Jeffrey E. Poehlmann is the talented (and witty) author of Those Amazing Dogs: Trail of the Viking, based on characters created by Edwin M. Fenne. You get five books for the price of one when you buy it, since this single novel contains the first five Middle Grade (ages 9-12) books in the Those Amazing Dogs series. Jeffrey is also an award-winning author, a poet, has produced several independent films, and has been a screenwriter and a script doctor. What follows is an interview I recently conducted with Jeffrey.
Douglas R. Cobb: Jeffrey, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me for the BSC Kids site! My first question is whether you traveled to any of the countries you write about in Those Amazing Dogs: Trail of the Viking, or did you learn about them primarily through research?
Jeffrey Poehlmann: I did a lot of research on the locations, fabricated a few small things and relied also on first-person experiences related to me by people who had been to the locations. I have traveled to SOME of the locations or places like them, as well (I have traveled fairly extensively in general). Ed, the publisher who came up with the concept and several of the character sketches before I came on board to write the project, has also traveled quite extensively and has friends from several of the locations in the books. I tried to be fairly accurate in terms of geography and politics, as well as flora and fauna, because part of our mission is to educate as well as entertain.
Besides being able to get Those Amazing Dogs: Trail of the Vikings, which is made up of the five books African River Adventure, In the Viking Volcano, At the Arctic Circle, At the Pirate Bay, and On the Coral Island, parents and teachers can also buy each one of the paperbacks individually, correct?
Yes, the various chapter books are available separately as both eBooks and print editions. The first book, “Those Amazing Dogs: African River Adventure,” is available as a free eBook at this link:
One thing I really like about the chapter books is that they are both about the special abilities we all have, as represented by the three dogs, and also how important teamwork is to solving problems. Each dog has its own unique personality, also. Could you briefly describe their personalities and mention an example from Those Amazing Dogs: African River Adventure of how they work together?
In their raft ride down the river, for example, you get to see how Oddie’s strength and courage are at the forefront for his character. When he keeps vigilant watch, a branch in his mouth to use as a tool, he never lets his guard down. They are a strong unit, in that they are always faithful to one another. Molly’s enthusiasm and naiveté also play into their ability to make friends quickly — especially when Oddie may be defensive or Max might want to hang back and observe. Molly always jumps right in. Max, on the other hand, is the one with the most experience and is also the most logical of the group. In some ways, the other two find him curmudgeonly, perhaps even a bit bossy, but he always has their interests at heart and for the most part makes very good leadership decisions for the group. As the stories progress, however, we do get a chance to see both of the younger dogs come into their own a bit more, each taking on more leadership in certain circumstances.
Who in Nigeria is the animal character Ogun? What is he named after, and how does he help the three dogs get back to their owners, the archeologists Felix and Erica Strong?
Ogun is a chimpanzee who represents sort of the soul of the endangered rain forest. He is named after both the river they are traveling and the nature preserve to which they are headed. Ogun’s function in the story is mainly as their guide, but he is tied to them as a kindred spirit who has been forced into a life as a wanderer. At the beginning of the story, the dogs have been kidnapped and have no idea where they are or how to get back to their owners. Ogun uses this great jungle network to not only gain information that helps the dogs decide which way to travel, but also gets their story out. The revelation at the end of “African River Adventure” is only possible because the word of who these dogs are and how they fit into the bigger story actually travels faster than the dogs do and other jungle animals are ready and waiting for them at the right time.
Ogun and the other animals the three Amazing Dogs meet in their adventures is another reason I enjoyed reading the five-book series, and I’m sure other readers feel the same way. They are sometimes funny, and they help the dogs out of problems and situations that even they couldn’t handle entirely by themselves. It’s kind of like they are examples of what the Beatles sing about in “With A Little Help From Our Friends”: “We get by with a little help from our friends.” And, the dogs often help them, too, of course. How do the three dogs help a hyena they meet in the rain forest of Nigeria?
In some areas, hyenas and other wild jungle animals are captured and held for sport, used in street performances or kept as symbols of power or authority. The hyena in our story is a refugee of sorts, having been taken from his family and chained up for use in a show until he was able to escape into the jungle. As powerful as he is, however, he has been unable to get the muzzle off his face. His cry for help is almost misconstrued by the dogs and Ogun as a threat, but once they realize he simply needs their help the hyena is quick to return the favor. It is this symbiotic relationship in all the books that Ed and I have tried to highlight: by offering help when we can, we often find that the help we need is right there waiting for us, whether we realize it or not.
