“The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love,” the 2017 Roswell Reads selection, can be checked out in print, e-book and audio book formats at the Roswell and East Roswell Libraries and on the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library website, www.afpls.org. Books are for sale at the Friends of the Roswell Library Bookstore and will also be at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon March 18, where author Melissa Fay Greene will sign them.
The following book discussions and events are planned. For more information, go to www.RoswellReads.com, visit the Roswell Reads Facebook page, email RoswellReads@gmail.com or register for events at www.eventbrite.com, search word “Roswell Reads.”
The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love” by Melissa Fay Greene, bestselling Atlanta author and two-time National Book Award nominee, is the 2017 Roswell Reads book selection.
“The Underdogs” offers multiple tales of miracles arriving on four furry feet: the life-changing impact service dogs can have on children and adults isolated by disabilities. By intertwining profiles of individual families and the latest in scientific findings about the intelligence of dogs, Greene, a Guggenheim Fellow, illustrates how unequivocal love from well-trained dogs can restore, or help create, productive lives despite profound suffering.
Roswell Reads, based on the national “One Book” community reading movement, has been encouraging local residents to read and discuss a common book for 12 years. A variety of events (see schedule on page 15) will give adults and children numerous opportunities to explore “The Underdogs,” culminating in a literary luncheon March 18 featuring Greene, who recently answered some questions about her book and the upcoming activities.
Roswell Reads is encouraging an entire community to read “The Underdogs.” Is this a first for you?
Yes, this is my first citywide event! I love the idea of coming out to share and discuss ideas. We all hobnob with neighbors and acquaintances at high school sports events and 4th of July parades and yard sales; to come out to read and discuss a book will offer new kinds of fun and companionship.
Expand on the book’s beginnings, with “Wonder Dog,” a 2012 New York Times Magazine story.
It was one of those rare events in which a beautiful topic suddenly appears in front of you. I responded to a request for a favor by a local woman I didn’t know. She wanted advice on how to reach wider audiences with her story of adopting a darling toddler from Russia who turned out to have severe fetal alcohol syndrome as a result of his birthmother’s drinking. After her family had been turned upside-down – and then mostly turned right-side-up again thanks to the placement of a talented service dog – she wanted to relay the urgent message to pregnant women to avoid alcohol! Her story of despair and rescue was so compelling that it led to my New York Times article and later to a book that included her family and others.
What was it about that article and, later, the book that spoke to so many readers?
Loneliness is embedded in all the stories I tell of families struggling with their children’s disabilities. Then these marvelous dogs gallop onto the scene, offering not just medical alerts and tracking skills but heartfelt friendship. It’s life changing for the kids and their parents and – even without the issue of impairments – echoes the experiences many of us may have had with the healing love of true friends, including dogs.
Tell us about 4 Paws for Ability, the Ohio-based nonprofit service academy you worked with on “The Underdogs.”
It’s the gold standard: Every 4 Paws dog gets 500 hours of training, of which 100 hours focus on the unique needs of a particular child. The families call the dogs “miracle workers,” “furry nannies,” “angels.” It’s partly the innate nature of the dog and partly the fabulous training.
The 12th Annual Roswell Reads selection coincidentally features two Roswell families you got to know well.
Yes, the Winokur family, who first reached out to me, adopted a son who turned out to be severely challenged as a result of his birthmother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy. The Schwenkers have identical twin sons, both on the autism spectrum and one of them a “runner,” who enjoys escaping his parents’ vigilance, fleeing across the neighborhood, and skinny-dipping in neighbors’ pools. Chancer, a golden retriever, joined the Winokur family and began calming their son and protecting him from himself. Barkley, a black Lab, joined the Schwenkers and began stabilizing them both and tracking the little runaway. In both families, the dogs brought with them a sense of safety and happiness.
Roswell Reads has planned pet-friendly events with organizations like Happy Tails Pet Therapy of Roswell. Any advice for would-be volunteers?
Rescue groups, therapy dog organizations, and service dog agencies often welcome volunteers enthusiastically. Research a group that interests you and then ask how you could help. You may be needed to foster a dog and help with basic training; you may be asked to bring your well-trained dog for further training in order to visit hospitals and nursing homes. There’s lovely work to be done.
You will be teaching a writing workshop, “The Art of Nonfiction,” March 14. After reporting on a range of issues – from civil rights and anti-Semitism to the HIV/AIDS orphan crisis in Africa – and working with students and writers at many universities, what do you plan to share in Roswell?
Writing is so much fun, but most people don’t see it that way. Writing is like cooking or dancing or pottery or painting or carpentry: an ancient pursuit that still offers great pleasure in the making of a thing and a sense of satisfaction in its completion. That’s what I hope to share!
You and your husband, defense attorney Don Samuel, live in Atlanta and have raised nine children, including five adopted from Bulgaria and Ethiopia. Are you often asked how a mother of nine manages to write six works of award-winning nonfiction?
Yes! Quite often, when I’m introduced at a book event, the fact that I’m the mother of nine draws much bigger applause than anything else about me. In some ways, writing has dovetailed perfectly with motherhood: my office is in the house, walking distance from the kids’ schools, so I was always there, always available to them. On the other hand, trying to have a serious career with a home-office walking distance from the kids’ schools, with me always there and always available to them, has been ridiculously hard. I used to say that the preschool hours of Tuesday/Thursday, nine to noon, gave no time to do anything else than sit in the parking lot and cry. ■