The Big Idea: Wendelin Van Draanen

One of the things I personally enjoy about the Big Idea series is that often I get to learn about the origins of the books here — the seed that take root and grow into stories, sometimes against our will. For The Running Dream, author Wendelin Van Draanen found her inspiration on the road, quite literally, as she ran past. It was a good place to find it, for a book about a teenager runner. Here she is to fill in the details.


For me, the Big Idea for a book often starts with a Little Idea that grows and expands until it becomes part of a larger, broader concept. That was certainly the case with The Running Dream. It didn’t start with the theme See the person, not the disability.

It started with a rope.

A rope that was obstructing my way at about Mile 12 of the New York City marathon.

Let me back up and tell you that marathon running is not something I do for fun. I’ve run five marathons with my husband in the last five years for Exercise the Right to Read—a literacy and fitness campaign for kids—and each time I cross the finish line I swear it’s my last marathon.

The NYC marathon was particularly tough because, being from a small town on the West Coast, I didn’t realize what pre-dawn cold in November in New York actually felt like, or how crowded a field of 40,000 runners would be. Even huddled like cattle, I shivered away all my “reserves” in the holding area well before the race started at 10:00 AM.

So perhaps coming upon The Rope at Mile 12 wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t been pre-exhausted, or if the field hadn’t still been so crowded. But I was and it was, so The Rope seemed like a mammoth barrier instead of something strung between two people in front of us. And in my head I’m going, Who are these idiots with this rope?

Then we went around them and I realized that we’d just passed a blind runner and his guide, and that not only was I the idiot, I was a complete wimp. I thought running 26.2 miles was tough? How would I like to do it blind?

So that was the seed for the Little Idea. I didn’t know I was growing a book at this time. It was just a thought. One that I subconsciously watered with experiences from other events. Like the half marathon I spent behind a gimpy old guy wearing red socks. Mile after mile I was stuck about thirty yards behind him watching those red socks go up and down. His mechanics were awful. His stride was a hobble. Yet my long, well-trained legs couldn’t close the gap. He was, like, Super Gimp.

Then there was the race with the woman with the atrophied calf. Her right leg was a club of muscles, the left pencil thin. What had happened to her? How was she even able to run?

Little pictures, stored in my mind.

Running has always been a part of my life. Not in the competitive sense, but in the mental-health sense. If I go too long without a run, you don’t want to be around me. So when I was younger and into backpacking and we had nothing to do one night around the campfire but talk nonsense, and the Question of the Night somehow became, If you had to lose one limb, which one would you choose? my answer was unequivocally Not a leg. If I couldn’t run I’d go nuts. I couldn’t imagine losing any limb, but that night, pressured to choose one, I settled on my left arm.

Now that I play guitar, that answer would be different.

Actually, now I just wouldn’t answer, but at the time I was being needled by brothers, so…you know.

Anyway, yes, this is how I grow an idea. I don’t even know I’m doing it. It finds roots in the past and water from the present, and then suddenly it pops through the murk and starts stretching toward the light.

What popped through was the idea of a track star tragically losing her leg, but what quickly shot up and out from that was the complex issue of the effects of peer reaction, and the even more complex emotions of retrospective self-assessment. Why is it that we empathize best when we’ve experienced a tragedy ourselves? Why does it seem to take one to open our eyes to others around us? And how do you go on when the thing you love most in the world is suddenly gone?

In all my years running, I had never been at an event where I’d seen a runner with a prosthetic leg. As a matter of fact, until I began writing The Running Dream I knew next to nothing about amputation, rehabilitation, or prosthetic limbs. And although the idea of The Running Dream was quickly blossoming into a Big Idea, the research alone seemed daunting. So I tried to bury it. After all, I had other books under contract. I had a timeline to maintain. Starting a project like this would be crazy!

But the trouble with letting Little Ideas grow into Big Ideas is that they become rooted in your brain so firmly that there’s no yanking them out. You’d rip out half your brain trying.

So I decided to do a little research. Just to see. And then I dared to meet my character, Jessica, on the first page where she’s certain life is no longer worth living.

I was done for after that. I became obsessed with the story, with bringing Jessica back into life, and with doing my chosen themes justice. And yeah, my timeline for contracted work got all messed up, but I’ve had the same editor since she plucked me out of the slush pile twenty-something books ago, so I think she’s forgiven me.

Aside from the feeling of awe that sweeps over you when you finally hold a finished book in your hands, the wonderful bonus that comes from allowing a Big Idea to take root is that you grown along with it. I’ve learned so much from writing The Running Dream and have met and worked with wonderful, compassionate, inspiring people. To me, that may actually be the best thing about writing.

I just hope another idiot strings a rope across my path sometime soon.


The Running Dream: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See a video trailer for the book. Visit the author’s blog.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Wendelin Van Draanen”

  1. While I find the Big Idea columns interesting, I’ve never been moved to actually buy a book because of one before. But since I started crying while reading this (a circumstance I’m trying to hide in my cube), I’m crying “Uncle!” and buying the book.

  2. I’ve bought books because of this series, but this is the first time I’ve cried while reading it. (And like Heather, I’m also crying at work, but we have no cubicles.)

    I’m not crying over “inspirational runners”. I’m crying because I too have said, “Life would not be worth living if X happened.” I love the idea that someone can find a way to live after X happens, and hope that I can do the same. So yes, I’ll be buying the book.

