The Foster Tails series by prolific writer Barby Keel are about special dogs at the Barby Keel Animal Sanctuary in the lush Sussex countryside. To date, there are four nonfiction books in the series, and each one features a dog in dire straits. However, in that she also shares about her personal life including a lengthy battle with cancer, Keel’s narratives aren’t just another series of animal rescue stories. Moreover, her ability to weave an engaging story, capture a sense of place, and create an endearing hook serve as testament to her adept writing skills.
Keel’s passion for animals began in her childhood when her dad would bring home stray animals much to the chagrin of Keel’s mom. Fast forward to 1958, when Keel had the opportunity to move to a city and become a model, but instead made the pivotal choice to stay with her dad in the country. Thirteen years later, she bought four acres of land for £1400, built her own home brick by brick, and then dedicated her life to caring for animals. Keel sprinkles additional details about how she built her sanctuary, including the fact she had to sell her car and her insurance to cover the costs of fencing in the land, throughout each of her books. According to Keel, her goal in her books is to provide an honest account of rescue work, and she has succeeded.
However, her narratives go beyond just being another series of animal rescue stories. Keel bravely shares the details of her personal life including her relationships with family and her battle with cancer. In a heartbreaking revelation, she writes, “It was Mum who made the decision to put Rex to sleep one day when I was at school … It was a huge shock to come home from class and find the house empty, my beloved dog taken from me without a word.” Keel was always closer to her dad, who lived her with after his divorce, and her brother even though he was always the favorite in the family. As for her battle with cancer, Keel has always done her best to put her animal sanctuary first but continues to this day to have tumors that need to be removed.
Readers can witness Keel’s ability to weave an engaging story in her book Gaby, The Little Dog That Learned to Talk. It starts with a flashback: “It was 1945, and I was ten years old. It wasn’t long after VE Day, which marked the end of Second World War in Europe, and everyone (including us children) was still giddy with the sense of victory and freedom. One day I arrived home from school to find a dog in the kitchen lapping at a bowl of water. It was love at first sight.”
Keel’s ability to capture a sense of place is shown in her book Will You Love Me? After introducing readers to an abandoned dog named Bailey, she describes the sanctuary: “It was just past 6:30 a.m., and it was still dark as night. Hundreds of gulls screeched and swooped over my head as I walked slowly down to the bottom of then field at the back of my bungalow. Since starting the sanctuary, I had always fed the birds that squawked, weaved, and glided over my land.”
Then there’s Keel’s ability to create an endearing hook, as illustrated in The Puppy No One Wanted. It starts with a fictional glimpse into Teddy’s world before he came to the sanctuary: “The man’s voice thundered over my head, stopping me in my tracks. Instantly alert, I looked over and saw my master had thrown the door open. A large, tall, red-faced man with a cap on his head and Wellington boots caked in mud on his feet, his face looked furious. He made two great strides into the room where I had been playing happily….”
The Foster Tail Series has something for everyone who has ever loved a dog or ever run an animal organization. By featuring a dog that can’t bark, a dog that’s scared of the dark, and a dog that refuses to be housebroken., Keel tugs on our heart strings. She also showers us with insights into canine care. At the same time, Keel welcomes us into her world, which is both laden with drama and overflowing with love. I received three of her books to review, and I look forward to reading more titles in the series.