I just didn’t know how special her story would be.
Tara and I connect on Skype without difficulty, a minute before our scheduled time. We’re both decked out in our favorite casual attire, and I ask the question all MONSTORE and 7 ATE 9 fans want to know.
“So, what are you working on now? You emailed you’ve been busy with a nonfiction project. What’s that about?”
Tara laughs and pulls her hair back off her forehead. “It’s a book of fun and unusual words that kids maybe aren’t all that familiar with. For example, at school visits I’ll ask the kids if they know how the game, BeanBoozled, got its name. They’ll say, ‘It has to do with jelly beans!’ and I’ll tell them, ‘Well, ya got the bean part, but where did the boozled come from?’ You know, they’ve never heard of bamboozled, bumfuzzled.” She lists a few words that even I don’t know.
“So this is like a newfangled dictionary that puts words into categories like Mysteries, Spies, and Secrets, or Celebrate Like a Celebrity, or Journeys.” She describes how the book will have fun facts about the words.
“Like the word “vamoose” came from cowboys in the southwest, because the American cowboys would fraternize with the Mexican cowboys, and you have the word vamos, which means, ‘Let’s go.’ So the American cowboys would hear that word and mispronounce it, and that’s how it came into the American language.” I can’t help but smile. The book sounds like a ton of fun for word nerds like us.
“It’ll have etymology, back story, words used in pop culture, cartoons, games, activities…more like middle grade. It’ll be fun!”
I agree with Tara and share a little about a nonfiction manuscript I just completed, explaining that I felt drawn to write it partially because I have a chronic disorder.
“You do!” she pops. “I do, too! What do you have?”
It’s an enthusiastic greeting in an unfortunate club. But it’s one of the reasons I adore Tara. She’s relatable. I tell her a bit about Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy before turning the conversation back to her.
“What do you have?” I ask. She sighs, tumbling straight into her first pivotal moment. It’s a doozy.
“I have multiple sclerosis.”
“Remitting/relapsing?” I ask. Tara sighs again.
“No, it’s progressive.” Her voice briefly loses its happy-go-luck quality.
“I was very depressed for about a year after they gave me the diagnosis. You kind of mourn the person that you thought you’d be. My husband and I went traveling all over the world, and we went hiking, and we always thought that we’d take our children on these lovely nature trips. We wanted to see every national park in the United States and go white water rafting and do all this stuff. My aunt was playing tennis in her 80’s. Same with my husband’s father. I always thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll be playing tennis in my 80’s. No problem!’ All these things you think will be one way, and then you get this diagnosis and realize it’s not going to be that way.” Tara pauses.
“You have to grieve the loss of the life you thought you were going to live,” I say.
“Yeah,” Tara agrees. “It took a whole year to recover from the diagnosis. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I was just so full of dread and worry. It took a year of feeling really sorry for myself, and then realizing I have two kids, I have a husband, I have a career.”
I think about the journey of chronic illness and consider the happy woman in front of me. A formidable spirit is rarely born at the time of diagnosis. It just becomes apparent then.
“So take me back,” I say. “How did this journey unfold for you?” Tara doesn’t hesitate.
“It was October, 2009. Halloween, actually. I was trick-or-treating with my kids and I slipped on some wet leaves and sprained my ankle, and then my foot went numb. I thought it was from a prior accident, when I’d broken my ankle and had screws placed. I thought maybe a nerve was caught on a screw. But the orthopedist was booked and couldn’t get me in for two weeks. I thought it would go away, but it didn’t. My whole foot got numb, and a couple weeks later, I was walking to pick up my daughter from school and I fell again, because I couldn’t feel my foot. The next day, my other foot went numb. I realized then that it obviously had nothing to do with my surgery.”
“So what did you do next?” I ask.
“I went to a neurologist who diagnosed me.”
“And how old were you at that time?”
“I was 39,” she says. Tara describes how she started walking with a cane, but now walks with a walker. She admits to going downhill in the last two years, fighting with insurance over medication month after month, and understanding that a wheelchair is in her future. But her smile persists.
“I’m able to talk to kids about this at school visits and say, ‘Did it stop me from coming here today? Did it stop me from writing books? No!” I admire her fortitude. She wears her strength for all to see. It’s infectious.
“So the diagnosis is obviously a pivotal moment, but you mentioned that you were really down for about a year. What helped you rebound?” I ask.
Tara explains that she needed time to work through her issues, but then recalls one friend, Frani, whose tough love also helped.
“Yeah, I remember when people signed up on Helping Hands to cook our family dinners three times a week. I was ready to renew the meal thing again and Frani said, ‘You know, you’re gonna have to start cooking again eventually.’ And I said, ‘But I can’t. I can’t stand.’ And she said, ‘You can bring a chair over to the stove. This can’t go on forever. People love to help you, but at some point you’re going to need to help yourself and take care of your family again.’” Tara nods, as if agreeing with Frani.
“It’s not what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear.”
Tara’s the kind of person who recognizes tough love for what it is, frowns at it, and then embraces it. Now, when she passes someone on a scooter at the grocery story, she makes eye contact and says, “Bumper cars?”
“You can go about your life and be a sad, bitter person, or you can be a happy, upbeat person,” she says.
“Is it fair to say that this was a pivotal moment in helping turn you around?” I ask.
Tara nods, explaining that up until that point, she thought she had remitting/relapsing MS because that’s what the doctors thought she had. Eventually, when she realized the feeling wasn’t coming back, she found a silver living.
