Something about Those Resilient Characters by Tanya Anderson
From an early age, I have been drawn to books with characters who just flat out persevere. They aren’t the flashy girls or the heroic boys. They are the kids who just won’t give up no matter how tough things get. And I needed their examples back then, just as I’m sure readers need them today.
As a second-semester second grader, I had just experienced one of the worst episodes of my young life. My mother, my four younger siblings, and I had just run away from a life-threatening abusive situation. We literally left with only the clothes on our backs. We ended up living in an old house that had no running water and no indoor bathroom. (I learned to be grateful for electricity and natural gas.) We had an outhouse, and we bathed in a large laundry tub filled by heating the water that I pumped from a back-porch water pump. It was 1965. I was seven years old.
Needless to say, I was happiest at school, where warm water flowed from faucets and toilets were inside and (mostly) odor-free. My teacher, Mrs. Wright, took me under wing right away. I don’t know how much she knew of my circumstances, but she recognized the reader and writer in me and nurtured both. She had a wonderful classroom library, and I was given the privilege of taking a book home with me anytime I wanted. The first book I remember her recommending was The Boxcar Children. I felt an immediate kinship with the runaways and their need to take care of each other. As the oldest in my family, I felt that same responsibility. Suddenly my life felt more like a story, like an adventure to persevere through. And because it all turned out well for the Boxcar Children, I had hope it would turn out well for me, too.
Over the years, I’ve loved this kind of character. While editorial director at Darby Creek Publishing, I discovered Larry. I received a query from David Lubar about a story he was having trouble placing with his usual publishers because it was so different from other books he’d written. Originally titled The Mystery Mutt, it was a short chapter book about a boy who could never turn away a dog in need. His heart was bigger than his wallet, though, and Larry had to figure out how to keep the strays he was responsible for. He put up with a pesky little brother, but clearly loved the kid. And he found a starving, frightened mutt that he was determined to save. One problem after another piled up around Larry, but he never gave up. His resilience eventually brought success.
After reading the manuscript, I carried Larry around in my mind wherever I was. He was a kid I wanted to know. I was so impressed by his tenacity, his diligence, his heart. To me, the story wasn’t really about a “mystery mutt.” It was about perseverance. I suggested the title Dog Days, partly because it took place during the summer, but mainly because it is during those hot, oppressive days that we must push through until the fresh air of autumn arrives. Nearly ten years later, I still love Larry. I consider this one of my all-time favorite books. If it’s out of print, it shouldn’t be.
Thankfully, I am still finding resilient characters as I read middle-grade books from authors who understand the tension and power of tenacity. I just finished reading A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, for example. Cadence (Cady) has a Talent for baking just the right cake for anyone. Living at Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls since she was an infant, Cady has no family of her own, despite being placed with families several times. She and Miss Mallory know that Cady is destined for “just the right one.” So they persevere. The story is filled with characters with special Talents (e.g, for spitting, for disappearing, for tying knots), characters who are looking for their own destinies. As the title suggests, all these lives become entwined until just the right moment when the ropes relax, wending their ways and connecting the people to each other in just the right ways.
Through it all, Cady never gives up, and she never has a hissy fit about how unfair life is. Because, after all, life is often unfair. Young readers know this. What they don’t know, sometimes, is how to deal with it. Characters like Cady and Larry give them tools by giving them examples. Even an “old” reader like me sometimes has to ask myself, “What would Larry do?” The answer may not be easy, but it’s usually right.
Tanya Anderson is now a full-time writer of children’s books. Previously she was a teacher; an editor at Willowisp Press, Guideposts for Teens, McGraw-Hill, Darby Creek Publishing; and a project manager at Junior Library Guild. Her new book, Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner), is an Amelia Bloomer nominee and a JLG Selection. She has a dog, Kirby, who perseveres in begging for peanut butter in his Kong® toy. You can follow Tanya at www.tanyaandersonbooks.com or www.tilliepiercebook.com. She is also on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/andersongirl) and Twitter @TanyaAnderson57.