For me, The Running Dream was never a story about running. I did not set out to write a "sports book." Running was intended as the vehicle to present a larger concept. It's like the train that moves us from the depot to the destination. The real story takes place inside the train as it rumbles along the track.
But it's true that the title of the book leads you to believe it's about running. The track shoes on the cover also give that impression, as does the little detail that the main character Jessica Carlisle is, oh, a track star. So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that people assume this is a book about running — it's completely logical.
But explaining that The Running Dream is about a girl who tragically loses a leg in a bus accident on the way home from a track meet also in some ways misrepresents it. It makes the story sound so tortured. And it's not tortured! It's actually an uplifting story about overcoming obstacles. It's about persistence and hope and friendship. And, perhaps most importantly to me, it's about seeing the person, not the disability.
Before I became a full-time writer, I was a classroom teacher at the high school level. The job reinforced something all students already know:Kids can be cruel. They overlook, ostracize, avoid, and even ridicule. And no amount of adults telling them to "be nice" or "walk in their shoes" is going to change these behaviors. Empathy at this age is not easy to instill.
So imagine a girl who goes from popular to handicapped overnight. Suddenly she's sitting with the special-needs girl at the back of the class. Suddenly she's the one people are uncomfortable around. Suddenly she's the one being avoided.
I'm allergic to "message books," and I remember how my students were as well. So as an author with a message, I believe the best way to get my point across is to create believable characters and situations, then let the events unfold naturally without forcing the message. Jessica was not born with a handicap, so she could be any average teen. Or you or me. And by showing what she goes through, by seeing the shift in her perceptions and perspectives, we can't help but feel a shift within ourselves.
Jessica helps us imagine walking in those shoes.
Also, as small as a book would be in the enormity of any real crisis, a story like The Running Dream is a reminder that there's light at the end of our dark tunnels.
And light is what we move toward.
It's what keeps us going.
Not just in a situation like Jessica's, in any situation.
The Running Dream is structured like a race run backwards. Where, like the oval of a track, the finish line doubles as the starting line. It's my hope that anyone who reads the book will get the sense that The End of one thing can become The Beginning of something new.
To me that's a race worth running.
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Wendelin Van Draanen recently ran her first marathon. She was struck by the people with physical handicaps who were also running and was inspired to write this book about overcoming adversity with courage and grace and strength.
Books mentioned in this post
Wendelin Van Draanen is the author of Running Dream (11 Edition)