How the Boston bombings inspired a new children’s book

Five years ago today, Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes were watching the Boston Marathon when they were caught up in the terrorist bomb attack that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

The recently married couple both lost their left legs and suffered scores of other injuries, with Jessica also needing her right leg amputated two years later.

They faced years of rehabilitation and their lives were never going to be the same again.

But with their positive attitudes and the help of an assistance dog aptly named Rescue, they pieced together a new future.

During this process, they realised their experiences and their love for the with the black labrador who gave them a reason for living could be a powerful story to share with children.

The result is a moving new picture book called Rescue & Jessica, which sees a young amputee and a service dog overcome their fears about the world together.

It has been illustrated by Scott Magoon who was actually running the marathon that day and was in between the two explosions, giving him a very personal connection to the tale too.

The book tackle important topics like disability, fear, friendship and empathy with just the right tone for young readers.

It doesn’t shy away from difficult information but presents it in a simple to understand way. The artwork is just lovely too.

I was very privileged to have the chance to speak to Jessica, 37, and Patrick, 34, from Massachusetts, a couple of weeks ago for the Sunday Mirror newspaper.

Inspirational doesn’t even come to close to describing this pair and I wanted to share a little bit of what we talked about…

Jessica_Kensky_Patrick_Downes1

How did Rescue make a difference to your lives?

JK: We got Rescue really early on in our recovery and I was thinking of all the typical ways he was going to help like fetching things, opening doors. But he really was comforting to me and he also needed to be taken outside, to have the ball thrown for him and to be taken for walks, at a time when neither of us was getting around easily. It forced us to get up off the couch.

Just by taking care of him it made us take care of ourselves. And gave us a happier focus. It was a sad reason why we needed him but he was a really happy addition to our family.

What things have you now been able to do because of Rescue?

JK: The main thing he does for me is give me confidence and makes me feel comfortable taking on new independence. For so long, I couldn’t do anything myself – I couldn’t drive or unload my wheelchair, I was very dependent on other people.

I drive with an adapted car now. The first time I drove, I was scared, Patrick was scared, but I knew I had Rescue with me and whatever came up we’d figure it out together.

How did the idea of creating a book for children come about?

PD: When we go out, we have three prosthetic legs and this beautiful dog with a bright red cape on – and kids’ eyes just pop. They are so mesmerised by what they are seeing. They don’t know what to make of us. But if we have the opportunity to speak with them or invite them over, they touch our prosthetics, pet Rescue and start to smile. What was once causing them fear is now resulting in fascination.

Instead of seeing us as disabled and weak, they start to see us almost as superheroes with super powers that can overcome all these obstacles. It is a fascinating education in how we portray people with disabilities. Do we portray them as weak and isolated and defeated or do they really possess skills and depth above and beyond what an able-bodied person possesses? For us it has been incredibly rewarding to have those interactions and the book is our formal way to engage them in those conversations.

And you can share that with a much wider, global audience too.

PD: While we were injured in Boston, our story is far more universal than that. One, because disability happens regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation. Two, because we are seeing violence and terrorism around the world. It sickens us every time it happens because we can imagine the turmoil and terror going through those communities.

Your book would speak to children involved in the terror attack in Manchester on a very special level, won’t it?

PD: We desperately hope so because we have to find a way to talk to kids about this. As adults we think we can shelter them. But Manchester shows this has happened directly to children in our communities. We have to explain it to them and help them make sense of it.

If this book acts as a mirror and they can see a hero overcoming similar obstacles then that is a powerful message that life can go on, particularly if you have a loyal companion by your side, like Rescue.

You decided not to refer directly to the bombings in the book. Why was that?

PD: There are many people in the world who have suffered amputations or disabling conditions, who had nothing to do with the bombing. We wanted it to be a tool for all of those kids, adults and family. Secondly, for us, the powerful story is everything that has happened after the explosions took place – the responses of love and companionship.

What did you get from the creative process of writing the book?

JK: We wrote the book while we were full time hospital patients. I was having surgery after surgery. It was a long, gruelling time when I felt like I was never going to get better and everything was going wrong. And the book was light and fun and playful.

I’m a nurse so I was very focussed on it being medically correct and Patrick came at it with a difference lens from his psychology training. He used that expertise and experience to think about what kind of words to use. We have different strengths and to collaborate was really fun.

My favourite part was personifying Rescue, to have him have thoughts and fears and worries, all these human feelings.

The book has just been published in the USA and UK. How did you feel holding it for the first time and seeing it on sale?

PD: It was very empowering for us. It made us smile and we are so proud of the way it looks and the themes in it.

JK: It was exciting the first time we got to see it but it doesn’t compare to all our friends and family sending us videos and pictures of their little ones holding and reading it. I don’t have words to describe it.

Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon, is out now. £7.99 (paperback), Walker Books

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