  3. Sounds like another good one. My left side has been paralyzed since infancy, and I just broke my right arm (and tore a couple ligaments in the process) at Thanksgiving (3 weeks after retiring; NOT part of the original plan), so I can relate… I had the steel pins out on Monday, and am really hoping I can recover full use of the arm. But there’s no guarantee on the equipment, guys — take a minute to notice and appreciate what you’ve got that works. It can change in a heartbeat.

  4. Without a doubt, my favorite quote from a Big Idea piece to date : “Anyway, yes, this is how I grow an idea… It finds roots in the past and water from the present, and then suddenly it pops through the murk and starts stretching toward the light.”


  5. Bought yesterday on Kindle, and finished this morning. An excellent read, thanks!!

    It reminds me a lot of a Scholastic book I read when I was a kid, about a boy who gets
    blinded in an accident and has to adapt to it… And by golly, google rules:
    Follow My Leader
    by James B. Garfield.

    It’s got the same kind of feel – it’s not the same story, but if someone likes this book, they might like
    the Garfield book too.

  6. Mike G- I too love Follow My Leader- guess that means I’ll have to buy this book as well;.

  7. Wendelin is in the house, er, library, O’fallon, MO, MK branch. Just out with the munchkin for the usual killing of the little sister’s nap time by hanging out at the local library and I spy through the little window in the door to the big conference room, a big projection of “The Running Dream” cover on the opposite wall. Silly me, always using the library as a means to enrich my kids’s minds. I should spend my time combing through the library’s announcements and registering for all the meet’n’greets with writers and such so I don’t miss stuff like this, instead, eh? Looks like she packed the room without me though. I’m wondering how many of those folks also read Whatever.

  8. Unfortunately I did. I’d already left the little man alone at the computer for too long as it was. I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to stop by to support you.

    You wouldn’t happen to be a local, would you?

  9. Todd: The young ones come first, absolutely!

    Not local, no. On tour for the book. Interesting crossing of Whatever paths, for sure!

  10. Pam and Mike G. — oh, wow, other people who remember Follow My Leader. I read it in probably about 1983 and had no idea at all that it was written in 1957. As an approximately ten-year-old who was getting stronger and stronger glasses every year, I was starting to wonder if my eyesight would make it to adulthood (it has), and that lent the book a poignance I’ve never forgotten. I was just thinking of something from the book, the cushion effect of air bouncing off a wall to alert someone to the wall’s proximity, a week or so ago, even though it’s coming up on 30 years since I read it. I think I’ll have to track it down now. I remember various random details, like Jimmy referring to being a drum major with his cane and that he’s blinded on July 5, but not too much of the story other than the beginning and end.

    (Another book I read around the same time was Light A Single Candle and its sequel Gift of Gold, by Beverly Butler. Also dealt with sudden sight loss and adaptation, but at an older reading level, especially the second book, in which the protagonist is college-aged. They’re not so much about reclaiming a particular activity after blindness — the protagonist had aspired to be an artist and that really was right out — but people who liked Follow My Leader might still enjoy them. Actually, I suppose they’re more about regaining what independence and control, including over personal relationships, can be regained, which is not so different a theme.)

    Wow. And here I just came to this thread to get the link to send to a friend who has been mildly frustrated recently due to an emergency appendectomy a couple weeks ago that has temporarily prevented him from doing his twice-weekly runs. (I’m of the running is for when one has mismanaged one’s time and needs to catch a train in a hurry persuasion myself.) Sorry for the sidetrack, I ‘m just still astonished. And, as with Pam, more inclined to try this book as well. :)

  11. Robin, thanks: I’ve noted Light A Single Candle and Gift of Gold – I’ll look for them the next time I hit a used book store, since they don’t seem to be available new.

  12. Wendelin, I read it. Gulped it down in 3 days which is well on the fast side for me, and it was effortless (in case you didn’t realize, from me, that’s a compliment about your writing). Was starting to feel like I was back in high school for a bit there near the end (we had a crappy cinder track which didn’t even play second fiddle to the immaculate football field it circled).

    Now I’ve never experienced any of the stuff in this book. I’m not handicapped. I didn’t even go to school with anyone who was. I’m ambivalent about running, was never fast, but have had a few pretty awesome running experiences (like my best friend running us out of gas on one of the beautiful, long parkway in the middle of Springfield, IL while were in the middle of my bachelor party celebrations, and being stuck out in the middle of the 90s without a cell phone, my college roomy and I went for a little “jog” to get gas). I’ve heard all sorts of things about the magic of running and knew a bit about some of the high performance prostheses out there these days, but The Running Dream made what I’d heard of inconsequential and brought everything around to a more concrete reality for me.

    My son, is mildly autistic. I know that’s really nothing like Rosa from the book, he can often be locked up inside his “condition”. All I want is for the world to be able to see him as the sweet, creative boy he is, not as a label or a file or, occasionally, that weirdo who breaks down, squealing and moaning in front of a computer at the library, out of a sheer over abundance of joy (that’s mainly why I couldn’t drop in on your session; someone had to go share in the maniacal happiness). I’m really glad you were able to put this message out there this way, and here’s hoping the thing stays out there for a good long while.

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