Among everything else, like telling a great action-filled story of adventure, showing the importance of being yourself, working together, being a friend, and teaching things about the animals and history of the lands the three Amazing Dogs travel to, you also sometimes get into concerns about the ecology of the places the dogs go to, like the problem loggers sometimes cause in countries like Nigeria. What is it that Felix and Erica show the the police that the dogs have tied around their necks that finally stop the loggers from possibly destroying an important archeological site?
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, what it comes down to is money. In the end of the first book, the dogs have presented Felix and Erica with something very valuable that they can use as leverage to save the area. The dogs have been led by their jungle friends into a buried pyramid and have found small stone tablets with ancient writing on them, and Max has the idea of wearing them as a sign to Felix about what is hidden below the site where Felix and Erica are working. The police are in the process of shutting down the archeological expedition so that loggers can clear-cut an expanse of the rain forest which was supposed to be preserved, because the police are taking kickbacks. A government representative arrives to argue the case for preservation, but it is only with the overwhelming evidence that the government is going to have access to some serious wealth that the heroes of the story are able to force the loggers to stop. We don’t want to be overly political with the story and clearly there are some fabricated elements here, but it is a sad fact that oftentimes corruption leads to disrupting the ecological balance of an area or, in many instances, illegal misuse of resources. This has been a major problem in many nations and I don’t mean to single out Nigeria by any stretch; in fact, one of the main reasons that we chose Nigeria was because it does have a rich cultural history that often goes under-represented.
I’ll move on to questions about the other 4 books now. In the Viking Volcano is set Iceland. According to Katla, the polar bear, how did she arrive in Iceland?
She floated in. Icebergs are always breaking apart in the Arctic Circle and polar bears have a tendency to go out on them when hunting. In her case, she was caught in a current that brought her to her new home. There are very few polar bears actually in Iceland any more, although they used to be more common.
It seems like the dogs’ owners, Felix and Erica, fairly often get into situations where Max, Oddie, and Molly are needed to rescue them. What happens to them in Iceland when they are exploring in a cave?
This is one of their more perilous situations, actually; Felix and Erica are in a cave inside of a live volcano and when it erupts they become trapped. Although a rescue crew is on its way, the dogs decide that there is not enough time to wait and must figure out how to get their human companions out on their own.
One of the animals in Iceland that helps the three Amazing dogs is a pretty cool Arctic fox called Blue, whose fur is sort of blue-colored, unlike most types of foxes children might be familiar with. How’s Blue a help to the dogs and Felix and Erica?
Well, like most of the animals in our books, Blue fulfills a function that the dogs cannot do on their own. It is significant that the dogs, as amazing as they may be, are never portrayed as superheroes. In fact, if not for their ability to be humble and seek out help from others, things would have gone very differently for them. In Blue’s case, he helps them by leading the dogs to other useful animals and ultimately is key to their success because of his own digging and burrowing skills. Molly, too, gets a chance to shine; as a Yorkie, she is a natural digger, and both Molly and Blue are relatively small dogs who are able to get through tiny tunnels that lead the way through the labyrinth of fissures and caves inside the volcano.
I won’t go into too much depth with my questions, as I don’t want to maybe spoil the stories for your readers (and asking lots of questions would take up, of course, lots of your time), but could you please tell our readers what is it about a map that Felix and Erica find in the cave that is so interesting to them, and which influences where they travel next?
It is a generally accepted and understood part of history now that the Vikings were the first Europeans to discover North America, roughly 1000 years ago. They had their settlements in Iceland and Greenland prior to that, and were able to go back and forth from Europe to these island nations with some regularity in spite of somewhat haphazard navigation. Our story presupposes a larger context to the Viking travels and exploration, not completely outside the realm of possibility, actually. The book is entitled In the Viking Volcano because a recent earthquake/eruption re-opened a long-sealed cave that held many ancient Viking artifacts. It is the news of this that brought Felix, Erica and the dogs to Iceland. Felix’s determination to follow the map and see what other mysteries it might unlock is the basis for the remainder of the stories that make up Trail of the Viking.
