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Take Five: Why author Angela Ruzicka put Wendy in a wheelchair

Amazon book cover

Wendy, the happy protagonist in local author Angela Ruzicka's first book, loves to go to the beach, splash in the water, dance around and build sandcastles. And she does it all in a wheelchair.

"Wendy on Wheels Goes to the Beach" has "gotten a lot of positive feedback," said Ruzicka. "I've had a lot of people that have bought the book for their children without disabilities like it just as much as the ones with the disabilities."

After discovering a need for books for children with disabilities, Ruzicka decided to start a series revolving around a happy-go-lucky Wendy. Inspired by the life experiences of her younger sister, Mandy, 25, who is in a wheelchair, Ruzicka hopes the book shows how we are all the same, wheelchair or not.

A percentage of the proceeds from the series goes to Variety, the Children's Charity of St. Louis, which supports children with disabilities with medical equipment and therapeutic, educational and recreational services, so that they can grow up as mobile and independent individuals.

The books are self-published and illustrated by Elizabeth Gearhart. Ruzicka plans to publish her next Wendy book in late October, continuing a series that celebrates the fun-loving spirit in everyone. Learn more about Wendy here

What made you want to write this book?

Ruzicka: My sister, Mandy, has spina bifida, and I was having a conversation with her a little bit ago about how young people in wheelchairs just feel unmotivated. They just feel like there's a lot that they aren't able to do, and they're not really comfortable with themselves in their life. So she said that, and it bothered me. So I thought about it -- you know maybe if we can help them when they're young, give them a positive role model and positive images, maybe when they get older life will seem better.

How has the opinion changed toward those who are handicapped since your sister was a child?

Ruzicka: I think things are a lot better now than they were 20 years ago. Children with disabilities are getting to be more accepted, but we still have a long way to go. And when I went to look for what is out there in the media for this group, for children with disabilities, the books that I found were to teach the children without disabilities, able-bodied children, about why they are in wheelchairs. But there wasn't really anything positive or fun for the children with disabilities.

Where do you see the series going?

Ruzicka: I've already written the next two books, and one of these days I'd love to have a show on Disney. I'd kind of like to develop Wendy's character more, have more dialogue, and the next two books will show Wendy doing different things in different situations.

How do you think this changes the idea of being in a wheelchair?

Ruzicka: What I really wanted to do is create a positive perception of people with disabilities and show them that they can do whatever they want; they might just have to do it a different way. I just wanted to create this positive attitude, this positive character. It appeals to a bunch of different groups. Originally when I thought about it, I just wanted to create it for children with disabilities, but it's gotten to be that the attitude and the fun concept of life that I have in the books appeals to a wide range of groups.

How has the digital age changed self-publishing efforts such as yours?

Ruzicka: The digital age has helped a lot. With online marketing, I can reach people that I could never reach by myself. It just makes it a lot easier to market globally, and not only that but to market targeted populations. You could specialize in a group of mothers with special needs kids (for my book in particular). And then sometimes, one person will tell 50 people and it takes off from there. It's been pretty good. I'm glad we have the Internet and that I have Facebook and know how to use it. … Also, I'm really open to feedback. On my blog, I say send me your feedback, send me your ideas. The boy in the electric wheelchair (in the next book focusing on Wendy with friends visiting a zoo) was a suggestion from a mother in the UK. She said, "My boy just got his electric wheelchair, and I'd really appreciate it if you had a boy in a wheelchair." ... I thought, maybe if I put a boy in it, the boys will like the series too.

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern for the Beacon.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Lauren Weber
Lauren Weber was a student at Georgetown University and in an intern for the STL Beacon in Fall 2010.