This reading group guide for Cowboy & Wills includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Monica Holloway. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Wills is a bright young boy whose developmental difficulties reveal a diagnosis of high-functioning autism. Wills and his parents Monica and Michael are almost entirely alone in dealing with this upsetting news—with the exception of Monica’s sister—and so they build their support system from a different place: the pet store. Soon the house is filled with fish, hermit crabs, turtles—even a rabbit. Finally, there is only one pet missing: a puppy. After years of promising Wills a dog, one Christmas a gorgeous golden retriever named Cowboy comes home to the Price family. Cowboy’s presence by Wills’s
side begins to make the world feel safe to him, and he progresses with a speed his parents only imagined. Within a year, however, Monica and Michael realize that their beautiful and supportive puppy is terminally ill with Lupus. And soon Wills will have to cope with the thought of losing his very best friend.Cowboy & Wills
is a heartwarming memoir about the unique relationship between a struggling young boy and the puppy that made it possible for him to embrace the outside world—and a fragile reminder that the loving relationships we form with our pets are always deeper than we imagine.
Questions for Discussion
1. Wills’s diagnosis rocks his parents’ world, even though they are almost expecting to hear the news. How do they deal with this startling realization? How is it complicated in the beginning by Michael living in Chicago? How does Monica deal with not only Wills’s autism, but the fact that she feels that she is dealing with it alone?
2. From the start, Monica and Wills compensate for bad days and bad moods by visiting the pet store and taking home a new family member, even though it gets to the point where they can barely afford it. What do you think drives them to find comfort in small creatures? How does it help them cope? Why don’t you think Monica can make herself stop?
3. Monica, Michael and those around them refer to Wills’s exceptionalism and extraordinary talents, but yet these are also the qualities that define his autism. How do they reconcile these two extremes? How do Monica and Michael deal with things that are both a blessing and a curse?
4. The Prices, Monica especially, feel an urge to fit in, to belong—something that is increasingly difficult for them as Wills enters preschool and then kindergarten. Why is this so important to them? How does being perceived as “different” or an “outsider” make life more difficult for Monica and Wills? Do other parents have the same anxieties?
5. Michael and Monica’s relationship is at times a struggle, and at times a saving grace. How can difficult life situations both strain and enhance a relationship? Has there been a time when a tragedy has affected a relationship of yours? How can stress test a relationship? And at the same time, how can stress bring two people closer?
6. Some of Monica and Wills’s proudest moments come when Wills is forced to try something new, even if the idea of doing so paralyzes him with fear. Discuss moments in your or your children’s lives when the two of you were rewarded after completing a task that petrified you. How difficult must it be to force a loved one to take such a leap? How does this make everyone involved stronger in the long run?
7. Monica has an obsession with being in control, whether it is orchestrating a perfect home visit with a friend or aide, or cleaning compulsively. How does Wills’s autism threaten her feelings of being in control? How does she cope with this, and how does she progress as Wills does?
8. Monica and Michael sometimes have to deal with criticism from naïve parents of Wills’s peers. How does their attitude develop over time? Why do you suppose that other parents feel it necessary to judge a situation that they know nothing about? How does Monica react when receiving advice from parents who seem to know too much, for example when Chelsea claims to have “cured” her son of his autism simply by changing his diet? Or with Amanda, who accuses Monica of being neglectful and unloving in her home?
9. Wills can’t tell his parents that he loves them, because of his difficulty expressing himself. How do Monica and Michael handle this? Why does this make his first “I love you” to Cowboy that much more powerful? Do you think his parents were hurt by this, or overjoyed that he expressed himself at all?
10. Over and over again, we see the innate kindness of children as they reach out to Wills. How do these children spur Wills’s progress in school and in his social life? Why do you think that children have this bold power to reach out to people without seeing and judging their differences?
11. How does Cowboy’s entrance into Wills’s life change him from the very beginning? Discuss how even Cowboy’s presence pushes Wills to try new things and enhances his bravery in facing the world. Cowboy gives Wills the confidence to move more freely within the social realm at school, and to even request a bubble bath at home. Wills now giggles and laughs uproariously. Why do you think this puppy has such an effect on the small boy?
