In 'A Dog's Life,' One Student Finds Strength In essays on the 'In Character' blog, NPR audiences have been waxing thoughtful about their own favorite characters. An 11-year-old, in foster care for the past four years, says he feels a kinship with the protagonist of A Dog's Life: Autobiography of a Stray.
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In 'A Dog's Life,' One Student Finds Strength

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

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

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GUY RAZ, Host:

From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

From Darth Vader to Cookie Monster, NPR's In Character series has explored famous American fictional characters, who they are and how they've inspired us. We've also asked you, our listeners, to tell us about your favorite characters by submitting essays to our In Character blog.

An elementary school in Asheville, North Carolina turned that request into a literacy project. About 15 fifth-graders at Isaac Dixon Elementary School wrote about the imaginary characters they admire most. The students recorded their essays at public radio station WCQS in Asheville.

Joseph Plever(ph) picked one of the characters from Erin Hunter's series, "The Warriors."

Mr. JOSEPH PLEVER (Student): Have you ever read a book about a blind cat with anger management problems? I have. His name is Jaypaw. He's a very undecided cat because he can't make up his mind what role he should play in his community.

RAZ: Ryan Segal(ph) wrote about Keladry of Mindelan or Kel from "Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce.

Mr. RYAN SEGAL (Student): Kel and I are alike because she thinks that girls can do anything boys can do, just like me. Because of her, I am interested in learning how to use different types of medieval weapons. I too am strong and brave.

RAZ: The students also wrote about "The Grinch," Junie B.Jones, and Cassie Logan, the narrator of the 1977 Newbery Medal winner, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, one of the students had a very special connection with Squirrel. Not a squirrel, but a dog named Squirrel. He's the four-legged hero of the novel "A Dog's Life," autobiography of a stray.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Eleven-year-old Mark Federman(ph) is tall and thin, 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 before...

Have you have been practicing?

Mr. MARK FEDERMAN (Student): Yes, ma'am.

BLAIR: So he's a little nervous.

Mr. FEDERMAN: "A Dog's Life." Squirrel is your dog from "A Dog's Life." It's an important character because she represents kids like me.

BLAIR: Four years ago, Mark Federman was taken into custody by the Department of Social Services in Haywood County, North Carolina and placed in foster care. In "A Dog's Life," Squirrel gets separated from her mother and brother. In his essay, Mark Federman writes about the parallels between his life and Squirrel's.

Mr. FEDERMAN: We both have moved from house-to-house, family-to-family and life-to-life in hopes of a family. Squirrel and I have been separated from our big brother and mom.

Ms. MARY TURNER(ph) (Literacy Coach): When I asked him, you know, what is it, Mark, really about this character that you like? He said, it's me.

BLAIR: Mary Turner is the literacy coach at Isaac Dixon Elementary School. She says she wanted the fifth-graders to write essays for In Character to learn about writing persuasively and concisely since the essays had to be a 150 words or less. Turner encouraged them to look at characters from contemporary fiction or from stories that got them hooked on reading in the first place.

Ms. TURNER: And then we began to chart, you know, titles of books, characters from books, what makes this character a good character, what are character traits that we look for in characters. And so we just sort of planned out or mapped out a whole unit of study where kids got to not only brainstorm and lift, but then describe and defend.

BLAIR: "A Dog's Life" was a Christmas gift to Mark Federman from his foster care mother, Christina Skillin Federman(ph). She didn't know much about the story, but was drawn to the picture of the dog on the cover.

Ms. CHRISTINA SKILLIN FEDERMAN: Mark really loves animals. We have a big dog here and he always plays with her and - but then the more that I was reading about it, about the stray and the dog finding its way, I thought that maybe it could really relate to Mark, just because of where he was at in his life.

BLAIR: Christina Skillin Federman also liked that "A Dog's Life" does not sugarcoat anything. 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 get thrown out. In the four years that Mark Federman has been in foster camp, he's moved about nine different times. So he could understand Squirrel's struggle.

Mr. FEDERMAN: Like having to move in to different homes and being disappointed because they weren't the right family for us, but we knew there was a family out there waiting for us so we never gave up.

BLAIR: And how did it feel to know that there was someone like Squirrel who could relate to you?

Mr. FEDERMAN: It kind of make me feel happy because I'm not the only one.

BLAIR: "A Dog's Life" was written in 2005 by Ann Martin, who says her own dog Sadie(ph) was the inspiration for the character Squirrel. Sadie's mother was a stray who was found wondering the highway just before giving birth to a litter of puppies.

Ms. MARTIN: Sadie was so incredibly shy and timid as a puppy that I began to wonder if she would even have survived if the puppies had actually been born in the wild, if they hadn't, the mother hadn't been rescued.

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

Ms. MARTIN: As she finds her way through wintertime, through cruel owners, cruel people that she meets on the way, she also discovers that she is a stronger dog when she taught she was, and you have to be a strong animal and a smart one to be able to survive.

Mr. FEDERMAN: Squirrel and I kept going because we knew there was a family waiting for us out there somewhere, in the real world.

BLAIR: The literacy coach at Isaac Dickson, Mary Turner, helped Mark with his essay about Squirrel. She says he was very clear about what he wanted to say.

Ms. TURNER: And in conversation I might bring up a different idea. Wow, were there situations that weren't happy? Yes, but I don't want to talk about that. Were there situations for squirrel that were unhappy? Yes, but I don't want to go into that either because this story is about hope.

Mr. FEDERMAN: Both of our stories have happy endings. Two months ago I was adopted into a loving family. And at the end of the book a nice lady adopted Squirrel.

BLAIR: Mark's younger brother was also adopted by the Federmans. And now they're on the process of adopting his older brother. Ann Martin is writing a new book about what happened to Squirrel's brother.

Elizabeth Blair. NPR News.

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