the shelter or try again with him until things improve.

And that was my story line. I had brought to the story Toby’s fear of everything in real life and added some characters that would cause conflict.  It was also important for me to find a solution that would be brought about by Toby and the boy, not the parent. Every time I wrote the ending the parent was in charge, but finally I sorted it out. (You’ll have to read the book to find out how that happens!) I hope the story succeeds on several levels … an entertaining story about a boy and a pet, the emotional journey they are on, and the persistence that boy and dog show to get things right in the end. To say nothing of a harassed parent! Every child knows how that feels.

Putting an animal into a fictionalized setting is probably easier than working with a person or child. I think a lot of writers put their children into books unwittingly, or at least elements of them, as fictional characters. I can think of a few real ones too, Christopher Robin for instance (and I guess Winnie the Pooh and his friends!), and Mo Willem’s Trixie and Knuffle Bunny. How many more can you think of?

Perhaps you have an aniToby Cover Large 150dpi RGBmal, or a child, or even an inanimate/anthropomorphized object you would like to put into your writing?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

What’s your motivation in writing about them?
Is there a reason you are not using fictionalized characters?
Is there something about them/it that’s sparking a story?
Are you creating a fictionalized setting with real characters or are you writing a real life story? (Decide which and why! Or both! Can you carry it off?)
Most importantly – do you have a plot?

Thanks for reading and good luck with your writing.
Hazel and Toby (woof!)


Hazel Mitchell has always loved drawing and still cannot be reliably left alone with a pencil. She has illustrated many books for children including IMANI’S MOON, ONE WORD PEARL, ANIMALLY and WHERE DO FAIRIES GO WHEN IT SNOWS? Toby realistic sketches

TOBY is her author-illustrator debut from Candlewick Press. Her work has received several awards and been recognized by Bank Street Books, Learning Magazine, Reading is Fundamental,  Foreword Reviews, NYCReads365, Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles Charlotte/Mecklenburg , Chicago and Maine State libraries among others. Originally from England, where she attended art-college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. She still misses British fish and chips, but is learning to love lobster.
See more of her work at Repped by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd.

Swag ImageHazel is offering one lucky 12 x 12 member a copy of her debut book Toby and a swag bag full of fun! So start writing and revising to have more chances to win. (Toby not included. ;-)) Find true love, adopt

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

This Post Has 244 Comments
  1. Hello Hazel and Toby,

    I enjoyed listening to your process in creating your lovely story!
    I look forward to reading it!

    Thank you!

  2. It was great to read about your thought process that led up to your decision to write a Toby-inspired story. TI found the questions very helpful, too. BTW The search for Toby made it up here to Nova Scotia as well!!

  3. Hazel, love Toby’s real story. I have adopted kitties and dogs all my life. The love and joy they bring to our lives is a treasure. Thank you for sharing your journey with Toby and the fulfillment he has brought to your writing and illustrations. I look forward to reading you book 🙂 Congrats!

  4. We love Toby and your illustrations are simply wonderful and full of joy. I love your list of questions, too. It seems so simple, simple gets lost in the muck sometimes and it’s good to have reminders. I’m printing for my office wal!

  5. I fell in love with Toby after reading about his escapades on Facebook. Thank you for allowing us a behind the scene look at your thought process in writing the story of Toby. I can’t wait to read it

  6. Toby is just adorable! I love the illustrations, and can’t wait to check this book out! Thank you for walking us through the idea development. It helps so much to see all the different ways stories can be built!

  7. Hazel, I enjoyed reading about your writing process, especially the questions you listed. Look forward to reading Toby. Our youngest child is Ruby, a 13 year old poodle.

  8. Hey there Hazel,
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing how you came about writing the fictional Toby story. Many of us followed yours and his true story! I love your “nice triangle” idea.

  9. Hazel, I was quite intrigued by your process of working through a book. It reminds me of a chef picking and sorting their way through the various spices of a new recipe and choosing just the right ones to bring it all together and make a wonderful dish, in your case a book. You are very encouraging and engaging. Best of wishes for all your Toby adventures. You have started me thinking and questioning my own stories.

