One day, many years ago, when I was teaching drama at a girl’s school, I came across many notices pinned up on walls, advertising an upcoming School Pet Show. It promised to be an extravaganza! Pony and bucking bull rides, face painting, baby animal farms, pet raffles and animal obedience demonstrations!
Standing in the hallway, I began to imagine the day itself: a jumble of excited girls, with their beloved pets, parading in fancy dress, competing for all sorts of different prizes! Prizes for best dressed dog and dog with the waggiest tail. Prizes for the best dry food eater and ‘like pet, like owner’ events. Prizes for pets with the brightest eyes, the twitchiest nose, the longest whiskers and even the most unusual pet!
There would be the predictable assortment of animals at the show, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and guinea pigs. Secretly, I hoped there would be some highly outrageous pets too—perhaps a llama or a lamb or a duck or a ferret!
Suddenly, I began to imagine the potential chaos; hyperactive dogs slipping off their leads, silky, lithe cats hunting unsuspecting mice, llamas leaping, lambs baaing, ferrets escaping their cardboard boxes, ducks quacking mournfully for their ponds, rabbits bounding up the walls and small palomino ponies pooing at inappropriate times and places. I imagined the frenzied teachers running about madly, trying to bring a little order and control.
Just as I was being carried away by all that promise of slapstick comedy, a thought came—quick, bright and flaring. What it would be like to go to a Pet Show though, if you didn’t own a pet? What would it be like to arrive pet-less on a Pet day and to be the only one in your class?
Something about that thought wrung my heart out.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. How would it be to turn up when everyone else was shivery with excitement and anticipation? What would it feel like? And what could possibly make it better?
Not long after, I began to daydream about a small, slightly awkward girl called Lily, with the most unusual pet of all—a shy, song-loving, joke-telling dragon—someone as vivid and real to her, as any dog or cat. And because I am a long-time believer in the enchantment, the consolations and the power of imagination, I cheekily began to wonder how Lily’s pet could go on to win the big one, the best pet prize overall, overshadowing every ordinary, real life pet!
It was a great deal of fun to dream up Lily’s class and all her classmates. There was so much joy to be had in creating rascally Glen, roguish Caleb and prickly, disbelieving Courtney. It was so lovely to think up Mrs Dalton, who even on the edge of disarray is brimming with love and understanding. Funnily enough, I realize now I named this character after a teacher from my own childhood, who because of her warmth and tenderness, made a great difference to my life when I arrived at a new school, at the age of seven, feeling alone and anxious.
As a writer, I am not always aware from the outset of the ways in which a text might be difficult for an illustrator. I knew early on though with ‘Big Pet Day’ that it would be a challenge. I am incredibly grateful to Gus Gordon for his amazing work. I love the way he has captured every character, both human and animal, so perfectly and vividly, giving them such individuality and vulnerability! I am astounded at the way Gus has been able to blend the physical action and comedy of the story, whilst simultaneously extending and deepening the emotional subtext. On every page, there is such fantastic whimsy and fine attention to detail!
All those years ago, my heart panged for a child that might turn up pet-less to a pet day. Perhaps, in some ways, I wrote ‘Big Pet Day’ for them—as a comfort, as an encouragement, as a funny talisman even—that sometimes out of the pain of difference, comes the path to incredible strength, creativity and joy!
Kidz Review Krew
“There are a lot of pet books around, but Lisa Shanahan’s originality brings this popular topic freshness in her latest picture book ‘Big Pet Day.’ With an interesting and large cast of characters, ‘Big Pet Day’ is indeed full of action and surprises. The reader is invited to explore what happens in Lily’s class on Pet Day. Lisa Shanahan makes it totally believable that a dragon could be a pet. Gus Gordon extends the fun of this story with his brilliant illustrations. He successfully creates an energetic and busy classroom environment. My five-year-old son enjoyed looking at the character’s reaction to the pets visiting the school, which resulted in very slow page turns. I personally liked the added touches, such as the dragon’s hat and the use of collage and vintage cutouts. With action packed text and humorous illustrations, ‘Big Pet Day’ is a highly appealing picture book suited for 4 to 8-year-olds.”
“A delightful story which will intrigue and engage younger readers. All the fun of being at school with your peers is shown, with a hint of some of the snide remarks made by one of the children. School is presented so clearly, the frazzled teacher having to use all of her skills to make the day successful for everyone, the principal strolling in at the end, unaware of the chaos that has reigned during the day, the little cameo sketches of the classmates: all is charming, heartwarming and very real. The wonderful illustrations by Gordon enhance the story, showing a group of kids having fun with their Pet Day. He has used a range of media to create his illustrations for the book, including line drawing, crayon, cut-outs and watercolour. All is engrossing as I loved looking at all the detail on each page, working out how each page was done, as I am sure younger readers will as well.” Fran Knight
Read it Daddy A Children’s Book Blog
“Subtly well observed…There is so much to love about this book. For starters, huge thumbs up for being a book that celebrates diversity and inclusivity in Lily's class. Also, a double huge thumbs up with cherries on top for recognising just how wonderful teachers are (and Lily's teacher is fantastic, you'll see why as you tuck into this glorious story). Lastly a really huge blaring hip hip hooray for Lily, the sort of book character who is just so beautifully well observed that we couldn't help falling in love with her the moment we met her! There's definitely a bit of Lily in all of us, she's an imaginative and lovely little character!”
Red Reading Hub
“With an action-packed text, a whole host of lively characters – human and animal, spot-on dialogue and amusing, wonderfully detailed mixed media illustrations, this is both a visual and verbal treat of a tale. I can see it becoming very popular in early years settings and younger primary classrooms.” Jill R Bennett
Winner 2015: Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award (5-8 years.)
Notable Book 2015: The Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Award for Early Childhood.
Here are some wonderful teacher’s notes on ‘Big Pet Day’ from the very talented Romi Sharp at ‘My Little Story Corner.’
Big Pet Day Teachers Notes