Award-winning author Wendelin Van Draanen had three pieces of advice for students at Cambria’s Santa Lucia Middle School on Monday: Dream big, work hard and don’t give up.
Van Draanen, author of 33 books, spoke to a schoolwide assembly Monday about “The Running Dream,” a novel about a teenage amputee that every student on campus read this fall. The assembly also featured a pair of Cal Poly engineering students who work on teams that create prosthetics.
This was the third year students at the school have participated in a program that involves not only reading a book but using that book as a springboard for community awareness.
Last year, students at the school read Cambria author Catherine Ryan Hyde’s bestseller, “Pay it Forward.” In 2014, they read “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, which served as the inspiration for a fundraising effort to drill a well in South Sudan, where the book was based.
This year’s selection, “The Running Dream,” tells the story of Jessica, a high school track athlete who loses her leg in a crash. In the book, Jessica’s track team raises the $20,000 needed to buy a prosthetic running leg that insurance won’t cover, and Jessica learns to run again.
Santa Lucia Librarian Suzanne Kennedy, who chose the book, said the students finished it just before Thanksgiving.
“Each teacher handles it differently, how they read the books,” she said, “and they all do a project on it. The eighth-graders are more independent; the sixth-graders are read to, mostly; and the seventh-graders are a little of both.”
As part of their assignment, the students also helped the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to wounded veterans.
Van Draanen, who said she speaks frequently to young people, just returned from speaking at 11 schools in Texas. She said her message to students is intended to “inspire them to read, but also inspire them to pursue the things they want to do in life.”
For Van Draanen, one of those pursuits was running in the New York City Marathon, which she did with husband and fellow author Mark Parsons a few years ago. She noticed some of the competitors were taking part in — and finishing — the race even though they were running with disabilities.
“There were people who ran this race who had physical disabilities I can’t even imagine going 26 miles with,” she told the audience.
Life can change in a day.
Wendelin Van Draanen
The memory stuck with her after the race, and “on the flight home, this is where Jessica appeared” in her mind, she said. “And I said to Jessica, ‘Go away,’ because writing a book takes two years out of your life and I didn’t know anything about amputation. … But she wouldn’t go away. The only way they (characters) will go away is if you tell their story.”
So, that’s what Van Draanen did. “The Running Dream,” published as a paperback in 2012, went on to win the Schneider Family Teen Book Award and, four years later, still ranked just outside the top 1,000 books on Amazon as of Monday.
No overnight success
Van Draanen told the students, though, that success didn’t come immediately. Over the course of 10 years after she started writing, she received one rejection slip after another from various publishers, all the while “keeping hope in the mail.” It paid off.
“Life can change in a day,” she said. “I got a call from Random House in New York and they wanted to publish my four Sammy Keyes books and pay me to write some more.”
The Edgar Award-winning Sammy Keyes series of mysteries for young readers now encompasses 18 titles, and Van Draanen’s success hasn’t stopped there: Director Rob Reiner made her 2003 book “Flipped” into a movie, and her latest book, “The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones,” was just released in October.
She lives in Pismo Beach with Parsons and their two children.
Cal Poly team
Also appearing at Monday’s assembly were a pair of Cal Poly engineering students who have worked on teams creating prosthetic devices for local residents.
Second-year students Emily Hubbard and John Dearing showed the Santa Lucia students a prosthetic hand their team designed for a 6-year-old San Luis Obispo boy named Levi and a foot they created for a Cal Poly student who wanted more flexibility than his original prosthesis allowed, so he could skateboard again.
It’s really about reaching out and the power to make a difference in the community.
Suzanne Kennedy, Santa Lucia Middle School librarian
Kennedy said that, even though none of the students at Santa Lucia wear prosthetics, the reading project helped foster a more inclusive attitude on campus.
“We have kids who struggle, not having a place to live, not having food,” she said. “It’s really about reaching out and the power to make a difference in the community.”