Wednesday, July 11, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Survivors

HarperCollins: Survivors by Erin Hunter

HarperCollins: Survivors by Erin Hunter

HarperCollins: Survivors by Erin Hunter

HarperCollins: Survivors by Erin Hunter

The Empty City: Survivors #1

by Erin Hunter

The launch of Erin Hunter's (Warriors; Seekers) new page-turning Survivors series stars an unforgettable cast of canines in a world nearly devoid of humans (or "longpaws," as the dogs refer to them).

The prologue foreshadows things to come, as a Mother-Dog relates the story of "the Storm of Dogs" to her pups. In the story, Earth-Dog, who's jealous of Lightning, believes it's time for him to die so that she may take his life force. But Lightning is too quick for her, which results in the first battle, the Storm of Dogs, "when all the dogs of the world" fight for control of all the world's territories. Earth-Dog sends a "Big Growl to open the ground in front of him," but the Sky-Dogs help Lightning escape. Mother-Dog warns that legends say "The Storm of Dogs will come again."

Lucky, a golden-furred sheltie-retriever mix, awakens to realize that he'd been dreaming of his Mother-Dog's story. It acts as almost a premonition. Moments later, the Big Growl hits the "Trap House," where he and others are held in cages. Lucky has always prided himself on surviving as a Lone Dog, ever since he escaped a cruel longpaw. But he finds himself indebted to Sweet, a fellow captive in the Trap House. Sweet helps set Lucky free. All of the others died in the Big Growl. But Sweet longs to be back in a pack, and Lucky wants to go it alone, so they part ways.

Readers will enjoy decoding Lucky's names for things. The "Big Growl" reveals itself via the deep chasms in the earth and the tremors that continue for days. Food and potable water are scarce, and electrical cords writhe like snakes. Lucky thinks he's hit the jackpot when he discovers a longpaw mall and runs into a friend, Old Hunter. But even Old Hunter guards his food supply, allowing Lucky only a small portion in return for saving his life (from one of those errant electrical cords) before sending him on his way.

In that same mall, with his coveted food in tow, Lucky meets up with a pack and is reunited with his litter sister, Bella, who begs Lucky to join them. Lucky hesitates. These are Leashed Dogs, dogs that belonged to longpaws. They've never done anything for themselves. How can he take on the responsibility of teaching this entire pack how to hunt and survive in the wild? At the same time, how can he leave Bella to perish? He'll help them get settled and then continue on his way, he decides.

Erin Hunter sets up a tantalizing tension between Lucky's wild instincts and his loyalty to his litter sister and her band of domesticated friends. Through his eyes, we see the devastation of the earthquake: houses abandoned, urban streets shattered, toxic waste leaking into the water. Lucky wishes the Leashed Dogs would wise up, and tries to help them see that their longpaws will not return. Yet he also understands that this is the only faith they have.

Lucky believes in the Earth-Dog, from the stories his Mother-Dog told him as a pup. The Earth-Dog and the Sky-Dogs' spirits rule his destiny, and because his needs have been met time and again, he believes they are watching over him. It's a great source of strength to a Lone Dog seeking food and shelter. Just when Lucky feels like giving up on the Leashed Dogs, their various breeds' traits see them through, as they begin to rely on their instincts. At one point, Martha, a Newfoundland, saves the hefty bulldog Bruno from a river's forceful rapids.

But the sheltered dogs also trace a food source to an unsafe area and approach longpaws with longsticks (guns). They have so much to learn! Will Lucky ever feel confident enough in their abilities to leave them? Or will his affection for the pack and his sense of responsibility to them outweigh his desire for autonomy? This first volume wraps up with a pleasing resolution and leaves the door open for the canine survivors' further adventures. Hunter lays the groundwork for a world in which these thoroughly likable characters must let go of their bonds to their longpaws and move toward a Pack strategy of cooperation, and shared physical strengths, experiences and resources in order to exist in this new world. --Jennifer M. Brown

HarperCollins, $16.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 10-up, 9780062102560, August 21, 2012

HarperCollins: Survivors by Erin Hunter

Gillian Philip: The Lure of the Pack

Erin Hunter serves as a pseudonym for a team of authors who have created bestselling series such as Warriors and Seekers. Gillian Philip recently joined the Erin Hunter team to help create a series centered on the Survivors, a group of unforgettable dogs led by Lucky, a sheltie-retriever mix. Here Philip discusses her pack-writing experience versus her Lone Dog experiences on her own projects, such as the Rebel Angels series (due in the U.S. from Tor in February 2013).

