The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

July 15, 2013

Jeana Gockley: Story of disabled runner inspiring

JOPLIN, Mo. — Not long after setting a personal best at a track meet, the life of 16-year-old Jessica Carlisle is dramatically altered by a bus accident in "The Running Dream," by Wendelin Van Draanen.

One of her teammates loses her life, and Jessica wakes up in the hospital with only a stump below her right knee. The doctors are upbeat about her recovery -- she's young, healthy, in great shape and a below-the-knee amputee -- but Jessica is sure that her life is over.

She wants to know: Why her? Feeling hopeless and alone, she mourns the loss of her leg and everything that makes her who she is, specifically the freedom to run.

Along with the depressing loss of her identity, she also has to battle a host of everyday problems and obstacles.

For example, the first couple of days after her amputation, it takes all her strength and determination to make it to the restroom using her crutches. This leaves her wondering if she will ever be strong enough to go home, or if she even wants to.

But eventually she is able to leave the hospital. With the support of her family, her amazingly supportive best friend and her therapists, she reluctantly returns to school in a wheelchair.

The wheelchair embarrasses Jessica, but her school's campus is so large that she has little choice in the matter. It is because of the wheelchair and not being able to fit behind a regular desk that she meets fellow wheelchair user Rosa at the back table in her math class.

Rosa has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult to understand her, but after passing notes back and forth with her, Jessica soon discovers how witty, smart and caring Rosa is. The two quickly become friends and are soon spending lunches together and working on math homework after school.

It is through her friendship with Rosa that Jessica starts to think about someone other than herself. She realizes that she may be stuck in a wheelchair right now, but Rosa is stuck in one for life.

Quicker than expected, Jessica begins to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, and her teammates and coach petition her to consider running again. While at first it seems like a pipe dream, the idea becomes real once fundraising for a special running prosthetic for her starts. The new leg is expensive at $20,000, but Jessica is determined to make her teammates proud, while at the same time giving Rosa a shot at standing out from the crowd, if she gets the chance to run.

Readers will be hooked from the beginning, thanks to the pacing and believable, well-built characters. Not only will readers feel Jessica's pain and eventual growth, but they will identify with her parents, her friends and even her coach.

The thoroughness of Van Draanen's research on amputees, prosthetic limbs and track athletes is showcased in this exceptional book about someone who loses a large piece of her identity, but gains so much more. Jessica is an inspiration to everyone -- runners and non-runners, alike.

Jeana Gockley is children's librarian for the Joplin Public Library.

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