Kay Whaley, Part of a Winning Pair

June 21, 2024
By Anne Marie Duquette
Featured image for “Kay Whaley, Part of a Winning Pair”

Anne Marie Duquette interviewed Kay Whaley, Winner of the 2023 DWAA Writers Contest for Graphics Series of Illustrations or Paintings category, for Sydney and The Christmas Star.

View the Winning Entry

Congratulations on your wins!  Tell us about your experience and expertise, and how this relates to your entry.  What target audience did you write for, and why?

Sydney and the Christmas Star is the 3rd book in the Tales of Sydney series. I wrote the first book, published in 2019, as a gift to my two oldest grandchildren. My grandson is the inspiration for the narrator in the series, and the real Sydney, a Portuguese Water Dog, belongs to friends.  The popularity of the first book, Sydney Tours Eufaula, and the support I received inspired me to write book 2, Sydney and the Masquerade, and book 3, Sydney and the Christmas Star, for wider audiences.  My granddaughter became the model for Annanine in book 2.

I have had a long career in education, both in the classroom as a high school English teacher and as director of grant development at a community college. For many years, I advised the high school newspaper and literary magazine. I have been published both personally and professionally in various genres. My love of literature, reading, writing, and teaching led me to writing Sydney Tours Eufaula as a way to pass along memories of my hometown, Eufaula, Alabama, to my grandchildren.

Sydney seemed the perfect hook: a lovable and rambunctious pup becomes an accidental tourist during the annual spring Pilgrimage and Tour of Homes. Through her antics, the reader gets a glimpse of the town’s antebellum architecture and history.

About halfway through writing of the story, I connected with Kathy Hamrick, a multi-talented freelance artist in Eufaula. Kathy specializes in a variety of art services, from commercial art and advertising to corporate sculpture, fine art portraiture, and recycled metalwork sculptures. Both Kathy and I are graduates of Auburn University in Auburn and we both lived in Eufaula at the time.

As Kathy and I collaborated, I described my vision--watercolor illustrations in a style inspired by Quentin Blake.  (Blake’s style: drawings meant to look as if done on the spur of the moment but are actually planned.) We settled on illustrations that would not only complement but extend the storyline and add local flavor.  For example, on pages 10-11 of Sydney and the Christmas Star, the words describe people looking up at Christmas tree toppers. Kathy extended the action by painting passersby also looking down at their phones or distracted by other activities. It is exciting to see the story through Kathy’s eyes!

What prompted you to submit this specific entry?  Why do you think it struck a special chord with the public and the judges—and with you?

Kathy’s beautifully rendered illustrations are show stoppers!  The pages are filled with light and joy.  I hope the story and characters resonate with and inspires readers, especially during the Christmas season. Sydney perseveres through several humorous yet failed attempts to find her role in the Christmas play. She finds her part when she stops trying to be something she is not--and uses her own gift.

How big a part have dogs played in your personal and professional life?  Was there a particular dog that sparked your interest in interacting with the public?  Tell us about this special dog, and/or the dogs in your contest entry.

Dogs and puppies were a huge part of my childhood. My father raised and showed English Cocker Spaniels, several of which were award-winners. As my brothers and I grew up, our parents bought us each a puppy from among our favorite breeds. I chose a blonde Cocker and named her Muffet, while my two brothers chose an English Bulldog (Sheba) and a Yorkshire Terrier (Gidget).

Sydney, the Portuguese Water Dog, is the star of my children’s book series. The Jim Gardner family in Eufaula is Sydney’s human family. Unlike her fictional counterpart, the real Sydney is well mannered and always well behaved. Like the fictional Sydney, though, the real Sydney loves to dress up. Sydney first caught my attention with her bandanas and hats—not to mention her love of Auburn University football and all things Auburn.

How big a part have people played in your association with dogs?  Family?  Friends?  Do you have any favorite writers/bloggers/media or graphic artists?  How have they influenced your career?

I am very appreciative of the Gardner family and their support of these books. Anne enthusiastically became the travel agent and public relations coordinator for her beloved Portuguese Water Dogs, Sydney and Ellie. She quickly learned how to deal with the paparazzi during a hectic and whirlwind book tour featuring her precious Sydney.

Tragically, Anne developed a glioblastoma and passed away in 2021.  Anne was a kind and generous friend, and I feel as though her spirit helps guide me in the Tales of Sydney stories. Her daughter-in-law Abbi and her Portuguese Water Dog “Banks” have graciously stepped into Anne’s role, making appearances with us at book signings and readings. Since Sydney is getting older, Banks is making more appearances and will make his debut appearance in book 4, Sydney in Aubieland, due out in June 2024.

When you consider both your personal and professional canine-related achievements, which one of each stands out the most?  And why? What is the driving force that sparks your work?

Having won a second Maxwell award for a Tales of Sydney book is certainly a professional and personal achievement!  In 2019, Kathy and I attended the DWAA awards banquet in New York, and received our first award. We are so grateful to the judges and the DWAA for these honors.

We are thrilled to have created a world for Sydney to inhabit, and we are always looking forward to Sydney’s next adventure!

What ongoing or future canine projects do you have planned?  Are they personal (like cuddling your favorite pooch or volunteering at the local shelter) or professional (like selling articles, training, or conducting medical research)?

Sydney in Aubieland, book 4 in the Tales of Sydney series, is due out in June 2024. In this book, Sydney is cursed with bad luck when she steps on the Auburn University seal. According to AU legend, students who step on the seal will not graduate on time or marry their AU sweethearts! Sydney and her friends head off on a fantastical adventure through Aubieland in a curious race against the clock to break the curse. (Aubie the Tiger, by the way, is the college mascot.)

Kathy, Abbi, her dog Banks and I are lining up appearances to promote the new book. We have previously spoken to clubs and school groups and expect to continue and extend this practice in Auburn, Alabama by visiting additional organizations and clubs. Banks is a service dog, so we have a wide range of opportunities to bring joy and comfort to our audiences.

What would you recommend to those peers who wish to enter your winning category in next year’s contest? 

Persevere!  I encourage anyone whose children’s book is a good match for a DWAA category to apply. It has been a wonderful experience to enter a contest at this level and scale, and it is a great opportunity to connect with this organization.

To conclude this interview, what thoughts from the heart would you like to share?

My heartfelt thanks to the DWAA for this award!  Kathy and I are deeply touched by this recognition.  We would love to hear from Sydney’s fans on our Facebook page @thetalesofsydney or on Instagram @talesofsydney21.

(Sydney Series Publisher: Rocky Heights, Birmingham, Alabama)

Congratulations again and thank you for sharing with us.

Featured Image: Kay Whaley on left and Kathy Hamrich on right. Picture courtesy of Kay Whaley.

Books can be purchased at: Superior Pecans & Gifts in Eufaula,  (334-687-2031 or superiorpecans.com) and  Shorter Mansion (334-687-3793 or https://the-shorter-mansion.edan.io)  in Eufaula; Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers in Auburn,  (334-246-3003 or auburnoilbooksellers.com) and Well Red in Auburn,  (334-246-3021 or wellred.com); The Museum Store at the Alabama Department of Archives and History  in Montgomery,  (334-242-0503 or shopalabamaoriginal.com); and Downtown Books (334-305-2599 or downtownboooksdothan.com) in Dothan.

Please look out for an interview with Kay’s collaborator, Kathy Hamrich, coming up next in our Spotlight series.