by Wendelin Van Draanen
Unconditional Recommendation: An inspiring story about healing after accidents, learning to live with a disability, and relying on the support of family, friends and teammates through the process; this tale will place you firmly in someone else’s shoes and warm your heart all the way to the finish line.
Award: Schneider Family Book Award
Usually, books draw me in because their topic interests me, but not this time! I don’t like running, never have, even though I did run track for a short time in high school; however, that was friend motivated not running motivated. In a similar way, I picked up this book highly motivated to read it because of the author. I have been on the lookout for Wendelin Van Draanen since I read Flipped in elementary school and fell in love with it. I’ll admit that I was distracted by other authors for a time but it is a delight to read her work again and find that her writing is still as good as I remember it to be. This book is realistic fiction at its finest as it does an excellent job of putting you in someone else’s shoes and in this case, you have to put on a prosthetic leg to step into that shoe. I loved the experience. It was true to life: both heartwrenching and heartwarming; I laughed, I cried, and was absorbed until the very end.
Sixteen-year-old Jessica lives for running and she is good at it, but on the way home from a track meet a car crashes into the bus and she wakes up in the hospital…without her right leg. Though she will be getting a prosthetic limb to walk, Jessica must cope with the despairing thought that she may never again be able to run. As she struggles to get back to normal life and back into school she gets to know Rosa, a girl with cerebral palsy whom Jessica has never noticed before. Through many pitfalls and disappointments, with the help of her family, the persistence of her loyal friend Fiona, the wisdom of Rosa and the enthusiastic support of classmates and her track team, Jessica slowly gains the strength to take back her life and dream of not only getting back to normal life but also back to running.
Jessica’s story of triumph after tragedy is enriching. Who doesn’t love a story about an athlete who has to overcome a great obstacle to be victorious? But what specifically makes this story good is Jessica heals and matures as an individual because the people in her life encourage her, uplift her, and support her through the whole grueling process. I love how well the story portrays the truth that we need other people to help and support us through life’s trials. We cannot overcome alone and Jessica’s family and friends never give up on her even when she is awkward, depressed, or different because of her new disability. This book is like watching the Olympics: you witness the support of a single athlete by commentators, interviewers, teammates, coaches, fans, and even other competitors and it is uplifting. It’s like in supporting them, when they succeed you do too. Every time I had to take a break from reading, I left encouraged and ready to face life outside of the book. That is the mark of a truly great book, in my opinion!
Allow me to delve more into the good relationships of this book. Even the small romantic relationship was handled very tastefully and though it’s a thread throughout the entire book it is not at all central to Jessica’s story. Other relationships are more important and play integral roles in her trial. Jessica’s family is very real and they suffer with Jessica in their own way just as any family would. Her parents were active in her life before the accident and very present throughout her process of physical and mental recovery afterwards and you easily see that Jessica has a great relationship with both of her parents which is refreshing to read in Young Adult fiction these days. Then there’s her best friend, Fiona, who annoyed me at first but then I was won over by her loyalty to Jessica. Fiona is an exceptional friend who is always striving to be considerate toward her suffering and never failing to be supportive and loyal. She is self-sacrificing and her actions speak of her love for her friend: she shows up at Jessica’s house to force her out of her depressing routine, she prepares a welcome-back party at school when Jessica is strong enough to return, she helps her catch up on homework, and she throws herself into a project the track team takes on for Jessica. Fiona is a great example of a friend and a delight in this story.
Another great friend that Jessica develops is with Rosa who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Rosa is a whiz in math and they begin to bond when Jessica is in desperate need of a good tutor and goes to Rosa for help. Their friendship grows through passing notes during class and because Jessica really starts to see her and regrets having overlooked her before the accident. Rosa is kind, wise, and encourages Jessica to pursue things she herself only wishes were possible for her, but she is never sad for herself. She is a strong and mature person and Jessica becomes a better person because of their friendship.
I personally despise running. I don’t understand why anyone would willingly want to do something that makes them hot and feel like they are dying. However, my aversion did not keep me from enjoying this book and seeing running through Jessica’s eyes. I respect athletes and how they must have disciplined minds to overcome how their bodies feel in order to reach their goals. I really like the following quote because I think the concept applies to more than just running:
That’s the funny thing about running. The deceptive thing about it. It may seem mindless, but it’s really largely mental. If the mind’s not strong, the body acts weak, even if it’s not. If the mind says it’s too cold or too rainy or too windy to run, the body will be more than happy to agree. If the mind says it would be better to rest or recover or cut practice, the body will be glad to oblige. (pg 157)
The part that says, “If the mind’s not strong, the body acts weak, even if it’s not,” hit me square between the eyes. It resonated with me because it makes so much sense and applies so well to how I approach exercise and the daunting task of getting back in shape. If I think I can’t, my body is more than happy to give up rather than push through the hard parts. More than taking away this little tidbit of truth, I was encouraged that it was a process for Jessica. She was in great shape before her accident but afterwards she had to work and do things again and again to make her mind strong and her body better.
Obviously, I cannot say enough good things about this book. Even the small amount of romance in this book is well handled! To wrap up I will say this about the ending: it ends with hope and an overwhelming amount of it. And what makes the ending better is that it isn’t all about Jessica. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you because I want you to enjoy the ending for yourself. Happy reading!