  10. Hi Hazel and Toby. Thank you for sharing your journey. It gives prepublished authors meat to sink their teeth into. Toby, get ready to use that paw of yours and an ink pad to sign autographs.

  11. Thank you for sharing Tobys story. I can’t wait to read the book. I just turned in a manuscript about a kitten we rescued. We’ll see. Also, your illustrations are very expressive .

  12. Thank you for sharing Tobys story. I can’t wait to read the book. I just turned in a manuscript about a kitten we rescued. We’ll see. Also, your illustrations are very expressive I enjoyed them.

  13. Thank you for posting about the journey to publication on your first author/illustrator book. How fun that you were able to write a story based on your own dog’s experiences. Toby’s a cutie both in real life and as the star of his story!

  14. Dear Hazel,

    Thanks for sharing how you made choices in writing about your Toby! We all want to tell stories from our lives and the trick is finding how to stay true to the “characters” and make it interesting to the readers too!

  15. Hazel,
    congrats to you and Toby. I have a rescue puppy and I enjoyed reading how you combined real life puppy and a fictional story combining character and plot. Thanks for the inside view to your writing process.

  16. I enjoyed your ideas for how you came to find a story arc for writing about your dog Toby. I have been writing stories about events that were in my life but a good story arc has eluded me. Thanks for sharing your journey and good luck with your book “Toby”.

  17. Loved reading your story and wish you the best when you launch your book. I really loved the questions you posed. Thank for the post!

  18. Toby is adorable and I can’t wait to read this book! I do have a dog story (one of my 12×12 drafts) and even though dog stories are very common, I still like my idea and hope it becomes a book someday like your Toby story. Congratulations on your new book!

  19. I am so excited about Toby for a myriad of reasons. I love the fact that you highlight the tough times and the beauty that comes with adopting a pet. I can’t wait to read the ending to find out what happens. I love the element of trust that you seem to have woven throughout. (I will have to see if my assumption is correct when I read the book.) Trust that the move will work out okay. Trust in opening your heart to a pet even if it’s hard. Trust from Toby’s perspective in a new home. I simply can’t wait to read your book! Thank you for tackling animal adoption and for working through the kinks to create a beautiful, important book. Thank you also, for offering such helpful questions on which we can all reflect.

    1. Hi Lauren. Thank you so much! Glad that you saw the portrayal of trust and tough times … hard to strike the right balance in a small child’s book! I hope you enjoy TOBY! Hazel and Toby xo

  20. What a thorough and helpful recount of how Toby inspired you to write his story. I have a chocolate lab, Scooby who has also inspired a draft of mine… One that I shall polish up taking into account your advice! Incidentally, I too miss fish n chips being a Brit living in China but am learning to love dumplings. Thanks again for sharing, I enjoyed your post and look forward to reading your book.

  21. Soooo loving Toby and this exciting new book — great post about your process of telling Toby’s story in a new plot that fits his personality, Hazel, my friend and mentor!! Woof woof

  22. It was fascinating to read about your struggles along the way with your manuscript. And your illustrations are adorable. What a wonderful story about a boy and his dog.

  23. Congratulations, Hazel! Toby is a lucky dog—and it sounds like a wonderful story. I have a dog suit with a big “Adopt” tag that I wore for a rescue organization. Best dogs ever.

  24. Thank you for taking us on your adventure, Hazel and Toby! I found your post and suggestions to be most helpful. I look forward to reading your book!

  25. Thank you for writing about the process of how to approach Toby’s story.Your detailed discussions of it and the illustrations as well as the questions to ask oneself are an asset to any writer. I will try to get hold of this book in Canada.

  26. Loved hearing about Toby, and what heartwarming illustrations! Thank you for including the questions to consider when writing about real family and pets.

