Back in the Studio

The Captain is a Duck book dummy

This tiny book is the dummy (practice book) of my “newest” project (in quotes because I started it years ago and then life intervened.) But the lapse in time has focused my thinking and I am happily back at work in my new studio in Spruce Pine, NC, near the Penland School of Crafts, where I now live. Instead of explaining all the leaps in this paragraph, we are just going to jump right into TODAY, right now, this instant!

In this 28 sec video you can see how I am inventing the background for the little girl’s room where the story takes place.

(Media: Dr. Ph. Martin’s Fine Art liquid watercolor on Fabriano cold pressed 140 lb watercolor paper.)

Car Crash/Meaning of Life?

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

MEANING OF LIFE? Imagine: you are simply having a celebratory cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop, making a list of what-to-do-on-the first day of a Post-Big-Project-Era when your parked car is suddenly blasted out of the shop parking lot with alien-ray-gun precision! So you spend the next nine days sorting through it—yet keep running across that handwritten list of “what-to-do,” written minutes before the crash. It is laughable, this living evidence of the pretense of control and the metaphor of it all started to eat away at the thin pillars supporting my little House of Why?

The journey of this car replacement became a twisting path where, believe it or not, I carried this question: What is the meaning of life? Yesterday the journey circled back to that same coffeeshop where I met my friend (and Learning Dreams inventor), Jerry Stein, who happened to notice that I had, in fact, parked my “new” car in the same “dangerous” spot of the crash for the first time…Even before the coffee was finished the crash induced question, What-is-the-meaning-of-life had been tossed on the table, where I inserted my often tangled question inside every potential answer: But does it stand the Holocaust Test (How could this happen?). Jerry answered with this book: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl. Hours later I found a stack of them at Common Books, St Paul, face out, on a philosophy table, despite its 1959 pub date.

Turning the pages of this horrific tale and the insight given to Dr. Frankl from inside a Nazi concentration camp has been like standing in a cool waterfall on a steaming day. As religions tear us apart, globally, I feel like I have found something I can understand to help me answer the essential question in the ridiculous metaphor of the Post-Crash days. Thanks, Jerry, thanks crash, and all the amazing people I have met this long week.

Can a Dog Teach Kids to Write in First Person?

One author’s technique for bringing Dog Love into the heart of the classroom
By Debra Frasier, Author & Illustrator

SPIKE and Friends

SPIKE: teaching students to write in the first personOddly, I came to understand more about first person narration when writing SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe because SPIKE was NOT first “person”—but was instead—”first dog.” In this story, Spike tells us some Big True Things about beauty being a matter of perspective: “Humans can be very ugly you know with those long swinging arms and no fur except on top”—and shows us that being true to oneself is the strongest voice of all, the one place where love and courage stand a real chance.

After reading SPIKE in a classroom a fourth grader asked me: How did you make SPIKE sound so real? My answer surprised me: The dog helped me. That comment led me to design a workshop called Spike’s Friends: Creating a Character’s Voice that kids can now freely access at

SPIKE materialsTo get started read a first-person dog story as a mentor text. (Use SPIKE or see the dog bibliography on my website.) Invite young writers to visit, the amazing site for animals waiting in shelters. Typing in a zip code will bring up the dogs currently in need of homes in your area. The next step asks students to select a dog they might adopt. (Or use the profiles at my website.) Study the dog’s profile. Next: Answer the questions in the little booklet of prompts. Write and draw answers using available facts from the dog’s profile and your inventions. Make notes on the dog’s physical characteristics and the imagined sound of his or her bark. The dog’s personality will begin to strengthen.

SPIKE: Learning to write in the first person

And this is where the magic part happens: young writers fall in love with the pictured dogs and understand immediately that the voice of THIS dog must be unique, quirky, and, most importantly, convincing. Now: the dog goes out for a walk and something happens…What? That’s where the story begins—and by now we know a lot about the character’s personality and can create a more convincing voice.

SPIKE: assembling your dogSPIKE: easy to follow instructionsTry this project with individual students or as a group effort! You’ll find all the parts at Use the slide show to help introduce the entire project to a class. Fold along with the video to make the booklet from two sheets of paper. Print the final draft writing sheets when the stories are ready. Make a paper cutout portrait illustration of your dog. For classroom inspiration, watch DOG DIARIES, the fourth grade film of 24 unique dogs “speaking” about their days. All free.