12. When Wills begins to form close friendships, Monica does as well. What does Monica’s friendship with Sacha’s mom Bethany offer her that she’s been missing? What does Bethany show her that she has been isolated from since Wills was born? How does Bethany temporarily relieve some of Monica’s anxieties about parenting? How does Sacha help Wills in similar ways, without even realizing it?
13. Monica’s sister JoAnn develops a deep and steadfast friendship with her nephew; how does she influence Wills? She is almost as important to him as Cowboy is. How so? Why do you think that she is one of the only adults with whom Wills forms such a close bond?
14. Monica explodes at an elderly woman in a parking lot for accidentally honking her car horn and scaring Wills. Instead of being upset, Wills finds the whole situation hysterical, and Monica finds the humor in it as well. How does this incident help Monica to understand that it is okay for Wills to see her express a variety of emotions, including anger? How might her holding back hinder Wills’s development? Where else do we see Monica having to force herself not to protect Wills from the world?
15. At the end of Chapter 10, when Wills dances with his class in a performance for the parents, Monica feels that they finally belong, after so much waiting. Why do you think that this is such a relief for Monica? Discuss the weight that is lifted off her shoulders.
16. After months of testing with Dr. Bauman, he delivers a crushing report of Wills’s development to the Prices, even after Wills has made so much progress at school and home. Lynn, his school aide, dismisses the report as wrong and Vanessa, his new educational therapist, refuses to let the report define the way in which she can help Wills learn. Discuss these dramatically differing opinions and the “validity” of the report. How can Dr. Bauman’s test be so conclusive when he has only seen Wills in testing circumstances, and knows so little of how he interacts with the world outside the office?
17. By the end of Chapter 11, Monica has become comfortable enough with herself and in Wills’s development that Amanda’s comments about her parenting roll right off her back. How has Monica progressed along with Wills? How has she changed in her attitudes since the beginning of her story? What are some of the things that have made her more confident in herself and her son?
18. In Part 3, Cowboy starts to get sick, and Monica is stretched thin again coping with another diagnosis. How does Cowboy’s diagnosis mirror Wills’s early autism diagnosis? How is Monica better prepared now? How does Cowboy’s illness temper Wills’s?
19. Now the story is reversed: Wills rapidly progresses, just as Cowboy’s health starts to decline—but Cowboy’s illness begins to threaten his development. Cowboy is the only one to whom he has ever said “I love you.” How does Wills cope with his puppy’s Lupus? How does Monica handle the fact that Cowboy’s passing may affect who Wills has become?
20. As the family prepares for Cowboy’s death, Monica thinks back over her decision to bring Cowboy home. She feels guilty that they made a sick puppy a part of their family, and that now her little boy has to watch his beloved dog die. But at the same time, in a few short years Cowboy helped Wills progress faster than he ever would have alone. How do you think that Monica can reconcile this internal conflict? How would you feel if it were you? Would you turn back time to save your little boy grief?
21. As Cowboy gets sicker and sicker, first Richard the turtle runs away and then Ruby the rabbit has a stroke and dies on the way to the vet. How do these two losses help Wills prepare for the death of Cowboy, if at all? How does Wills cope with Ruby’s death?
22. As Monica cares for Cowboy in her dying days, she comes to realize that it was not only Wills that needed their puppy so much—it was her as well. How has Cowboy supported Monica over the past few years? How does she cope with the thought of losing Cowboy?
23. Cowboy helped Wills make his social debut and make his first friends. When Cowboy dies, how does that support group and those friends help him cope with his loss? In a way, has Cowboy prepared her replacements? How has she helped Wills come full circle? Enhancing Your Book Club
1. In Monica Holloway’s memoir, we come to know Wills’s autism quite intimately, but autism is a varied and far-reaching disorder. Research autism more thoroughly and share your findings with your bookgroup, to expand your discussion.
2. Wills’s parents make a conscious effort to send their son to a mainstream school, a decision that not all parents (and schools) would have made. Discuss the benefits and disadvantages of doing so, from the perspective of both special needs families and families that are fortunate not to have to deal with autism or other developmental disorders.
