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The pope smiled.  “Blessings be on Nini, who gives such joy,” he said.  He raised his hand.

Nini raised his paw.  He patted the pope’s shiny ring.

The pope’s smile grew into a wide grin.  “Can it be?” he said.  “Has Nini just blessed the pope?”

(from The Famous Nini, page 19)

When Mary Nethery asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her newest picture book, I couldn’t say no, especially since The Girl and I just loved her last book, Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle (read our review), which she co-wrote with Major Brian Dennis and Kirby Larson.  When I opened the envelope from the publisher, I was drawn to the beautiful cover with the vivid blue sky, the waters of Venice, and of course, Nini.

The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star is a charming picture book written by Mary Nethery and illustrated by John Manders that tells the story of Nini, a cat who makes himself at home in Nonna Framboni’s caffè.  It is here that Nini inspires Verdi, meets the king and queen of Italy (who declare National Nini Day), and even blesses the pope.  But it is how Nini helps the daughter of Emperor Menelik that steals the show.

At the end of the book, Nethery explains that Nini was a real cat who lived in a caffè in Venice in the 1890s and became a celebrity for reasons unknown.  People flocked to the coffee shop to sign Nini’s guest book, and people paid tribute to him when he died.  Nethery imagines that Nini’s purr — something unique to cats — led to his fame.  She also details all the famous figures in the story, who actually called upon Nini during his lifetime, and separates the facts from the fiction in the book.

The Girl (age 10) and I both loved the illustrations and how the historical figures and their connections to Nini were detailed at the end.  We both learned a lot from this picture book, as we’d never heard of Nini prior to reading it.  The Famous Nini is a beautiful picture book to share with children and a tribute to the soothing touch of animals — and how they often do more for us than we could ever do for them.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Famous Nini from the author and Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’m thrilled to welcome Kirby Larson (right) and Mary Nethery (left) to Diary of an Eccentric today to discuss their latest book, Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle. The book was released earlier this week by Little, Brown, and it caused a lot of excitement in my house when I received a review copy last month. Nubs (read my review with The Girl) is the story of Major Brian Dennis and the dog he befriended in Iraq. After trekking across the desert to be with Brian, Nubs was later relocated to the United States. What an amazing dog, and a beautiful story of the rewards one can reap from being kind to others.

I want to thank Kirby and Mary for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions. Since the book was just released, I can only imagine how hectic things must be for them, and I truly appreciate their generosity.

How did you get involved in the writing of Nubs? Did you have a chance to meet Nubs and Major Brian Dennis in person?

Kirby: Mary and I had written Two Bobbies:  A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival and found we loved the collaborative writing process. The moment we finished that book, we began to look for another friendship story we two dear friends could tell together. Mary was convinced we would find such a story set in Iraq and just as she was thinking about that, her husband handed her a newspaper article about Brian and Nubs. The rest is history!

We knew we wanted to tell this story, but it was important to get Brian’s (and Nubs!) approval. Mary and I flew to San Diego in June 2008 to meet with them both. Brian had warned us that it usually took Nubs awhile to warm up to new people but Mary armed herself with some Bow-Wow-Wownies and instantly won him over. We clicked with Brian, too, and he with us and we set right to work interviewing him.

Mary: When Kirby suggested the idea of us writing a book together about unusual, cross-species friendships, I had two responses. One, I’ve been passionate about animals since I was a small child and this seemed like a perfect match of two best friends writing about best friends. And, two, it seemed as if the decision had already been made, in another time and place, that we would write together. It felt like it was meant to be. I just jumped in and swam! There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for the treasure of working with Kirby.

Meeting Nubs for the first time was the most fun thing ever! One look at him and you know he’s quite special. Brian said Nubs hasn’t been the same since we spent a day and a morning with him — he meant that in a good way! Sometimes I just find myself missing Nubs and wishing he lived a lot closer.

Could you tell me a little about yourselves? For example, what books have you written previously, what things you like to do when you’re not writing?

Kirby: I am a Washington state resident and have lived here nearly all my life. Along the way, I’ve acquired one husband, two children, assorted cats and, as of May, a dog named Winston. Though I was a history-phobe most of my life, writing Hattie Big Sky (2007 Newbery Honor Award) changed all that. Though I had written chapter books and picture books previously, that book led me to my true passion: historical fiction. I love the research — digging around until I have enough information to set a fictional character in another place and time. It’s detective work — without the danger! I will have another historical novel coming out in Fall 2010 and one in Spring 2011.

Since I’ve had several book deadlines, I haven’t done much but write lately! But I do love to travel (because of HBS, I got invited to visit schools in Doha, Qatar and Beirut, Lebanon last April), read, walk on the beach and drink lattes with friends.

Mary: I’m a California girl, born and raised. I’m married to Harry Arthur Nethery III (Han) and have one son, Harry Arthur Nethery IV (H.A.). We have a brand new kitten, a Bengal named Dashiell (Dash for short.) Dash came to us from an Atlanta, Georgia, foster home. He has a little heart of gold.

The first word I learned to read was “stop.” But that didn’t stop me from picking up a pencil and starting to write in first grade. My goal was a novel. With lots of pictures. I never finished the novel, but since then I’ve seen three of my picture books published:  Hannah and Jack, Orange Cat Goes to Market, and Mary Veronica’s Egg; plus the two narrative non-fiction books that Kirby and I have written together:  Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival is the recipient of the ASPCA’s  Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award and the SIBA Book Award (Southern Independent Booksellers’ Association). Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle has just received the 2009 National Parenting Publication Gold Award. Kirby and I are radiantly proud of these two books.

