Dirk Wales

Jack London's Dog illustrations (left) by Barry Moser; A Lucky Dog illustrations (right) by Diane Kenna; courtesy Great Plains Press.

If Dirk Wales’ long experience in the subject of anesthesia is discernible in books like The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris and Jack London’s Dog, it is hidden deeply. The author of these and several other children’s books, Wales made more than 70 films about anesthesia earlier in his career. “I’ve had a very eclectic life,” the Chicago-born writer said during an interview at his Canyon Road home. When he was nineteen, he waited on Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, and Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman while working as a carhop at the Dolores Drive-In in Los Angeles. He went on to attend the University of California. “The only college I could afford was UCLA. Tuition was $18 a semester. I owe my life to that education. It’s a discipline, it’s a point of view, it’s an attitude, it’s everything.”

His heroes include authors James Thurber and David Macaulay, explorer Meriwether Lewis, and dramatist William Saroyan. “I’m a graduate of the UCLA theater school, and Saroyan was an enormous inspiration to me as a playwright,” he said. After graduation, Wales worked at motion-picture and television studios and, in the mid-1950s, he was a platoon leader in southern Germany attached to a unit guarding the border with Czechoslovakia against five divisions of Russian tanks. He started his film company, Rainbow Productions, in 1972 back in Chicago. The first films were made in the Mojave Desert and in Staffordshire, England, for a New York ceramics museum, but the bulk were in the sphere of medicine. He received the Media Award from the American Society of Addiction Medicine for his series Wearing Masks, which was designed to keep doctors from getting addicted to their own drugs. For a year he was the happiness consultant for the American Association of Nurse Anaesthetists.

“I ran the film company for 33 years and made all kinds of films,” he said in his living room, which is full of books and wall-hung examples of box art, while other artworks sprawl on tables or hang from the ceiling. “None of this is related to children’s books except I’m an enormously visual person. Everything you see here is artwork, mostly mine.”

One of his early works for kids was an animated children’s film. It was based on a New York cartoonist’s book about a duck that missed his flight south and spent the winter with pigeons in New York City. Another zag in the zigzag of Wales’ career came in 1985, when Illinois Gov. James Thompson decided that Revolutionary War soldier Casimir Pulaski deserved a school holiday in his name. Wales made a film about Pulaski, working with an apprentice from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who was Polish. He revisited the topic 17 years later, when he authored Twice a Hero: The Stories of Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, Polish American Heroes of the American Revolution.

That was the third book published on his Great Plains Press. The first, A Lucky Dog: Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot, had its inception when Wales was making a film at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of this millennium. “We were put off for a day, and I knew that a postal museum had just opened, and I’m obsessed with stamps. So I took my crew over to see it. We were in the gift shop, and in the darkest corner in the back was a badly done, mimeographed sheet about this dog. I went to Albany, where the dog had lived in the post office, and I met Virginia Bowers, the city historian, and she showed me everything.

“There was a woman [Diane Kenna] working for me as an animator, and she always wanted to illustrate a children’s book. So she and I sat down and figured out how to do it. We created A Lucky Dog. We took it to a publisher, and they said, ‘No, no, no. This isn’t what we want. We’re looking for something else.’ Well, what they wanted was to do a book exactly like the last one they published but with a different title and jacket cover. Now they all wish they’d said yes when we’re at 40,000 copies of this book.”

Another dog inspired Wales to do an illustrated novel. This was Jack London’s four-footed friend for several months in the Yukon gold country in 1897 before the writer got sick and had to go back to California. He was the inspiration for The Call of the Wild’s canine hero, Buck. In Jack London’s Dog, the canine endures some difficult trials, besides missing his kind former master, but he ends up becoming famous for his ability to find and free people who have just been buried in avalanches. The book has wonderfully detailed relief engravings by Barry Moser. That volume was quickly followed by The Further Adventures of a Lucky Dog: Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot, this time illustrated by Catherine DeJong Artman and Townsend Artman.

“All of the illustrators of these books are people I knew or were introduced to by friends,” Wales said. “Because I’m a visual person, I’m pretty serious about all of this. I’m very picky.” Bridgette Comellas drew the illustrations for Wales’ 2014 book The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris, in which Wales details one segment of a true story about a giraffe that traveled from Central Africa to Paris in the early 19th century.

The most recent two books available from Great Plains Press, Shadow Angel and Abandoned Z, are grittier. Aimed at teens and adults, they are not illustrated. Now Wales is trying to find a publisher for his newest, Inspiration & Storytelling: Creating Children’s Books. In this instructional volume, he stresses the importance of story flow, likening it to a river. “Everything has to flow,” he said. “I’ve been making film for years, and a film has to flow. Not only does every scene have to be good, but how do you connect the scenes?”

In Inspiration & Storytelling, the author employs the stories of his own books as exemplars of good flow — for example, The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris. In the how-to book, he writes, “It has ‘movement’ of the giraffe down a river, both the Nile and ‘our river’: it has the drama of the people of France seeing ‘their first giraffe.’ It is a colorful book by a gifted artist. What else could we ask for?”