Fraser – and his books – grow up, a little bit
November 22, 2006
Beginning with “The Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog: Rescue on Snowmass Mountain,” in 1996, Aspenite Jill Sheeley has been writing books to entertain children. Sheeley has followed with three more books about the mostly invented heroics of her very real yellow Labrador, and in the process, Fraser has become a celebrity to local kids.
Recent surgery left Sheeley laid up; the upside of the downtime was the chance to get to writing a new book. But this time, instead of thinking about her typical audience of young readers, Sheeley had her attention on herself.”I did a lot of hanging out and a lot of journaling,” said Sheeley, who also has two Aspen-flavored cookbooks, and the historical “Christmas in Aspen,” to her credit. “It made me laugh at a time when my attitude could have gone anywhere. I needed laughter in those years.”The source of laughter was the same subject that has been providing kids with thrilling tales of rescues and narrow escapes on local mountains and rivers: Fraser, Sheeley’s 12-year-old dog. “I’d be sitting next to Fraser, with his head in my lap,” said Sheeley. “And his stories just wanted to be told. He’s had the most amazing life. I know everyone says that about their dog. But he does. Ever since he was a baby, he’s done these wild and crazy things. It just looked like a book to me.”It is a book. But “The World According to Fraser: A Memoir” won’t be instantly recognizable to fans of past Fraser books. The realistic, colorful drawings by Tammie Lane that illustrated “The Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog” series have been replaced by pen-and-ink, comic-strip-type sketches by Bill Schorr. And while the new book is full of adventures, they are of a different sort than the rescues in Cougar Canyon and on Aspen Mountain. These are real-life adventures: the Sheeley family’s encounters with bears; Fraser’s destroying a neighbor’s 14th-century Chinese vase.
The change in audience and subject matter is accompanied by a switch in tone. None of the previous books required a disclaimer, as “The World According to Fraser” does, warning of “a few words and descriptions” that adults may want to skip during bedtime reading sessions. But in making herself laugh, Sheeley wasn’t looking to write solely on a kids’ level.”It started out very irreverent. A lot of swear words,” she said. “We cut it down to one ‘hell’ and one ‘damn.’ I had to warn the libraries that it’s rated PG-13.” The chapter “Bears in My House” features adult beverages, mild marital discord, a rifle, scatological references – and a huge mess left by four uninvited guests to the Sheeley household.”Fraser is a totally irreverent guy,” said Sheeley. “So all that had to stay in there. It’s a totally different genre than the adventure stories. The whole point was to make it a family book.”In addition to the few naughty words, “The World According to Fraser” features some issues that are a bit more grown-up than the adventure books. “Death and Dying” doesn’t shy from detailing the great backyard in the sky. The chapter opens with Fraser saying, “I’ve heard about death before. Animals die all the time.” It then moves into a warm, fond reminiscence of Fraser’s mentor dog, Abby, and her demise. Sheeley handles most all the elements of death – shock, sorrow, the mystery – in a manner that is touching for older readers, and informative for the younger ones.”If your dog did die, that’s a chapter that might make your child feel better,” said Sheeley, who donates a portion of the sales proceeds to the Aspen Animal Shelter. “That was an experience that was heavy in our hearts, and I could have made it a lot heavier. But it needed to be in there.” In a nice touch, the chapter is followed by one titled “Maggie,” in which Fraser gets, and eventually warms to, his new canine companion.
The book permits a sense of humor that is also absent from the adventure tales. In “Do I Get the Job,” Fraser reveals how he almost failed his “job interview” – to participate in the pet therapy program at the Senior Assisted Living Center – because of his paralyzing fear of linoleum floors. Fraser’s hard, clumsy tail is enough of a character in itself that it gets two chapters. “The World According to Fraser” closes with Fraser’s do’s and do-not-do’s (“Don’t place a barking collar on me. I bark for a reason”) and a quiz (I learned that, yes, the length of a dog’s nose is directly proportional to his sense of smell).An extra dose of humor is provided by the illustrations. Sheeley had never met Bill Schorr, an editorial cartoonist who also does the strip, “The Grizzwells.” On a recommendation, she sent him a manuscript.”And he sent me back three samples,” said Sheeley, who flirted with the idea of getting an agent and publisher before deciding to self-publish “The World According to Fraser,” as she has her previous books. “We did this thing over the phone, over the Internet, and he just got the dog; he got the spirit. I never rejected one of his cartoons. I gave him free reign. My mother’s an artist, so I knew to just let him fly.”Sheeley says that Fraser, at 12-plus – or 90 in dog years – has slowed down some. On the book-signings and readings that Sheeley does around the state, Sheeley is often accompanied by Maggie (also a yellow Lab) instead of Fraser. But Fraser still has adventures.”He has had a pretty amazing, funny life,” said Sheeley. “And trust me, every day he has another adventure. I could write 20 more books.”
In fact, Sheeley has already put one of those stories down in paper. The next installment of “The Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog” is due out in the summer. In keeping with tradition, she won’t reveal the specifics of the tale.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com