Vikings have pretty neat horned helmets (some did, anyway), but besides that, what interested you and Ed Fenne, the creator of Those Amazing Dogs, enough about Vikings to want to write about them in this series of books?
That’s a good question. I was always interested in Vikings as these violent, marauding warriors when I was a boy. And I still find that aspect interesting today. But what really struck me about Viking history is that they were also oddly democratic, adept farmers, businessmen and more. In fact, they also influenced a very literate society. Iceland is considered one of the most literate countries in the world. Ed is passionate about literacy and one of the main reasons for the existence of this series is so he can spread the love of reading and encourage more kids to pick up books. I guess that Vikings were just a good fit for that reason. Framing the adventures around these early explorers also seemed quite natural and allowed for a logical progression through the other locations visited in the first five books.
The third book finds Max, Oddie, and Molly in another country that’s often very cold, Greenland! Why is Oddie (the Pit Bull) disappointed at first when he sees the snowmobiles that will transport them?
Oddie fancies himself a tough guy and a bit of a sportsman, and he has been wanting to be part of a sled dog team. There was this idea that they would land and sleds would take them to their lodgings, but Oddie was not expecting the sleds to be pulled behind snow mobiles.
What does Oddie do that impresses the Huskie team leader? Does he ever get the chance to live his dream about being a sled dog?
Oddie and the Husky team leader are initially at odds with one another. After Oddie braves a snowstorm alongside an Arctic wolf in order to get help for his friends who are stranded, the Husky is impressed by his determination and spirit. I’ll let the readers discover whether Oddie gets to live out his dream…
Who is Simone Hawkins and why is she sent to greet the Strongs and the Amazing Dogs?
She is a character that Ed suggested to me. A very special girl in our story, Simone is a college student who acts as the English-speaking liaison for Felix and Erica in a largely Greenlandic and Dutch-speaking country. Essentially, Simone is on a research assignment with the University of Greenland, which does very prominent studies of the Arctic environment. Felix is very influential in academic circles and Simone is to act as a guide and assistant to the Strongs, but that of course does not keep them all from getting into a bit of trouble along the way.
What are “trade routes” and why would it be interesting to know if the Vikings had established trade routes through Canada and New England?
Trade routes were the charted paths between locations where groups could meet to trade supplies. Some were more heavily traveled than others. Historically, there is evidence that the Vikings were able to set up trading posts in northern Canada and possibly New England, where there were small settlements. The indigenous peoples of North America also had a system of trade, although not as developed perhaps as the European model. Still, fishing areas and farming areas and hunting areas existed to fill the needs of one another to some extent, and the trade routes were there to bridge these areas and transfer goods among them.
Why do the Strongs and the three Amazing Dogs next fly to Ellesmore Island and to the Eureka research station there?
It is a point marked on the map they found in the volcano, but it was also a consideration on our part to try and teach a little about what kind of activities are going on up in the Arctic today. There is a very important research facility there and conveniently it has a landing strip. There is also historical evidence that Vikings would have likely been in that area.
What does it tell Felix and Erica when they discover an ancient coin with the letters ONLAF REX NOR on it?
Lots of people do not realize that the Vikings were early adopters of coins as currency and that they were responsible for the use of coins in trade throughout Europe. The inscription refers to King Olav of Norway, which was common on early coins used by the Vikings. When they discover these coins near Eureka, it is further evidence that they are on the right track and likely following a forgotten Viking trade route.
A dragon head Felix sees on another map he finds, made of silk, leads them next to a place called Zihuatanejo. Where is this, and what do they find there?
This is actually one of Ed’s favorite spots in Mexico, which has a very storied history of its own. Zihuatanejo can actually be considered one of the first “tourist spots” in the world, as it was used as a vacation destination for local royalty long before the Europeans arrived to disrupt the culture. Located on the west coast in a somewhat secluded bay, the area also had times of heavy pirate activity. When the Spanish branched through Mexico and opened trade with the Pacific Islands and, specifically, the Philippines, it made Zihuatanejo a favored spot for the pirates to lay in wait for merchant vessels returning to Acapulco or other points along the coast. The culture we reference there actually goes back to the Olmec civilization, which was known for their unique artistry (particularly statues of giant heads that appear to be wearing helmets). Felix and Erica are following the Viking map, actually, and an associate of theirs is involved in the excavation of another pyramid that has been discovered in the jungle there. The big surprise is what they find inside the pyramid that ties a lot of things together.