How do you work with your co-authors?

I find team-writing a fascinating way to work, and I love doing it. It's so different to the way I write my own solo books, and yet the methods overlap in funny ways.

The story outline and the characters in Survivors were very much a team effort. The plan the team creates can be detailed and comprehensive but, somehow, as I write the actual story, I'll find a character has developed in such a way on the page that they wouldn't act as planned. Maybe the editors will spot a plot hole that only appeared as the book was written. Sometimes quite fundamental aspects of the story can change because of the way characters interact. I think it's for that reason that we only outline one book at a time--though we'd have a rough idea of what we want for the trajectory.

Plotting and outlining is something I don't do for my solo books. I tend to fly by the seat of my pants and find out the story as the characters tell it to me. So I love the different discipline of having a plot in advance and working with a team. But no matter how well you plan, characters always take on lives and minds of their own.

Did you come up with the language for the dogs?

Like the storyline and the original cast of characters, the terms the dogs use were a group effort. I really like the way the dogs' language is different from the terms used by the Warrior Cats, for instance. There's quite a distinct difference in the way the dogs and cats view man-made objects or natural phenomena. At home I have dogs and cats, and I find the difference in their attitudes absolutely fascinating.

And what about the mythology--the Sun-Dog, Sky-Dogs and Earth-Dog? How did that evolve? It's such an important aspect of the story.

We knew a mythology was going to be incredibly important for the dogs in Survivors, and that it was going to be fascinating finding out how domestication or wildness would affect their spirituality. I think the dogs' belief in and dependence on the spiritual world will change and develop as the series progresses. Bella and her Leashed friends have almost forgotten that part of themselves when we meet them.

It seemed pretty certain to us that the dogs would give a persona to something as violent and destructive of their world as the Big Growl--and that there then must be an entity that either produced the Growl, or was horribly affected by it. We decided on the latter, and so the Earth Dog and the rest of the mythology developed. When we decided to begin each book with a memory of Lucky's days as a pup, we created [the mythology] stories for the Mother-Dog to tell her litter. As for the ancient and foretold "Storm of Dogs"--that's going to be incredible, but I can't say anything yet!

You nicely set up the fact that Lucky is a loner through his first interaction with Sweet, when they get free of the Trap House. Yet we also see Lucky waver when he meets up with Old Hunter. These conflicting sides to Lucky come into play again and again with the Leashed Dogs. Did you plan to show these two sides to Lucky from the beginning?

Oh, poor Lucky! I ache for him sometimes, he's so conflicted! I think we always knew he was going to have to tread a difficult line between Leashed Dogs like Bella, and truly wild Pack dogs. I love how Lucky's such a natural born survivor, always finding opportunities in any situation. He's smart and wily and brave, but he's kind, too. He cares almost too much about his friends. You can't care that much if you want to stay a loner, and that's Lucky's great dilemma. It's become an important thread throughout the story.

Because Bella is Lucky's litter-sister, there's an additional draw to his joining the Leashed Dogs.

I don't think Lucky would join the Leashed Dogs if he didn't hanker to be with his litter-sister again. But there's a lot more to Bella. Although she gives Lucky a link to his past and a sense of family, she's also a destabilizing influence. Bella's slightly dangerous in some ways, but that makes her huge fun to write. I'd say she's one of the most unpredictable characters, and she has plenty more surprises to spring.

We liked the way the traits of various breeds come into play, such as Martha, the Newfoundland, rescuing Bruno from the river.

That was one of the elements that evolved in the telling. I always liked the motley nature of the pack, and I enjoyed picturing them together--everyone from the enormous Martha to the delicate and fluffy Sunshine. But I don't think the breeds were chosen especially for their abilities. [Those] emerged as the story progressed and as dangers and threats confronted them. Somehow they each came into their own in different situations. It was rather wonderful watching that happen at the same time Lucky did!

So far, the Survivors have encountered very few longpaws. Do you anticipate more longpaws in the dogs' future?

Oh, I'm sure there will be more encounters with longpaws. After all, the Leashed dogs have unfinished business with the longpaws they once loved and trusted, but who abandoned them to the Big Growl. Why would they do such a thing? I want to know that as much as the Leashed Dogs do. The complexity of the relationships between the various dog-packs and the longpaws is going to be a source of conflict for some time to come, I'm sure. --Jennifer M. Brown

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