  27. Your illustrations are wonderful—I love Toby’s little face. Dogs make such great characters. Thanks for including the questions to ask ourselves when we write about our dogs (because I think we all have at least one dog story draft). 🙂 Now, I’m wondering what my blender would have to say…

  28. Hazel, Thanks so much for sharing this adventure. Especially the questions, they were exactly what I needed to hear/see to evaluate one of my PBs. Toby is lucky to be your friend. What a cutie.

  29. My dog died so many years ago now but, as a family, we still have lots of hilarious stories about him. He also was from the Lost Dogs Home. I wonder if I can work through my sadness (still) by writing about him. Thanks for the inspiration.

  30. This is such a good post; thank you, Hazel. The questions you gave us to consider are helpful.
    Toby is adorable. Where can I learn about when he went missing? Years ago our beautiful blue-eyed white cat went missing for most of a summer. She came back thin and dirty, so we were sure someone had catnapped her and she somehow found her way home. It looked as if it had been a long exhausting journey.
    Congratulations on your book! I appreciate your artwork, and look forward to reading this book. I’m going to ask our local library to bring it in and also purchase a copy.

  31. Aw, I can’t wait to read Toby’s (and your!) story! Your sweet pictures and story line have already captured my heart. <3 Congratulations and thanks for sharing with us! 🙂

  32. Thanks for the inspiring story, Hazel! That Toby is absolutely adorable, and I’ve followed him for years now. 😉 Love your art style, and I’m really looking forward to reading his/your new story!

  33. This is lovely. The illustrations are wonderful. I do have a story I’ve started inspired by my dog and cat, both rescues, both silly and fun. My muse and my mews. I haven’t gone much past the first chapter and outline, but now I’m inspired to continue. Thank you.

  34. Thank you Hazel. This was enjoyable and inspiring to read. Appreciate the questions you included. Can’t wait to buy your book.

  35. Thank you, Hazel, for talking about your process, supporting pet adoption and sharing those questions we can all ask ourselves as we work through our own writing. So anxious to read Toby!

  36. What a treat to learn the backstory to the story! Thank you, Hazel. Toby looks a lot like our Samantha Jane (Sammie), except Sammie is brown – an English Springer Spaniel and Poodle mix. She’s getting old now, but is still a treasure. You’ve given me some ideas for stories about her. All the best to you!

  37. Thanks for the wonderful post, Hazel! I’m fictionalizing a real (and silly) event in my current manuscript, so the timing was great! Congrats!

  38. Hazel, I was told once not to write about one’s pet because personal bias would create a character only the author could really appreciate. I am happy for you, and obviously since you are an accomplished writer, you were able to think beyond these hurdles. That is awesome, and Toby is darling. Congratulations!

  39. Loved reading about your process, Hazel, especially after reading Joanna’s interview with you on her post yesterday. Congratulations to both you & Toby!

  40. Oh, Hazel how enjoyable it was to read your post. I, too have a rescued Poodle, Sassy. The joy I receive from her is indescribable. I can see the love and inspiration you have for Toby in your blog and your illustrations. Thank you for your lovely words.

  41. I am putting this tale on my reading list, as I must find out how the boy solves the situation! Our family too is headed to a new home in the next year or so, and one thing that excites my girl is the knowledge that she’ll finally have room to have a dog, maybe even a cat!
    Thanks for sharing your journey. And I literally laughed out loud about learning to like lobster instead of fish n’ chips 🙂 A good cream tea will get you through anything!

  42. It’s fascinating to hear about your process. Thanks so much for sharing. And your illustrations are gorgeous. Toby is so fluffy and huggable. What a great dog!

  43. Thank you for sharing so much of your process with is. Toby is adorable! There’s nothing quite like a dog for inspiration in my book. Wishing you all the best with Toby and your next works!

  44. Thank you for sharing so much of your process with us! Toby is adorable. There’s nothing quite like a dog for picture book inspiration, is there? All the best with this book and the ones to come in the future!

