Sunday, December 8, 2013

Beth Finke's 'Safe and Sound' Makes an Inspiring Holiday Gift

Christmastime for me growing up meant one thing: my annual plea for a dog. I was obsessed with them, begged Santa to slip one under the tree, read all sorts of books about them, memorized every breed. For kids and families with an interest in dogs, Chicago author Beth Finke's beautiful story of her relationship with her Seeing Eye dog, Hanni, makes a fascinating, uplifting holiday gift.

Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound (Blue Marlin, 2007), illustrations by Anthony Alex LeTourneau, received the ASPCA Henry Berg Award for children's literature, and it was featured on the Martha Speaks ReadAloud Book Club on PBS. Booklist says, "The pairing of Finke’s clear and animated writing with LeTourneau’s precise and expressive illustrations perfectly reflects the lively relationship between proud and responsible Hanni and proud and intrepid Beth. . ."

Hanni and Beth tells the story of how Beth, who is blind, travels safely around the city – to work, shopping, even to baseball games – with the help of Hanni, a specially-trained Golden/Labrador Retriever. It also includes factual information about how Hanni was raised and trained, how Beth and Hanni learned to work together as a team, and what it's like to be blind.

Beth's memoir for grown-up readers, Long Time, No See, was published by University of Illinois Press in 2003 and is required reading in disability studies programs at universities across the country. And her essays air on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

And readers can keep up with Beth's latest adventures around Chicago and beyond with her current Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, over at her Safe & Sound blog.

Question: You are a print journalist, you have contributed essays to Chicago Public Radio and National Public Radio's Morning Edition, and you teach memoir classes for the City of Chicago's Department on Aging. What made you decide to write a children's book?

Beth Finke: My first book was a memoir. I lost my sight when I was 26 years old,  and Long Time, No See was about my marriage, raising our son, and the adaptations my husband Mike Knezovich and I have made to survive – and thrive – after losing my sight. After Long Time, No See was published I started doing book signings and presentations at book fairs, conferences, schools, libraries, and bookstores all over the country. One chapter of Long Time, No See focuses on training with my first Seeing Eye dog, a Black Lab named Dora. Over and over again, the questions most people asked during the Q & A sessions after my presentations dealt with that particular subject: my Seeing Eye dog.

People – especially children – are fascinated with Seeing Eye dogs. They may have seen Animal Planet shows about guide dogs, but the people I met didn't know much about how the dogs were trained, or what the rules are when they see a guide dog at work leading a person who is blind. I thought a children’s book might be a fun way for children and the adults in their lives to learn more.

Q: You are clearly a communicator and comfortable in any medium. And your school visits with Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound are enthusiastically received. Is there one medium you prefer best?

BF: I am old school. I prefer face-to-face communication.

Q: Your book can be appreciated by a wide audience – adult and child, teacher and student, blind and sighted, dog lovers and cat people. What kind of feedback do you get from audiences when you talk about Safe & Sound?

BF: Audiences seem to be taken by my honesty. Children like the way I treat them as adults during school presentations. Sometimes I wonder if that's because I can't see them – I picture them as peers, and talk to them that way.

Q: What about from the Seeing Eye school and other guide dog organizations – do they know about the book and your work?

BF: They sure do – my publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, put together a special edition with information about the Seeing Eye on the cover, and the Seeing Eye sold the book on its website and gave the book away to puppy raisers, the wonderful volunteers who raise our dogs to become Seeing Eye dogs and help people like me, who are blind, to keep safe. I work part-time for Easter Seals, too, and Blue Marlin Publications published special copies of the book for Easter Seals to give away to contributors as well.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

BF: I hope Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound helps children understand that while having a disability presents challenges, that doesn't necessarily stop people like me from having a rich and active life. I hope that kids who read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound might develop traits of empathy, not sympathy, as they relate to people with disabilities. And, for that matter, as they relate to all people.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?

BF: You want an honest answer? I'd like to make enough money as a writer to support my husband, a man I love, rather than vice-versa!

Q: What are you working on now?

BF: I lead three memoir-writing classes a week for senior citizens in Chicago and am working on a book about what I am learning from those classes.

Q: Will there be another children's book from you hitting shelves anytime soon?

BF: I had no plans to write another children's book until last month. The mother of a 5-year-old who is blind contacted me to thank me for a Braille copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and lamented that there are  not many books for children about Braille. It has me thinking. . .

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