Hope and perseverance are the two things that rocketed author Wendelin Van Draanen to literary success.
Van Draanen is the author of numerous books, including “The Running Dream,” the Iola Reads winter selection. Van Draanen came to Kansas from California to speak to the community during an Iola Reads presentation Thursday night.
“When you write a book, you don’t know how people are going to feel when they read it,” Van Draanen said. “Any community that does an all-read of your book is an honor.”
Van Draanen is the daughter of Dutch immigrants. They encouraged their children to be the best they can be, which instilled perseverance into Van Draanen. Writing wasn’t her favorite subject in school and she didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an author.
“To me, being an author was someone who wore a tweed jacket or they were dead,” she said.
Instead she became a computer science teacher in California. Devastation broke out in her life and writing stepped in. An arsonist set fire to her parents’ business and then six months later her father died.
“I began writing about what happened to get it out of my system but it didn’t change anything,” she said.
She then discovered fiction writing. She began using real life scenarios and changing the ending a bit. The bad guys would lose and the hero, Van Draanen, would prevail.
“Writing was therapy for me,” she said. “I began reading about writing and then I wrote my first book thinking it was great and I’d get a million dollars for it.”
Her naive mindset was soon jolted to reality when publishers in New York City didn’t like her book. Or the next one. Or the next one. At this time she was married and had two young boys.
“I kept putting hope in the mail,” she said. “Every time I sent a manuscript I had hope.”
She read “Dandelion Wine,” by Ray Bradbury, and it reminded her of when she was a kid with her brothers. The books she kept sending to New York had an adult tone of voice. She decided to try writing in the voice of a child.
“When I was a kid I loved mysteries and series, because in a series it’s like you find a friend and you want to keep going back to them,” she said.
Van Draanen said Writing 101 is putting your protagonist in a tree and then throwing rocks at them. She tried to remember what it was like to be a child and to love characters who weren’t perfect. Such a character entered into her life with the name of Sammy Keyes.
Sammy lives illegally in a seniors-only center with her grandmother. She is spunky and fearless. Van Draanen sent the first Sammy Keyes book to New York and quickly began writing the sequel. She received regret letters from publishers but sent the second one anyway. She also began writing her third and fourth books.
“What kept me going? I had a husband who kept saying I was good even when New York said I was not,” she said. “If you never give up, you’re bound to proceed. I’m the poster child of persistence.”
After 10 years of failed publishing attempts Van Draanen finally got a call from Random House. The famous publisher wanted to buy all four Sammy Keyes books and wanted more.
This completely changed Van Draanen’s life. She earned the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Juvenile literature and her series has been translated into multiple languages. Those 10 years of waking up at 5 a.m. to write in her 400-square-foot house, with her husband, two sons and two huskies, had finally paid off.
As her writing career continued, she began to realize there wasn’t a lot of literature for young boys. So she created “Shredderman,” about a nerdy boy who becomes a cyber hero, for her two sons. “Shredderman” was then turned into a television movie on Nickelodeon. She then created the “Gecko and Sticky” books, which are illustrated by former Iolan Steven Gilpin.
Van Draanen has written single novels that touch on serious topics, such as homelessness. Although the topics she writes about are serious, she doesn’t want to use strong language or adult-like material.
“Kids should be allowed to be kids,” she said. “A lot of children’s books are salt and peppered with intense topics.”
A book, “Flipped,” was based on her past crush on a boy in second grade. The book was picked up as a reading requirement in a California school. Movie director Rob Reiner’s son had to read the book and Reiner also read it. He called Van Draanen and said he wanted to turn her book into a movie.
“Driving down Sunset Boulevard to see the premiere to the movie based on your book is amazing,” she said.
VAN DRAANEN ran track in high school and helped create a program to have kids exercise and read. She decided to run the New York Marathon one year and was inspired by some of the runners there.
Many runners had disabilities but that didn’t stop them from participating. This is how “The Running Dream,” was born.
In the novel, Jessica, a track star, loses her leg in a car accident. Her teammates and friends help raise money to buy Jessica a special prosthetic leg. At the end of the novel an anonymous donor helps Jessica get the leg.
Van Draanen’s next book is about a boy spending time after school with his mom at her workplace. His mom works at a dementia center and he spends time with the residents. Van Draanen’s mother recently passed away from dementia and this is where she got the idea.