Friend Friday

What a treat it is today to host not one but two wonderful writing friends! The dynamic duo of Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong have re-energized the poetry genre in children’s literature, making it even more accessible, fresh and fun. Their new collaboration, illustrated by Franzi Paetzold, is called Pet Crazy: A Poetry Friday Power Book (Pomelo Books), and features the work of twelve poets, including their partner in crime for this post, Elizabeth Steinglass. I’ll let the three of them tell you more about it!

Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell

Reading to Animals? Reading Buddies Come in All Shapes, Sizes, and Species

By Sylvia Vardell, Janet Wong, and Elizabeth Steinglass

We love reading about dogs and no one does it better than Kirby Larson. Her novels feature our favorite dog heroes (Dash, Nubs, Duke) in true stories that are totally captivating. But reading TO dogs? Yes! When we give children the opportunity to read to a therapy dog (or even a stuffed animal), we are offering them a safe and comfortable companion for building their reading skill and confidence. It may be common sense to say that children enjoy the comfort of pets and animals. We know from medical research that having pets encourages relaxation, lowers blood pressure, and promotes the release of endorphins in people of all ages. In fact, psychologists have found additional social and emotional benefits when children especially interact with animals. It can improve their communication skills and develop greater empathy and sensitivity.

But making the link to reading with animals is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the earliest of these programs began with Intermountain Therapy Animals and their pet reading program, R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs). But this concept has now expanded widely through programs such as Tail Waggin’ Tutors, Library Dogs, Reading to Rover, and Tails of Joy, and has even been the subject of a dissertation study. In her dissertation research, “An Analysis and Evaluation of Sit Stay Read: Is the Program Effective in Improving Student Engagement and Reading Outcomes?,” Corinne Smith (2009) studied second grade classrooms in disadvantaged Chicago Public Schools. She found that students improved their oral reading 20% when they participated in a “reading to dogs” program.

In another study, Pat Bailey (2010) found that young students who read aloud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12% over the course of a 10-week program. They even developed faster reading skills up to 30 words per minute. Lane and Zavada (2013) studied a variety of pet-focused reading programs and found, “Reading to a caring and cuddly canine companion can make the activity enjoyable and motivate even the most reluctant reader.” And Shaw (2013) observed, “A canine friend partnered with a knowledgeable handler is a catalyst for improving students’ reading, but more importantly, they are a catalyst for helping children ‘be a reader.’”

We believe reading with an animal buddy crosses all backgrounds and reading levels. It builds children’s confidence and puts them at ease and is a great equalizer for children of all abilities and levels. You don’t have to be a struggling reader to enjoy cuddling with a dog and a book!

In our book, Pet Crazy: A Poetry Friday Power Book, we look at many ways that pets are special to children, including a dog (and rabbit) that serve as reading buddies. Here’s the poem “Book Hound” from Pet Crazy by Liz Steinglass about just that:

Next, the poet herself offers a bit of insight into the “back story” of this poem and how she came to write it.

From the poet: Liz Steinglass

Elizabeth Steinglass

Many poems use words to make pictures. I hope that when people read “Book Hound,” they see a dog that loves being read to. I hope they see perky ears, blinky, twinkly eyes, a wriggly spine, and a curious, pushy nose. When I’m writing images like these, painting a picture with words, I’m actually describing a picture I have in my head. If I don’t have a clear, complete picture in mind, I have a very hard time putting the image into words.   

Sometimes the picture in my head comes from a memory. In this case Ruby is actually Lucy, a big old Lab and Great Dane mix, that lived with my mom. Whenever I sat down at my mom’s house, Lucy would sit right by my side. She had a funny way of blinking and winking when I talked to her. Also, if I happened to stop scratching her ears, she would nudge my arm with her nose to remind me to get back to work. When I was writing about Ruby, I was picturing Lucy, and I know Lucy so well I can see her perfectly with my eyes closed. Lucy only became Ruby for the poem to go with the R in Reading Buddy. 

Sometimes if a memory isn’t clear and complete enough for me to describe, I’ll try to make a field trip to see the thing again. If my mom had lived a bit closer, I might have gone to her house to read to Lucy so I could pay close attention to all the things Lucy was doing while I read. When a visit isn’t practical, in this case because my mom lives 2000 miles away, I sometimes write from a video or a photograph. My mom doesn’t have many videos of Lucy, but she does have tons of pictures. Here’s one of Lucy and my daughter, this time snuggling without a book.

Check out Pet Crazy here and look for more digital poem “postcards” at Pinterest here.

Interested in learning more about pet reading buddy programs? Here are some helpful links:

The Intermountain Therapy Animals R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dog)

Tail Waggin’ Tutors

Reading to Dogs

Paws for Healing

Reading with Rover

All for Animals

Tails of Joy


Bailey, Pat. 2010. “Reading to Rover: Does it Really Help Children? Veterinary school says ‘yes.’” UC Davis Dateline, April 16, 2010.

Lane, Holly B. and Zavada, Shannon D. W. 2013. When Reading Gets Ruff: Canine-Assisted Reading Programs. The Reading Teacher, 67, (2), pp. 87-95.

Shaw, D.M. (2013). Man’s best friend as a reading facilitator. The Reading Teacher, 66, (5), pp. 365-371.

Smith, Corinne Serra. 2010. “An Analysis and Evaluation of Sit Stay Read: Is the Program Effective in Improving Student Engagement and Reading Outcomes?” (2009). Dissertation. 27 Oct. 2010 .

Elizabeth Steinglass lives in Washington, DC with her husband, two children, and her sleepy cat, Scout. Her poetry has appeared in Ladybug and High Five magazines and in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. Her book Soccer Nonsense is forthcoming from Boyds Mills Press.

Sylvia M. Vardell is Professor at Texas Woman’s University and teaches children’s and young adult literature. She has published five books on literature, plus more than 25 book chapters and 100 journal articles. Her current work focuses on poetry for young people, including a blog, Poetry for Children. Her favorite pets are dogs and she’s had three of them (Luther, Yenta, and Caesar, each for many years), as well as Leonardo the tortoise, and Pecky the parakeet.

Janet S. Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who became a children’s poet. Her work has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other shows. She is the author of 30 books for children on identity, chess, creative recycling, yoga, and more. She has had dozens of pets, including birds, fish, a frog, hamsters, lizards, turtles, a cat, and favorite dogs named Bernadette, Coco, Nissa, and Angel.

Together, Vardell and Wong are the creative forces behind The Poetry Friday Anthology and Poetry Friday Power Book series.



No Responses to “Friend Friday”

  1. Sylvia Vardell

    Thanks so much for inviting us to participate, Kirby. We share a love and admiration for the remarkable ways pets add richness to our lives and inspire us to grow too!