SPIKE: Dog StoriesWhy is this project so astonishingly successful with kids? —Because dogs go straight to our hearts. If you are a teacher, parent, or student who cares passionately about animals and their care, this project is the perfect doorway for discussion. The dogs’ stories make it easy to include the subject of our care for animals—and by extension, for all living things.

But maybe it is enough to simply learn to write in the voice of a dog! This exercise in empathy AND writing will have big ripples in the heart and meet the demands of our classroom Common Core Standards at the same time. Let me know how it goes!

Debra with some of the jeans that provided the materials for SPIKEDebra Frasier, is the award-winning author of On the Day You Were Born, Miss Alaineus, A Vocabulary Disaster, (that’s “miscellaneous!”), and most recently, SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe—called “Brilliant!” by Kirkus Reviews and a 2013 Amazon Best Picture Book Selection. She is pictured here with the 129 pairs of blue jeans she collected for the illustration collages in SPIKE. Debra lives in Minneapolis, MN and Penland, NC. Her website,, has won the coveted Great Sites For Kids designation from the American Library Association. For an online, live-link version of this project for sharing visit

Eve of a book’s arrival!

SPIKE in process in the studio

SPIKE in process in the studio

SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe releases to the world on Oct 1, 2013. It has been so long in coming that I find myself sleepless now that it is finally here. Often the hard part of a book’s arrival is the quiet that follows…the band does not march up my street, and the mayor does not deliver the keys to the city. Instead, it is the silent swish of the cover, lifting.

Still, after all these years of making books, I fall into the first finished book and then slowly accept the compromises. It is NOT the book that was made in a page-by-page struggle to find the best solution in the studio. It is now this new being, and fully on its own in the world. Now I will not be there for every lift of the cover, adding: This should be darker, or we had to move this over to accommodate that… Now this story rises and falls on its own ability to draw the reader into that magnetic circle every book creates between reader and page. Early reviews included a Kirkus star with a “Brilliant!” attached…and others offered up varying levels of enthusiasm. Open the cover. Decide for yourself. Be in touch.


Visiting Schools: Miami

In Miami I packed away my down coat, traded bare oak branches for the tick, tick, tick of palm fronds, slipped on sandals and spoke to the entire school one day, then each individual grades in the remaining two days. We started the SPIKE FRIEND’S workshop, where students learn to write from a dog’s perspective in order to practice characterization through development of “voice.” I am just developing this workshop and I cannot wait to see/read/hear their results. I will report back when I’ve heard from them. Recent Minnesota tests have been marvelous: students love their selected dogs so much that they can make the jump into their invented characters.

Testing a New Picture Book

Testing Spike

Testing Spike

I test-read my books throughout the process of creating each picture book but this is the FIRST time I have ever had someone ELSE test-read the book…The book is very nearly done, with only a one-off proof of SPIKE, Ugliest Dog in the Universe, and the marvelous librarian, Julie Reimer *, read it while I sat back and watched! I learned so much that I made THREE changes at this late, late stage and will never publish without this step again.

* See Julie’s Library blog at:

Print Store: Author as Shopkeeper!?

Signing new prints

Signing new prints

On my new website we are building a print store where signed pictures from On the Day You Were Born can be ordered. Steve Palmquist, my web genius, is helping me to learn the zillion details of how to set this up. Being an author now takes so much more than the “old days” when On the Day You Were Born was published (1991). I have been scouring the internet for packaging, slip casing, postage pricing, photographing and preparing text.

Brooklyn Walk

Walking in Brooklyn over the holidays, the icy wind kept our umbrellas set at 90 degrees, snowflakes so fat they audibly plopped to the sidewalk, and then, suddenly, this Floating Window of Dresses appeared, all aglow with dreams, luminous, hanging still in the whipping wind.



Three New Studios

1. Studio on Land: In June I moved to a new studio in St. Paul, MN, cleaned, scraped, painted, and had a brand new linoleum tile floor installed. I am upstairs, with a row of southern windows and a giant new maple table I found on Craig’s List. It is the proverbial new start.

2. Cyber Studio: In December 2012 my web genius, Steve Palmquist, ( and I opened this Studio-in-Space, a new website with more playing room for me. Designing and building a website is a lot like moving into a new studio on earth: scraping and cleaning and painting and new floors. Welcome!

3. Studio of the Heart: A new journal, gorgeously and frighteningly blank, lays on the new maple table, a tiny boat to steer through the confusion of being a book artist just now. Untie the rope! Push off! Time to start trusting the clues that will glimmer at the dark edge of what I know. A dialogue will unfold inside this journal, a conversation between my attention and the world.