3. The relationships that people have with their dogs are always more powerful than we can ever imagine. Rent a movie with your bookgroup that explores those relationships, such as Marley & Me
or Old Yeller
. A Conversation with Monica Holloway
1. What a powerful, moving story. How is Wills doing now? Are he and his new dog Buddy as close as he and Cowboy were? How does Wills remember Cowboy?Wills is twelve now, and he’s doing very well. Socially, he keeps making enormous strides. He would never need a puppy or a mommy to stand in front of him now. He handles social situations with aplomb. That isn’t to say that he still doesn’t work on his social skills, but it comes much more naturally now and remains, of course, completely “Wills.” He has his own, unique way of approaching people and things.Wills and Buddy go everywhere together, too. Buddy is two-and-a-half years old now, and healthy as a horse. She weighs a whopping ninety-eight pounds and is so gorgeous. I look at her and realize how ill Cowboy must have been from the beginning, because Cowboy was so much smaller than Buddy.Wills’s heart is still broken over the loss of Cowboy and I don’t think that’s something that will ever truly go away. As I wrote in the book, Cowboy was his “first love and his first love lost.” You never outgrow feelings for the “firsts” in your life. When Cowboy comes up, Wills still gets quite emotional.Having said that, Wills is very excited about this book, and has found quite a lot of comfort in the stories he’s read from it—in recalling all the fun. (He was a good resource when I had questions about some of the events that took place.) He and I sat down to go through our pictures of the two of them for the book and the video, and Wills cried at first, but then we found ourselves laughing really hard.It seems that the book has brought about healing for Wills. He talks about the book quite openly and seems to be proud of all that he’s accomplished and his first dog. This was my most hopeful wish, of course, when I wrote the book.
2. Now that your family is more comfortable with Wills diagnosis and progress, and you have Buddy as a companion, do you still find yourself at the pet store after a bad day? Or is that stage of your life in the past?I thought maybe I was past the “animal addiction” phase of my life, but apparently not. This summer, I was dealing with a fairly difficult personal loss and adopted two beautiful white rabbits from LA’s The Bunny Foundation. A boy bunny, whom Wills named Niege (French for snow), and a girl named “Liza Minelli in Rabbit Form” because of her gorgeous black eyes and long eyelashes. The bunnies are domesticated and very friendly. Liza will let Buddy lick her fur until she’s soaking wet but Niege prefers to bathe himself.Three days ago, August 16, 2009, we bought another golden retriever puppy from Buddy’s breeder, Artistry Golden Retrievers in Simi Valley. Wills named him Leo Henry, and he’s only eight weeks old. We’re over the moon with him, and Wills is having a blast. Now he has two dogs sleeping in his bed. Buddy is very gentle with Leo and the two of them have been happily playing in the sand under Wills’s fort. Wills strolls Leo around in an orange and grey puppy stroller while Buddy trots along beside them. We also have one hamster, three hermit crabs and two fire-bellied frogs among others.So no, I wouldn’t say that my animal addiction is under control. But we have a pretty happy, if not hairy, house.
3. Raising a child is always difficult, made only more complex in your case with an autism diagnosis. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?I wish I could have relaxed more. Not knowing what the future holds for a child is difficult for any parent, but when there’s a diagnosis involved, it spins you off in all kinds of bad scenarios. Some days are better than others. But over all, if I’d known he’d improve this much, and lead such a happy life, I might have cleaned the house less obsessively and spent that time focused on the moment at hand —on the present. Having said that, Wills is going into middle school in a few weeks, and I found myself scrubbing the bathtub with renewed intensity the other day while recalling how difficult junior high was for me—for most of us. So I still worry about him, but now Wills reminds me, “Mom, don’t be so overprotective!” And it makes me laugh. He can handle it himself.
4. How did your childhood, as described in your first book, influence how you see yourself as a parent? What sort of perspective did it offer you? Was there anything that you felt you were missing, or were unprepared for?I, in no way, wanted to emulate my own parents, and so that left me with precious little to go on in terms of role models. I read tons of books and felt quite alone, actually. Ultimately, I think I was too overprotective of Wills because I did not want to be neglectful. I was unclear about the boundaries what was helpful and loving to Wills, and what might have been suffocating to him.
