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In 'A Dog's Life,' One Student Finds Strength


Over the past few months, NPR's In Character series has explored famous American fictional characters -- who they are, how they've inspired us. At NPR.org, audiences have been encouraged to respond to NPR's stories and to write essays about their own favorite characters.

One elementary school turned that invitation into a literacy project. About 15 fifth graders at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville, N.C., wrote about the imaginary personalities they admire most. The students then recorded their essays at public radio station WCQS in Asheville.

The characters they picked came from a diverse selection of books: Joseph Plever, who chose Jaypaw from Erin Hunter's forest-felines series Warriors, hooked readers with a question: "Have you ever read a book about a blind cat with anger-management problems?"

Ryan Segall wrote about Keladry of Mindelen, from Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet; Kel, as she's known, "thinks that girls can do anything boys can do, just like me," Ryan wrote. Also: "Because of her I am interested in learning how to use different types of medieval weapons; I too am strong and brave."

Other students went with Cassie Logan, the Grinch, Junie B. Jones and more. And one of them revealed a very special connection with Squirrel -- the four-legged protagonist of Ann M. Martin's novel A Dog's Life: Autobiography of a Stray.

'She Represents Kids Like Me'

Mark Federman is 11 years old, tall and skinny, fair-skinned, with freckles and thick, wavy hair. He is very polite, answering questions with "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma'am."

He's never recorded himself reading, but he's been practicing. And when it's his turn, he's ready.

"Squirrel from a A Dog's Life is an important character because she represents kids like me," he says.

Four years ago, Mark was taken into custody by the Department of Social Services in Haywood County, N.C., and placed in foster care.

In A Dog's Life, Squirrel gets separated from her mother and brother.

In his In Character essay, Mark wrote about the parallels between his life and Squirrel's.

"We both have moved from house to house, family to family and life to life in hopes of [finding] a family," he writes. "Squirrel and I have been separated from our big brother and mom."

Asked what it is he likes about Squirrel, Mark has a simple answer: "It's me."

'We Never Gave Up'

Mary Turner, the Isaac Dickson literacy coach who assigned the In Character essays to her fifth graders, says she wanted them to learn about writing persuasively -- and concisely, since the essays had a 150-word limit.

She encouraged the kids to look at characters from contemporary fiction, or from stories that helped them discover a love for reading.

"We began to chart titles of books, characters from books, what makes this character a good character," Turner says. From there, a lesson plan developed, "a whole unit of study where kids got to not only brainstorm and list, but then describe and defend."

A Dog's Life was a Christmas gift to Mark from his foster mother, Cristina Skillin-Federman. She didn't know much about the story. It was the dog on the cover she was drawn to.

"Mark really loves animals," she says. "We have a big dog here, and he always plays with her. The more I was reading about (Squirrel) and about the dog finding its way, I thought that maybe it could relate to Mark, just because of where he was at in his life."

Skillin-Federman also liked that A Dog's Life doesn't sugarcoat the story. Squirrel roams the woods, searches for food and nearly dies crossing a busy highway with his brother. The two stray dogs get picked up by humans who want them as pets -- but then they get thrown out.

In the four years that Mark has been in foster care, he has moved about nine times. Having had "to move into different homes, and being disappointed because they weren't the right family for us," he says, he could identify with Squirrel's ups and downs.

"But we knew there was a family out there waiting for us, so we never gave up," Mark says. Reading about another creature's struggle to find a good fit, he says, "kind of made me feel happy because I'm not the only one.

'Both of our Stories Have Happy Endings'

Author Ann Martin says her own dog Sadie was the inspiration for Squirrel. Sadie's mother was a stray who was found wandering the highway just before giving birth to a litter of puppies.

"Sadie was so incredibly shy and timid as a puppy that I began to wonder if she would even have survived if [she'd] been born in the wild."

Martin says Squirrel finds out just how resilient she is through the course of the story.

"As she finds her way through wintertime, through cruel owners, cruel people that she meets along the way, she also discovers that she is a stronger dog then she thought she was," Martin says. "You have to be a strong animal -- and a smart one -- to be able to survive."

"Squirrel and I kept going because we knew there was a family waiting for us out there somewhere in the real world," says Mark in his essay.

Literacy coach Mary Turner, who helped Mark write about Squirrel, points out that while he and his canine hero both had to deal with unhappy situations, Mark was very clear that he wanted to tell a story about hope.

"Both of our stories have happy endings," writes Mark. "Two months ago, I was adopted into a loving family, and at the end of the book a nice lady adopted Squirrel."

Mark's younger brother was also adopted by the Federmans. Now they're in the process of adopting his older brother. And author Ann Martin? She's busy writing a new book -- about what happened to Squirrel's brother.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.