  45. Hazel, you and Toby grabbed my heart and kept it as I read this book. I loved it! I won my copy of it from Cathy Stefanc Ogren and received it this week. Toby’s story is so special and I hope everyone who reads his story, shares it with people to save more rescue dogs. Bless both of your hearts!

  46. I can’t wait to read Toby’s story. We seem to take in a lot of needy animals so I’m sure we are going to love the book. Thanks for sharing.

  47. Hazel, thanks for showing how you worked through shaping your story from a real life experience. It’s challenging to get it just right to fit the picture book format. It looks like you did it just right. I’m looking forward to meeting Toby in your book.

  48. Hazel, Thank you for showing us how you shaped your experience with Toby into a PB. It looks like you hit it just right. Looking forward to reading it.

  49. Thanks, Hazel! I have been wanting to write a story about my friend’s cat who got lose in an airport as they were ready to board. Sharing your process and suggesting questions to considered are helping me get started! Yes, I think I can do it! Give my thanks to Toby!

  50. Thanks, Hazel! I have been wanting to write a story about my friend’s cat who got loose in the airport just before their boarding. Sharing your process and questions to consider will help me get started. Yes, I think I can do it! Give my thanks to Toby!

  51. Thank you for sharing, Hazel. Toby looks just darling! I look forward to reading his story. Your words have already been a great help for me!

  52. Thank you for sharing, Hazel. Toby is just darling! I look forward to reading his story. Your words have already been a great help for me.

  53. Thank you Hazel for the insight into how you fit your beloved Toby into a plot that worked. I am struggling with the same thing tight now and you gave me a lot of good things to mull over. Cant wait to read it!

  54. Thank you Hazel for sharing your process with 12×12. I loved your insight into how you came up with your plot. I had never really thought about telling a true story using a different setting. I recently saw a webinar you gave on Illustrating your book. It was fascinating. You have such a great way of capturing the subtitles of emotion in your drawings. Look forward to getting your book. Congrats.

  55. As someone who has adopted a dog and given her a “forever home” I could empathize with the story of Toby from the get go. Thank you for your post and showing us how you adapted your experience into a unique story.

  56. Thank you so much Hazel, for sharing your creative process with us. I like hearing what goes through writers’/illustrators’ heads, and it’s inspiring to hear from someone as creative as you. Your illustrations alone communicate so much heart. Love ’em. Really looking forward to reading your work.

  57. Liked the part about the magic number of three: ” a lonely boy, a fearful dog, an overloaded parent.” Loved the sketches, felt warm an fuzzy inside and out.

  58. Hazel, thank you so much for sharing your process in creating this story. It’s one I can follow when I write my next draft–great questions to ask oneself. Toby sounds delightful (both your dog and the book) and I love your illustration style. I look forward to reading the book!

  59. I love the story of Toby AND hearing about how the story came about. I agree that it’s helpful to hear the questions to ask ourselves about our story. I’m also a big fan of rescue pets and my schnauzer Joxter finds his way in to a lot of my work! Thank you for sharing with us.

  60. Thanks for sharing your journey in creating a story about Toby. I remember following Toby’s disappearance on FB. Eight days is a long time. I was amazed that he was found. Yay! He is a cutie and I love your illustrations. Simply charming.

  61. Glad I stopped by to check…I knew I had read your wonderful post, Hazel…but wasn’t sure if I commented…and now I see I didn’t. Thank you for sharing your journey with us…and Toby was the perfect muse. 😉

  62. Toby is so cute. I love how you’ve captured his expressions. I also really appreciate your motivation questions. Writing from life can be harder than writing from pure imagination. Thank you.

  63. Wonderful post, Hazel! I really enjoyed reading about your process for writing Toby, especially how you came up with the triangle of lonely boy, fearful dog and overwhelmed dad. Your illustrations are gorgeous! Can’t wait to read TOBY!!

  64. Hazel, thank you for taking us on your journey with Toby. Glad you kept working until your story was published. I adopted my Cooper, who also took off for 5 days. He came home to lots of hugs and treats. I still wish he’d tell me what he was up to for 5 days on his own. I look forward to getting your book and reading it to my grandsons and fur babies. Happy writing!