“I have a friend with MS who has cognitive issues. Once you get a certain type of issue, you tend to get that same issue over and over. So I’ll be plagued by mobility issues, but I won’t have cognitive issues. I can still do all the things I like to do. I can write, and go to schools, and talk to kids, and teach…it can always be worse. MS doesn’t have to own me.” She pauses.
“So my diagnosis was in January, 2010. In March or April of 2010, I got my agent. Then in May or June, I got my first sale, lickety-split. And it’s never happened that fast ever again.” She laughs at the irony.
“Was that MONSTORE?” I ask.
“Yeah! So I got my first offer for publication just a few months after being diagnosed. That was hard, because I couldn’t even be happy about the book deal because I was so sick.”
Anyone who writes knows that a book deal is huge. My heart breaks. “It sounds like a very bittersweet time.”
“It was,” she agrees. “When you’re sick, that’s a heaviness that weighs everything else down. It took a good year to get back into life. At that time, I just needed a cane and I thought, ‘So I need a cane. Who cares? So I’ll need a wheelchair someday. So what? People’s lives aren’t over just because they need a wheelchair. It took a while to get back into life and realize I could still do things.”
Tara learned to make the changes she needed to continue living the life she wanted to live. It took two years to get hand controls in her car so she could drive, but eventually, she got them. Because she tires quickly at school visits, she now brings a companion to help…Frani. The same friend who once gave her tough love. Tara’s found ways to not only get by, but to thrive.
“You’ve talked about some incredible moments,” I said. “Is there another moment in your life that you’d consider pivotal? Something that makes Tara…Tara?”
Tara’s face splits into a wide, toothy grin. “YES!” she bursts, as if she’s just won the lottery. “There IS!”
Again, her enthusiasm is contagious. “Tell me about it!” I say.
“When I was a kid, I loved to figure skate. Being on the ice was my favorite thing, and I was good at it. I was a natural. But by the time I needed a coach and serious training, my parents couldn’t afford it. I mean I still skated every chance I got, but I couldn’t get a coach or train or compete…do the things I wanted to do. I wanted to be the next…Dorothy…Hamill!” Tara’s hands go up as if she just landed a triple Lutz.
“When I was 23 or 24, I got my own job and was making my own money, I bought a good pair of boots and blades and I relearned how to figure skate. After a few years, I got a coach, trained, and eventually I went to Eastern Sectionals in 2002!”
Her joy is palpable.
“I’m not a morning person, but I’ll get up at 5:30 am to go skating.”
“So how did that change you?” I ask.
“I did it! I did something I loved that I never got to pursue the way I wanted to. That gave me the confidence to write a book and get it published. And then, when I couldn’t walk anymore, what did I do?”
She waits for me to answer, but I shake my head. “What?”
“I wrote a book about skating!”
“Oh that’s right!” I said. “LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD, right?”
But Tara did more than compete at Eastern Sectionals. She won, sending her to Adult Nationals. “It was right after Sarah Hughes won the Gold and Michelle Kwan didn’t win—again—and it was such a huge surprise, I was like, ‘I feel like Sarah Hughes!’”
“Is that when you broke your ankle?” I ask.
“Right after that, yeah,” she says. “It was April, 2002. My husband and I had been married about three years at that point and thought we should start a family. While I was home nursing my ankle, I got pregnant with my first daughter, Eliana. After that, I didn’t want to risk getting injured again and not being able to take care of my kids. So I never went back to skating.”
“How long after your first child did you have your second?” I ask.
Tara sighs and waves her hand. “Well, after Eliana, I lost a baby when I was five months pregnant. But the way I see it, if I hadn’t lost that baby, I wouldn’t have my daughter, Autumn. She’s such a blessing.”
It’s another silver lining, plucked straight from Tara’s optimistic heart.
“After I lost the baby, I got pregnant with Autumn right away. It was November, 2006, so she was born in Autumn. That’s why we named her that.” Tara nods.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
I frequently find myself saying the same thing. Though my heart breaks for all she’s been through, I understand that Tara is who she is because of all she’s been through. She will also pass her resiliency on her to her daughters. And that’s a gift.
Even when people don’t advertise their hard times, they’re often visible. Tara has a walker. She was once pregnant…and then she wasn’t.
In that sense, Tara is no different from you or me…or anyone else, for that matter. We all go through heartbreak. Tragedy. Sometimes, life hurts. But that doesn’t mean that it has to keep hurting. Ultimately, we aren’t in control of our circumstances, but we are in control of the way we view our circumstances. And how we view our circumstances affects how we deal with them…and how we treat others around us, whether they wear their hard times for the world to see, or they’re invisible.
Everybody has a story.
“Be nice to everybody, because you don’t know what crap they’re dealing with,” Tara says. She grins.
“Oh, and be the best you’ve got. Cause this is the only life you’ve got.”
Tara is the author of all these wonderful books, as well as four that are forthcoming:
YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL
illustrated by Melissa Crowton Tundra/PRH Canada June 4, 2019
THE UPPER CASE: TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illustrated by Ross MacDonald Disney*Hyperion October 1, 2019
THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illustrated by Vivienne To HarperCollins Spring 2020
THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA Sourcebooks Jabberwocky August 2020
To receive Tara’s newsletters, catch up on information about Storystorm, and read and pearls of wisdom from authors and agents, visit Tara’s website here and follow her on Twitter @taralazar.