In writing a YA fiction novel about 16-year-old runner, Jessica, whose Olympic dreams are crushed after an amputation below the knee, author Wendelin Van Draanen lifts the lid on the hours of research it takes to capture the authenticity of the hopes and fears of young amputee athletes.
For Wendelin Van Draanen, 58, inspiration struck her at the most unusual of places.
On board a flight from New York to California, Wendelin experienced what she calls an ‘author’s vision’. The plane reached cruising altitude when she dozed off.
She dreamt of a girl named Jessica. She was a runner, and a great one at that. On her way home from a very successful track meet, Jessica was completely oblivious to the fact that this might be the last time she would ever run again.
There was a sudden crash.
The bus tipped over.
Jessica felt her leg get caught.
There was a sharp twist, crunch, then a shatter.
It was a horrible pain.
She heard screams before everything went dark.
Wendelin woke up in shock.
“What a horrible dream,” she thought.
“Wake up, Wendelin. Wake up!”
Yet the vision did not make sense. Who was Jessica? And God, her leg. Dreams combine fragments from your life, so this vision could not have come from nowhere. Then Wendelin remembered yesterday; running 26.2 miles of The New York Marathon.
Wendelin wore a white, orange, and black t-shirt with ‘Exercise the Right to Read’ printed across it. She ran to raise awareness on the importance of literacy after libraries in the United States were losing funding.
What better place to showcase that than in New York? Wendelin remembered her breath staggering and muscles aching as she ran. Until she took a quick look around and realised she had no reason to complain.
“Running a marathon is really difficult ,” said Wendelin. “I was like ‘Oh, I’m so tired’,‘Oh, I’m so cold’, ‘Oh, am I gonna make it?’.
“But there were people who had physical challenges. They were missing limbs. They were powering through to get over that finish line and I came away feeling like a complete wimp because I was just somebody trying to run 26.2 miles and there were people there who you could not imagine could run 26.2 miles with their physical condition.”
This inspired The Running Dream, a young adult novel about 16-year-old Jessica whose running dreams are torn apart when a terrible accident crushes her foot leading to an amputation below the knee.
While Jessica’s story of a runner facing life with one less limb was triumphant on its own, she was not what prompted Wendelin’s decision to write this book. Instead, it was all because of her imagined character Rosa; a young girl with cerebral palsy.
The Running Dream Cover, 2011
“There’s the tragedy of losing your leg and coming back into life, but to me that wasn’t enough to warrant writing this story because I didn’t know anything about amputation or prosthetic limbs,” explained Wendelin.
“I got the idea of this girl who was popular who, all of a sudden, had to sit at the special needs table with this girl in a wheelchair that she had never even said hello to. Jessica is embarrassed because she doesn’t want to be thought of as that ‘special needs kid’.
“The thought of her developing a relationship with and wanting to take Rosa into her life was what made me commit to all the research and everything I needed to do to put that story together.”
Illness and disability have seen increased representation in the literary world as of 2022. Representation of those with a long-term health condition or disability within the publishing industry increased from 2% to 16% in the UK since 2017, according to a survey by the Publishers Association.
But why should literature represent disability at all?
Partly because it is prevalent in 22% of the UK’s population and has seen a steady increase since 2002. Where young people are concerned, 27% of 15 to 24-year-olds have been diagnosed with a disability, according to The Family Resources Survey 2020/21. It is safe to say that ‘disability rep’ in literature is warranted by its prevalence in our society.
This significance was not lost on Wendelin. As an able-bodied author, she was aware that telling a story from an amputee’s perspective needed to capture authenticity.
“You’ve got to spend time with people. That became a big part of the writing – the meeting with doctors and patients and getting to know their greatest fears and their biggest hopes,” explained Wendelin.
“The whole athletic part of it is an extra challenge for people with amputations because there’s the learning to walk again but then there’s learning to compete in an athletic arena that is quite a step farther from that.
“The people I spent time with had this tremendous gratitude for life despite what had happened to them. These people had been to the edge of something and had realised how much they still had as opposed to how much was taken from them and that attitude helped them through recovery and through life.
“You notice that celebrities take on a cause when they have somebody in their family that has that condition, and I feel like we shouldn’t have to actually experience or know someone ourselves to have empathy for people who are in these kinds of situations,” she added.
“Literature is a really good way to put the reader in the shoes of someone who is going through something like that so that they can feel the heartbeat of the character that in turn affects their heart.”
Wendelin realised that aside from being an athlete and an amputee, the girls in the room had something else in common.
“The biggest fear for the girls was that a boy wouldn’t like them. That a boy would be freaked out and couldn’t handle it. That they’d never have a boyfriend,” she said.
“That’s why the character Gavin is in there because I wanted to give hope and address that situation. Literature can really be a friend through the formative years and help people to experience things from the safety of the distance of a book, but also feel emotions of what other people are going through.
“So, I always try to give a message of hope because that’s important for young people and for anybody really.”
Just before Wendelin wrote the last sentence of Jessica’s story, she could not help but to cry at her desk for a moment.
Finally, she wrote Jessica’s last words:
“This is my new starting line.”
Wendelin Van Draanen
Wendelin Van Draanen has written more than thirty novels for young readers and teens. She is the author of the 18-book Edgar-winning Sammy Keyes series—often called “The new Nancy Drew”—and wrote Flipped, which was named a Top 100 Children’s Novel for the 21st Century by School Library Journal and became a Warner Brothers feature film, with Rob Reiner directing.
Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.
Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.