April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, so I thought I’d tell you the story of my character Mr. Ogden, the teacher in Miraculous. Long-time readers (or those of you who know me in real life) might remember my husband, Dan, was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s ten years ago, just a few weeks before his thirty-ninth birthday. Early on, Dan’s neurologist asked how we were handling his diagnosis at home. We told her we’d been as open as possible with our boys (who were nine and eleven at the time). We told them, as the doctor had said, that Parkinson’s wasn’t a disease someone died from but something they lived with. We said we didn’t know what the future would look like, but that Dad would get worse as the years passed. Most importantly, we told them it was okay to feel worried or confused or mad or scared or embarrassed, that those were normal feelings and they could talk to us and ask questions any time they needed to. We talked to their teachers, too, to let them know what was going on at home and asked them to be in touch if they saw any changes in our boys.
Good, Dan’s neurologist said, because I once had an early-onset patient who decided he’d hide his disease from his children.
Friends, this has stuck with me for years. What would make someone feel this was the best (or maybe their only) option? How could someone hide a condition where their body worked to betray them daily? Was it shame? A need not to appear weak? Something else entirely? The whole thing was heartbreaking.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, that story planted the seed for my character Walter Ogden.
Sometimes readers ask me if I take people I know in real life and put them in books. I don’t. I wouldn’t know how to do that, exactly. I don’t think I’d want to, either. (It feels a little icky.) But I have built a character based on this passing mention from my husband’s neurologist. Perhaps that’s the same thing?
A charlatan is bent on deceiving others for his personal gain. A charlatan selling a cure-all tonic plays to customers who feel needy or weak. The thing about writing a book with a charlatan and a cure-all tonic is there must be characters desperate to change and willing to try anything.
I didn’t know Mr. Ogden’s background going into the story. All I knew was he was a young man, a good teacher devoted to his students who had grown up in Oakdale and dreamed as a boy of teaching in the school where he’d once been a student. I knew that when whispers of Dr. Kingsbury’s arrival made it into the schoolhouse, Mr. Ogden was so surprised and distracted he ended school early for the day.
When I remembered the father who fought to hide his Parkinson’s diagnosis from his children, it all came together for me. Mr. Ogden has the shaking palsy (as Parkinson’s was called at the time). He’s convinced he’ll lose his job if anyone notices, as the last teacher was asked to leave when he developed a chronic illness. Mr. Odgen is worried that will be his future, too, so he sets all his hope on Dr. Kingsbury’s miracle cure.
I love this character. He feels very real to me. And I hope when you read Miraculous three months from now (you’ve preordered, haven’t you?!) you’ll remember how authors take bits and pieces of the world — experiences and questions and memories and curiosities — and use them to craft something entirely new. I often say writing is my way to make sense of the world, and writing Mr. Ogden’s story was particularly dear to me.
I hope in reading this book kids ultimately see there is no shame in disability, that a person who has physically changed has not had their humanity diminished.