Wendelin Van Draanen is one of my favorite authors and The Running Dream does not disappoint. It is the story of 16-year-old Jessica, a gifted runner who loses her leg in an accident following a track meet in which she has set a league record. The story opens with Jessica in the hospital immediately after her amputation. The reader is thrown into Jessica’s situation at the same time, allowing us to struggle through comprehension along with Jessica. The first few chapters are like a dream: confusing, not-quite-real, with underlying fear, dread and hopelessness.
Jessica must re-learn how to move her body–her first attempt to walk twenty feet to the bathroom in her hospital room is excruciating and embarrassing. With the help of her family and her friends and her own vibrant, inner spirit, Jessica must wade through the wreckage of her life’s dreams and expectations. And once she has waded through the destruction, she begins the difficult work of assessing the opportunities that still remain (as well as new ones that may have appeared) and constructing new dreams, expectations and, simply, moments that feel worthwhile.
Embedded within Jessica’s personal journey is a wonderful new realization for her about people among us whom we avoid based on their observable physical differences. When Jessica first returns to school she is using a wheelchair. For purely practical space reasons, she is seated temporarily next to Rosa. Rosa has been in Jessica’s class the entire year: she has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. Jessica has never spoken with her, in fact barely noticed Rosa before. When Jessica learns that Rosa’s greatest wish is that people would see her and not her condition Jessica realizes that that is exactly the way she had always treated Rosa before. Feeling uncomfortable,different and conspicuous with her own changed body Jessica is struck by the fact that being “invisible” to others is even more painful.
I read the reviews before I read the actual book and I think the reviews are misleading. This book is absolutely inspiring on multiple levels, but the plot resolution is more contrived for the purposes of the story than realistically developed. The story does NOT involve Jessica figuring a way to re-organize her dreams so that she can still achieve them by using an approach she hadn’t originally anticipated. Jessica is able to achieve her “running dream” by using a prosthetic leg specifically designed for running. The introduction of this particular prosthetic is fascinating and wonderful but the financial reality of Jessica being able to actually have such an expensive piece of technology when her dad works as an independent contractor handyman is seriously improbable. The way in which the story is written is wonderful as a work of inspirational fiction but doesn’t have the realistic plot and premise I expected after reading the reviews.
That said, the hopeful themes of determination, friendship, compassion and empathy make this an excellent read for upper elementary and middle school readers. It is precisely Ms. Van Draanen’s decision to avoid some of the harsher realities of the situation that makes this an excellent read for students old enough to grasp the concept of tragedy but unable to fully comprehend many of its more complicated consequences and ramifications. Jessica is not always “sunshine and flowers;” she suffers from doubt, depression, hopelessness and anger at the unfairness of what has happened to her. Particularly resonant is her genuine belief at the beginning of the book that Lucy, who died in the accident, was the “lucky” one. The painful honesty Jessica’s belief in the beginning makes the moment her perspective changes, standing beside Lucy’s grave, extraordinarily powerful for both Jessica and the reader.
At the end of the book when Jessica envisions the ballon-arch Finish Line of an actual race as the Starting Line for the rest of her life, the reader’s heart cannot help but soar. The book, itself, feels like the “Starting Line” for each reader from which to begin the next moment with a new awareness of and compassion for other people and a renewed faith and determination in ourselves.