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Shelter Pet Squad: SOL 21

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Cynthia Lord starts her Shelter Pet Squad series off with a book called Jellybean which came out in 2014. The next two (Merlin and now Paloma) came out in 2015 and 2016. Throughout the series, Lord spins a tale about a second grader named Susannah who is learning how to care for animals and sharing her empathy for these abandoned pets, but it is also an instruction guide for young children around ways to help the animal community regardless of your age. The illustrations are by Erin McGuire who uses diverse children as a part of the pet shelter squad. This is a great draw for boys and girls of all cultures to read the series. Animal cruelty and abandonment is an issue that crosses all cultures.
I read this book to my second graders last year. As we read, we made each of the items Susannah makes with her pet shelter squad. We made braided polar fleece for the cats and treats balled up in brown paper bags for the dogs. My students knew that we were going to donate the final collection of animal toys to a local shelter just as Susannah did. This was an experientially connected book for us which showed me how important it is to intertwine narrative with non-fiction to help people connect. Cynthia Lord lives in Brunswick Maine and is incredibly invested in connecting with the people who read her books. She happened to be near my school one day for an event she was doing and, happily, she agreed to stop by my second grade classroom to read the first chapter of her book to us. We were hooked. The second book, Merlin, came out over summer break. I invited my whole class over to my house to read it on my front porch.
In these 100-ish page chapter books written for second and third graders, Lord introduces us to Susannah. This second grade girl has no pets at home, but as she heads to a new volunteer job at a pet shelter she pockets her stuffed mouse named Whiskers for security. As introductions are made, Susannah's insecurities come into play.
I didn't want to be the only one without a pet. "I have a mouse named Whiskers," I said.
In subtle ways, we learn about Susannah's shyness and lack of confidence, but also in her empathetic strengths and desire to be good at caring for abandoned animals. She takes her learning back to her school and creates a culture of kids who care about animals as well. Each book builds on Susannah's personal growth. Each book also centers on one animal in particular with whom Susannah develops a bond. Jellybean is a guinea pig left by a family moving to a new country, Merlin is a ferret left by a woman who didn't understand the kind of care ferrets need, and Paloma is a puppy brought to the U.S. from Puerto Rico were there is an overabundance of abandoned dogs. Susannah learns about the care of each type of animal and what to look for in a good owner.
Ultimately kids who read this series will learn about why we care for animals in kind and loving ways, how to make sure you are ready for a pet, and how to help the animal community and local shelters. The books are age-appropriate but filled with the realities of shelters and what happens when people abandon pets. Lord's series are a great springboard to deeper discussions of animal ethics and what pets can do for people's health and happiness. The back of each chapter book is filled with ideas and activities for kids to develop their love of animals and care for shelters.

Recently I sat down with Cynthia "Cindy" Lord's guinea pig Cookie for an interview.
Me: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. People know a lot about the woman you live with because she shares a great deal with others, but I can't help wonder what you see when you're quietly watching.
What does Cindy drink when she writes?
Cookie: Cindy drinks coffee from a cup, though I much prefer water in my water bottle.
Me: Does she have a favorite writing spot in the house?
Cookie: Cindy has a writing shed in the backyard. Early in the morning, I get a treat of carrot greens and maybe some romaine lettuce or parsley. Then Cindy goes to work. The dog goes with her, but I like to chew paper, including her manuscripts. Cindy says that's not helpful revision advice, so I take a nap.
Me: Does she ever do funny things while she is thinking?
Cookie: She reads dialogue out loud, which makes it harder to nap! Mostly I don't pay attention unless I hear her getting a snack, though. I can hear the refrigerator door opening from three rooms away.
Me: Do her books taste different depending on what she has written?
Cookie: I like picture books because there's less ink on the page. The more tasty white paper for me, the better!
Me: and finally,
Did she rescue you from a shelter? Is that why her Shelter Pet Squad books feel so real?

Cookie: Yes! When I was just a baby, I was surrendered to the Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick, Maine. The family who brought me in loved me, but couldn't keep me. Cindy saw my photo on the shelter's Facebook page and suddenly, I had a new home! The artist for the Shelter Pet Squad Series, Erin McGuire, based the guinea pig in the first story on me. So I'm famous!


  1. I am a fan of Cynthia Lord. Her books for older kids are all in my library. Thanks for showing me I need to add the Shelter Pet Squad, too.

  2. New books that sound like good ones from Cynthia Lord. Her older ones are certainly full of stories about new things that we might not understand, and now these to help know about animals. I love that you made the treats, following the story in your classroom. I know my oldest granddaughter will love these.

  3. I love this series -- so glad you posted about it and... the interview is such fun. We will definitely share this with teachers. Thank you

  4. Kimberly, experiential learning (project-based) tied into building a sense of community is a wonderful gift to give your students. It not only promotes reading but increases awareness on how service learning impacts the neighborhood. This all fits into community living studies for 2nd graders. I'm glad your students enjoyed the experience.

  5. Wow. I am still thinking of you reading to all of your students on your front porch. Just beautiful!

  6. What a way to build a reading community!

  7. I so love how your kids are involved in helping and making! You make books come to life in so many ways!

  8. I don't know this series, probably because of the age group it's geared to. BUT my kids thrive with this kind of read. Laurie Halse's Vet Volunteer series is similar. And there aren't enough of them to satisfy my kids. Perhaps you could nudge Ms Lord to have Susannah age to be about 10? You post is wonderful for so many reasons. Your insight about the need for non-fiction clues "to help people connect" is an important observation for readers, writers and teachers!

  9. What a charming series, Kimberley. Now I wish I taught the younger set!

  10. Just in time for me to be ordering new books for the library. Such fun reading the interview, too! Lucky you to have an author "at the ready" to visit with your students!

  11. I love how you had your kiddos make and donate pet toys and snacks for shelter animals. Might steel that idea from you some time.

  12. What an amazing slice! First of all, thanks for the great recommendation on a new book! I would love to share this with my third graders. I love how you did activities with your kids to end up donating to an animal shelter. I would love to do something similar with my own students. I also love how you did the interview at the end. :) Thanks for sharing!!


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