When I’m not writing or doing “writing” things, which is mostly what I do, I love reading, travel, Pilates, shopping, movies, watching Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, and enjoying beautiful desserts, especially frosting!

What other projects are you working on?

Kirby: Just a week ago, I turned in an historical novel set during WWII, taking place between fall 1941 and spring 1943. Right now, I’m writing another historical novel, which intertwines the stories of 4 girls and takes place between 1929 and 1941. What can I say? I’m hooked on history!

And, of course, Mary and I are on the hunt for another nonfiction picture book to write together.

Mary: My newest picture book, The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star is illustrated by John Manders and published by Clarion, and will be out in the spring of 2010. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous! In preparation for his work, John studied the paintings of John Singer Sargent who lived in Venice at the same time Nini did. My favorite is the double-page spread of Nini blessing the Pope! This is a story of a real cat named Nini who became a celebrity and rose to the world stage in Venice during the 1890’s, capturing the attention of doting visitors such as Giuseppe Verdi, Pope Leo XIII, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Italy, Czar Alexander III, and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. The Author’s Note contains a photograph of the cafe´ he lived in which still exists today.

I’m also working on an adventure fantasy novel set in the 1920’s, The Curse of the Amber Baboon, with authors Barbara Kerley (Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins; Walt Whitman: Words for America; and What To Do About Alice?) and Natasha Wing (The Night Before series, and her newest book An Eye for Color).

What have books have influenced you most and why?

Kirby: I’m not sure there’s a particular book, but there are certainly authors who inspire me:  Karen Hesse, because she takes great risks in her writing; Karen Cushman, who is the queen of historical fiction; Katherine Paterson, for her topics; Barbara O’Connor, for her story telling; Rodman Philbrick for the characters he creates; Dave Patneaude for his ability to weave detail and description into narrative; Mary Nethery, for her brilliance at plotting and story structure; Ann Whitford Paul, who is the queen of poetic picture books; Helen Ketteman, for her outrageous and crazy-fun use of language. . .the list is too long for this interview but I can’t sign off without adding all of the people whose diaries and journals I’ve read. These latter were average folks who never made the headlines but without their stories, I would not be able to write the books I write. It is the real life details from times past that help me write books that connect with contemporary readers.

Mary: Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, and the works of James Marshall were early influences on my own work. One of my favorite novels is How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.  I admire how she drips in the back story as if it were on an IV.  That book has haunted me ever since I read the last line, closed the book, and said goodbye to her cast of characters and the dystopia she so artfully created. I also love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy (especially the animal daemons); Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Millions and Framed because I admire his ability to create unforgettable characters; and M.T. Anderson’s Feed because it’s so visionary and written in such a cohesive style.

I love books that make me laugh and are wicked in some way! My favorite picture book is Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh—I adore the sentient Martha! I also like Graham Oakley’s Church Cat books; Mark Teague’s Dear Mrs. Larue; Jack Gantos’ and Nicole Rubel’s Rotten Ralph books; and Maira Kalman’s Ooh-la-la (Max in Love).

Thanks, Kirby and Mary! I wish you much success with Nubs, and I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

To watch a video about Nubs, click here.  To learn more about Kirby and Mary’s previous book, Two Bobbies:  A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, click here.

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Nubs was the leader of a pack of wild dogs living in a border fort in western Iraq, and the fact that his ears had been cut off branded him a dog of war.  He lived a hard life, feeding on scraps when there were scraps to be had and barely surviving the harsh conditions of the desert.  Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle is the story of Nubs and the marine who named him, Major Brian Dennis of the Border Transition team 3/5/2, which was tasked with training Iraqi soldiers.

Brian first met Nubs in October 2007, and they became fast friends, sharing food and guard duty.  Each time Brian and his men left the fort, Nubs chased the Humvees.  When they returned, Nubs, starving and nursing a wound, eagerly greeted Brian.  When Brian and his men were called to the Jordanian border about 70 miles away, Nubs, obviously unaware that marines can’t have pets, had no plans to let Brian go.  Featuring real pictures of Nubs and Brian in Iraq, Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle shows the bond between man and dog and Nubs’ miraculous journey to a new life.

I first heard of Nubs at Book Expo America in May, and I snagged a pin and some dog tags advertising the book for The Girl, who is a big-time dog lover.  She’s always wearing the dog tags and couldn’t wait to read the book.  When an unexpected package from Hachette arrived a couple of days ago, she shrieked in delight, and last night we cuddled on the couch and read all about Nubs.

We both loved this inspiring, heart-warming story and fell in love with Nubs from the very first page.  Nubs is a very brave dog, and his story proves that a little kindness and love can change lives.  Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle is a charming story for children and adults alike.

Here’s what The Girl (age 9) had to say about the book:

This was a great, awesome, incredible story.  I loved the pictures, and I loved Nubs.  It explained a lot about the dog and his owner and was just great.

[The Girl wrote the review on a piece of notebook paper for me last night, and I wish you could see it because she drew a picture of Nubs (or at least the half-dog, half-cat version) at the bottom.  It’s so cute.]

Disclosure:  We received a copy of Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle from Hachette for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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