5. Cowboy teaches Wills so many things, and introduces him to a much wider world while giving him the confidence to venture out in that world. What did Cowboy teach you? What life lesson from your puppy do you hold most dear?Cowboy never whimpered or showed her discomfort in any way. Given how sick she became, I could only admire her determination to keep up with Wills as he ran through the yard or seeing her wagging her scraggily tail while she stood by the garage door hoping to go for a ride with us. (Of course, we always took her.) She was in pain, but being with us meant more to her than lying still or sleeping. She taught me to get up off my butt even when I didn’t want to.Her loyalty and fierce love for all of us was an honor to behold. It was so pure and came so naturally for her. We were lucky.
6. In the book, one of the mothers you meet claims to have cured autism in her son by changing his diet. You note however that the boy developed autism after receiving a vaccine. How do you feel about the very public media debate over the causes of autism, and about the decision some mothers make not to vaccinate their children, out of fear of their developing autism? I feel very strongly that there must be something to this. I have seen too many children who were developing “normally” until the vaccines were administered, and then they began to regress, to lose language, to “disappear” inside themselves. This was not Wills. He had early onset autism, as I discuss in the book, and I did not notice a change in him after his vaccinations.I’m not a scientist, but from what I’ve read, it seems plausible to me that something (perhaps the large dose of metals in those vaccines) could possibly trigger autism if the gene is already there. I have no proof of this, I don’t even know if there is an autism gene, I’m just a mom. But there are too many cases out there for me to dismiss it. Research needs to continue and increase.
7. Wills and Cowboy were incredibly close, but you and Cowboy also developed an amazingly deep relationship. How do you cope with the fact that she, who changed you and your son’s life so dramatically, is no longer there? Has writing this book been a way for you to mourn and move on?I wear a silver chain with a sterling silver cowboy hat hanging from it in memory of Cowboy. Just like Wills, I’ll never move on from Cowboy completely, but days go by when I don’t think of her and then there’s that moment, that dog at the beach who looks exactly like her (she was smaller than most goldens) when my stomach clutches and I feel that pang of emptiness.
8. This is your second memoir. How, in your incredibly full life, have you managed to have time to write? How do you juggle being a mother and a writer, along with everything else?One thing I do that cracks up my other writer friends is, I write in my Jeep. I sit at a park or beside a lake and I type away. That way, I’m really close to Wills’s school so I can take him in the morning and pick him up at 3:00 PM. (Wills is at a new school forty minutes from our house. He’s in middle school now.) Most days, Buddy is with me and we run through the park or sit on a quilt where she chews on bones or naps while I type. Buddy goes on hikes three days a week with my friend, Michael Blaser (also known as “The Dog Runner”) which gives me even more time to write while Wills is in school and it gives Buddy social time with the other dogs Michael walks. That’s why we waited for a new puppy until I was in between books. Now, I have to be on top of Leo Henry all day.We just built a little office for me at home, so let’s see if I can work there. I think part of me feels less pressure when I’m writing “out in the world” and not sitting at my desk. Too much pressure. We’ll see.
9. Writing a memoir is such an intimate form of communication. What motivated you to tell your story? Do you ever feel that you are revealing too much of yourself, or exposing your family, through your writing?I heard Joan Didion speak two years ago, and she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you write nonfiction, you always “sell someone out.” And when I heard that, I thought it was such a negative way to look at writing memoir, but since hearing that, I’ve come to realize that she was probably right. I can tell my story, but someone will inevitably be caught in the crosshairs—intentional or not. I can change a name or move something to a new setting, but someone will still feel the prick. On the other hand, Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird that if someone wanted a better story, they “should have treated you better.” This was much more true for my first book.Cowboy & Wills was such a relief and a joy to write because Wills is the absolute love of my life and to tell the world how brave he is and how important it is to recognize the power of healing through animals was an incredible honor.
10. What is next for you as a writer? Do you think that you will ever move away from essays and memoir and write fiction? I’m working on a book of essays right now that are also nonfiction. I can’t see myself moving into fiction, but I wouldn’t say never. Life speeds along and there’s always something to wonder about, so I imagine I’ll end up writing nonfiction for a while longer.