Big Read explores “The Underdogs” and local service-dog organization

“Love, empathy, sensitivity — humans have those feelings,” says Melissa Fay Greene, author of ‘The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, And the Power of Unconditional Love.”

“But dogs have those feelings and attributes, too.”

The power of dogs to naturally connect with humans, particularly children who are emotionally isolated due to a disability, trauma, illness or other cause, is the underlying theme of Melissa’s newest nonfiction book, which has garnered widespread praise and is also the selection for this year’s Dayton-area Big Read.

Big Read events for “The Underdogs” commence March 5.

The book was chosen by popular vote last fall; this spring, the book is the focus of the annual community reading project hosted by area libraries, colleges, Books & Co., and others.

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From a press release from the Dayton Metro Library, sponsoring organizations are:

• Books and Co

• Bradford Public Library

• Dayton Metro Library

• Franklin-Springboro Public Library

• Germantown Public Library

• Greene County Public Library

• Kettering College

• New Carlisle Public Library

• Project READ

• Sinclair Community College

• Tipp City Public Library

• Troy-Miami County Public Library

• University of Dayton

• Washington-Centerville Public Library

• Wright Memorial Public Library

• Wright State University Libraries

“The Underdogs” specifically tells the story of 4 Paws for Ability, the Xenia-based service dog organization, several of the children and families it has served, and founder Karen Shirk, who started 4 Paws in 1998. Its mission is to help children with disabilities and veterans from recent conflicts with the placement of service dogs, while educating the public about service dogs. The organization has place more than Learn more about the organization and its story at

Melissa, who has an impressive bibliography of published books and a long list of awards, learned of 4 Paws when Donnie Winokur reached out to her.

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“She sent me an email,” Melissa explains, “asking for advice about getting a publisher. We both live in Atlanta, so I thought … why not meet for coffee? It’s not something I usually do, but this time, I did.”

As the women talked, Donnie shared her story of her and her husband, Rabbi Harvey Winokur, adopting a son, Iyal, from a Russian orphanage — a son who, it turned out, was suffering severe brain damage from Fetal Alocohol Syndrome.

But when Iyal was 9, the family found relief from Iyal’s outbursts and confusion after Donnie discovered 4 Paws, and the family was matched with Chancer, an outgoing golden retriever.

With the family’s blessing, Melissa wrote an article about the family’s experience for The New York Times Magazine. The article, “Wonder Dog,” was published in early 2012 and was, says Melissa, the “most read and most emailed story” of the year for the magazine.

“Chancer was a miraculous addition to the Winokur family,” Melissa says. “Chancer was Iyal’s first friend, and the friendship aspect between the boy and the dog was especially touching to me. I decided to explore the science behind this beautiful relationship.”

From there, Melissa’s book, which delves into that science, but also the story of 4 Paws and the stories of the Winokurs as well as other families across the United States.

Melissa, who now lives in Atlanta, is a native of Macon, Ga., and grew up in Dayton from first grade through high school. A 1975 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, she is the author of six books of nonfiction. Her work has garnered a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Book Award Nominations, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and many more honors, in addition to being translated into 15 languages.

“Nonfiction is the most exciting way to tell stories,” Melissa says, “because real life events outstrip my imagination.”

Learn more about her and her work at, and more about The Big Read and events at Numerous events at a variety locations start March 5.

Upcoming Literary Events

• Registration is now open for the March 24 “Dive Into Your Story” Seminar. This one-day seminar (from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) is presented by the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at University of Dayton, and will be held at the university. The seminar, led by five local writers — Rebecca Kuder, Martha Moody, Joanne Smith, Kate Geiselman and Rebecca Morean — will explore all the elements necessary from start to finish to write a novel, short story, memoir, personal essay, or narrative nonfiction book. Details and registration link are available at

• Thursday, March 1 is the deadline to enter the annual Sinclair Creative Writing Contest. The contest is open to adult and high school writers of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. The best in show recipient wins a full scholarship to the summer program of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at University of Dayton. Other prizes will also be awarded. Learn more and enter at

• Friday, March 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Wright Memorial Public Library, 1776 Far Hills Ave., Oakwood — Writers’ Café, a casual hang out for writers ages 18 and up and of all experience levels, meets the first Friday (7 p.m.) and third Sunday (at 2:30) of each month.

• Wednesday, March 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Oakwood Starbucks, 2424 Far Hills Ave. — Word’s Worth Writing Center ( offers “First Wednesday Writing Workout” with author and creative writing instructor Katrina Kittle. These sessions will offer writing prompts, the time to explore them, a mini-craft lesson, loads of tips, and the opportunity to share impromptu pieces. See the website to register.

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