  65. Thank you Hazel. This has inspired me. I actually took some notes on points that I think I have been missing. You’re advice is here is a big help.

  66. Thank you for sharing your process. I have been involved with a shelter in NW NJ, Common Sense for Animals, as long as I can remember (it is on my parent’s property, along with my dad’s veterinary practice), and I have a multitude of stories in my head just waiting to come out. I also loved your “Read to a Friend” illustration since I run a Read to the Animals program at the shelter.

  67. What a beautiful and inspiring post from Hazel. I have always loved her illustrations and the illustrations of Toby are just to die for. Thank you for being this months special author.

  68. Hi Hazel! What a fantastic post – I especially like when you discussed writing about what (or who) you love. After reading through your process and seeing your illustrations, it is clear that you put a lot of passion into this project. I can’t wait to read it!

  69. You sure know how to ask yourself the right questions to create a beautiful story. This was a delightful insight into your writing process. Thanks, Hazel and Toby. Best of luck with your lovely book.

  70. Fantastic post. Loved hearing your process, and totally relate to it. This hits near & dear to my heart, as I have thought numerous times that my beloved (late) Luna had a ridiculous personality that should be honored with a story or two (I’ve written a draft). I loved the questions you encouraged us to ask ourselves and seeing your drawings — I’m an illustrator/writer, too!

  71. Love it…this has inspired me to try and illustrate my work! And my son can’t wait to read it…I showed him the photos.

  72. Lovely! You’ve brought a fresh approach and a vulnerable character who we immediately feel for. And just so cute!

  73. Thank you, Hazel, for sharing your process with us. There is so much to this book, so much heart, a true story, much thought and many drafts, I see! I love peeking behind the curtain to see all the juicy, hard work. And the love… 🙂

  74. Thank you, Hazel. I’ve been working on a dog story for a number of years, and have been making every mistake possible, trying to move a true story toward something more universal. I appreciate all your cautions and suggestions.

  75. Thank you so much for this post. I loved learning about the specific steps in the process you went through to develop your story for Toby. I recently participated in the Guest Group Critiques webinar where you demonstrated your illustration process as well and enjoyed it thoroughly. Toby is a delightful combination of art and story.

  76. I met Hazel Mitchell last weekend at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival. I think of all the authors & illustrators there, Hazel was the best self-promoter. I learned a lot from the way she easily started up a conversation and got me interested in her book. It was a pleasure meeting you, Hazel! Thank you for this post! Great questions to ask myself if I write a book based on a real character. Thanks again!

  77. Thanks for sharing your story and also your process for developing it. I’ve been working on a series of stories and illustrations about my grumpy cat, The stories are told from the point of view of the fictional little girl who lives with him. Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement, too.

  78. Love this story! I adopted a blind dog that looks just like Toby from a shelter! I’ve been playing around with writing a PB about his adventures as a blind dog because it makes him who he is and gives him so much character. Thank you for your insight!

  79. Hey there, Hazel. Thanks for sharing your process. Many of us have “known” Toby for awhile from your posts when he was lost. I know you and your husband…you’d both make fine book characters!!!

  80. Thank you, Hazel, for taking the time to write the details of your process. It was interesting to read how the story developed. It almost makes me want to go out and get a pet ☺

  81. This was a great article. Loved hearing how real life events and characters inspired your story. I think you’re right – that happens to almost all of us, whether we realize it or not. I look forward to reading your book. Thank you!

  82. Thanks, Hazel, for sharing your thought process behind the book. Great questions for us to ask every time we sit down to tackle a new story. By the way, I also miss fish and chips, and good Indian food!
    From a Brit currently living in Texas.

  83. Hazel,
    I copied the questions you posted so I can keep them in front of me while I work on a storyline I have had in my head for awhile. Wonderful post! I have not read “Toby”, but I added it to the top of my must read list.Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top