Who/what is Honcho, and how does he aid the three dogs when they’re inside a Mexican pyramid?
Honcho is a stray Chihuahua who has been more or less adopted by Felix’s associate. He’s a scrappy little dog who has been exploring the pyramid on his own and helps Max, Molly and Oddie when some booby-traps get the better of their group.
One other aspect about the books is that they teach you as you read about the background of the people who used to live in the lands the three dogs travel to, like in the case of the Olmecs. Why are they sometimes called the “Rubber People”?
The headgear that I mentioned from their carvings of giant heads is presumed to be sports related. In fact, the Olmecs were well known for games involving kicking around rubber balls. It is not clear exactly what the games were, or either how or why they were played, though there are theories ranging from the Olmecs just being a sports-loving culture to the games having some religious or social significance. Either way, the games were enough to help define how the Olmec culture was perceived.
There are so many more questions I could ask you about the books that make up Those Amazing Dogs: Trail of the Viking, but I’ll just ask you a few more because I fear I’m probably asking you quite a lot of questions as it is. Who are Captain Francois, Margot, and Aubrey, and what does Felix warn Captain Francois about? How are the tiger sharks that circle the Maverick also a sign that Felix is right?
The captain is an old friend of Felix’s who happens to own an explorer yacht that is capable of taking a crew in search of the final mystery of the Viking maps. Margot is the captain’s daughter and Aubrey is her cousin (whose father is the first mate). Margot also knows Max from when he was a puppy, so we get to tie in a little family history. When the yacht is out in the middle of the Pacific, near where they think an island should be, Felix goes up in a helicopter for a better look and sees shadows in the water near where the yacht is headed that look like a coral reef. He also sees what might be the wreckage of an old ship, but it’s too hard to tell for sure. Tiger sharks tend to swim close to shore and shallower waters, so their presence indicates that the readings on the yacht’s instruments may not be accurate.
What happens to Erica when the Maverick splits into two pieces, and how does Oddie save her?
This segment of the story was a tough one to write, because in many ways it was the most perilous part of the story. Throughout the books, we tried to keep the action heavy but never let anyone get hurt. By this time, however, it felt appropriate to know that the characters could overcome whatever they had to face. And Oddie, although he had proven himself to be strong and brave, really needed a chance as a character to come into his own. When Erica falls unconscious into the ocean amid circling tiger sharks, there is the definite sense that she is in serious danger with only minutes to be saved. Oddie does not even pause before leaping from the helicopter to save her, which could easily have been the end of him, too. Fortunately, there is a lot of teamwork, and Oddie is able to navigate the sharks and sinking yacht. He comes out looking like a real hero, actually, but that is only the opening to the fifth book. A few more surprises are in store for the group after that, not the least of which is the new friend the dogs make to help them along the last leg of The Trail of the Viking.
Jeff, I’ve heard that you are hard at work on the next series of Amazing Dogs adventures. Where do you and Ed have plans for the dogs to travel to next, and do you already have name for the next books?
I’m pretty certain that the next adventure will have “book six” somewhere in its title. We are actually researching locations right now. On the web site thoseamazingdogs.com there is a link for kids to offer their suggestions, too. Let’s just say that there are a lot of things that look interesting in India and China, but some of their adventures may take the dogs to some real out of this world places…. Ed has a love of travel and other cultures and no shortage of places he would like to feature, and I have a few ideas of my own which we are considering, but the process of sketching out the arc of a series and making sure that the books hold together with a single narrative takes time and care. We love what we did with this first series, but we want the second series to be even better. Ed’s vision for this is quite expansive, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Thanks once again, Jeffrey, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me!
Those Amazing Dogs: Trail of the Viking is a great way to get all five of the Those Amazing Dogs adventures, but you can buy them, as I mentioned, individually also at Amazon and elsewhere. Either way you do it, you should check out the entire series, if you love stories about animals that are action-packed and teach you about lots of different countries, all at the same time!