Hello! I was asked to write a guest post on something I'm passionate about: great YA (and MG) novels with characters with disabilities (CWD). It's so important for those characters to exist, for the same reason it's vital to have characters of color, characters with terrible parents, LGBTQ characters, characters with mental illness, characters who are poor, characters who are immigrants, characters who are hopelessly dorky, and just generally the whole wide range of kid and teenager humanity. If a kid reads her way through the library and there's no book about any kid that resembles her, then what is she to think? Books bring us together and let us know we're not alone, that people just like us are good and have good adventures and ultimately triumph. If we never see ourselves in the stories we read, how do we learn that we can shine?
Not only that, but in YA and kidlit we have an incredible opportunity to teach our readers about different kinds of people by telling a great story. When we bring to life a diverse range of characters, we make the world just a little bit more of an understanding place.
In college, I worked as lifeguard and head counselor at a summer sleepaway camp and weekend camp for people with disabilities. I lived, played, talked, danced, and partied with my wonderful campers for over three years. For the past five winters, I've been a downhill ski instructor for people with disabilities, sharing my love of snow and speed with all sorts of amazing people. When I turned my hand to writing later, I naturally gravitated to adventures about the kids I knew best. Researching books with similar protagonists, I found a lot that I loved, and a lot that I hated.
I'll give a rundown of my very favorite MG and YA books with CWD, and then a quick list of Dos and Don'ts that I think help make a great and realistic character.
I've read dozens more, but these are really the top of the pile. Most of the others are problematic in some way, which I get into further down in this post.
1) Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay, and the whole Casson Family series, including Indigo's Star, Caddy Ever After, Permanent Rose, and Forever Rose (Dear Hilary McKay: please write more Casson Family books!). These are books with true ensemble casts, about a big slightly dysfunctional but loving family. The character in question is Sarah, the Casson's next-door neighbor and unofficial sibling. Sarah uses a wheelchair due to a physical disability she acquired after a childhood illness. I absolutely love her!
She's a vivid and hilarious character. Whether she's masterminding a plan to sneak her best friend out of the country (it worked), plotting to get kicked out of private school (that worked too), or delivering a smackdown to a nasty school bully, Sarah jumps off the page as a very active character, always driving the plot and other characters forward. If anyone dares to pity her, she turns it around to her advantage or amusement. My favorite Sarah scene (from Indigo's Star) has another sibling's friend, Tom, coming around the Casson house:
…there was Sarah…propped up against the kitchen sink, scrubbing greasy plates.It was the first time he had seen Sarah out of her wheelchair, and he found the sight rather disconcerting.2) Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a YA novel about a life-changing summer at a camp for people with disabilities. The main character has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and she has her eyes opened to the possibilities of self-advocacy and making her own choices by her caustic and sarcastic bunkmate, a girl with muscular dystrophy who also uses a wheelchair (whom I believe is the authorial stand-in). The author herself was an outspoken disability advocate. I love this book because the characters are very real, and very honest in the way they break down how "normal" people treat them and how they wish to be treated. Through purposeful disobedience, the girls are able to make their point to the camp staff. I think this one should be assigned reading for anyone trying to portray a CWD.
"Should she be doing that?" he whispered to Indigo.
"It's her turn," said Indigo, quite callously, Tom thought. He was not a bit surprised when a moment later Sarah suddenly started wailing, "Oh my legs! My legs! Take the dishcloth quick, Tom! Everything's going dim and blurry!"
Tom took the dishcloth at once, and was washing up for ages before he realized Saffron and Sarah and Rose were drying the plates and passing them back to him over and over again.
3) Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. I love this one for the way the MC articulates how she feels as a highly intelligent girl who is considered by her classmates and teachers to be severely cognitively impaired because she cannot speak or sign or otherwise communicate. This is a perspective we rarely get (I can only think of two other books with similar narrators). Over the course of the story, she obtains an augmented communication device (a special computer) that she can use to speak with. She's smart and knowledgeable enough to join the school Quiz Bowl team, but she must self-advocate all the way, and she still suffers because of the attitudes of others. A lot of devastating things happen to our heroine, but she is able to push on.
And the rest of my favorites:
Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko—great stories and by far the most realistic depiction of a character with autism (the MC's sister) I've ever read. Author grew up with a sister with autism so she is obviously drawing on a lot of personal experience.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin—not quite as realistic, but a great first-person depiction of a young man with autism who is an aspiring author and connects with other writers via online message boards.
Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher—almost everyone in this book has some disability or another. A lot of sad stuff happens but it's really about how we individually and as a group move forward and grow in the face of awful events.
Among Others by Jo Walton—technically an adult novel, but almost YA, a great story of a lovable but prickly teenage girl with a bad leg who uses a cane, and oh yeah, she sees fairies and has strange magical powers and reads sci-fi novels like her life depends on it.
Joey Pigza books by Jack Gantos—Joey has ADHD, an alcoholic mom, an irresponsible dad, and intermittently spends time in special ed. The depiction of the moments when he loses control over his behavior are spot-on and very moving.
The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff—Georgie is a little person. This book is a very realistic portrayal of a kid who sometimes feels like an outsider even in his own family, bad feelings and all. I love the surprise at the end.
Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman—lovable little grumpy girl with dislocated hips is sent alone to sixteenth century London. I love Meggy because she's so strong, and she's the exact opposite of the Cheery Sunshine Inspirational Disabled Girl. She's been abandoned, she's in pain, she can barely walk, and she's understandably cranky about absolutely everything.
The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk, and Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John—two very sweet and funny YA novels with strong deaf (but not Deaf) main characters.
And finally, from the Amateur Diagnosis Of Fictional Characters Department, two books which I think have protagonists with Asperger syndrome, although it isn't stated in the story. First is Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee—Millie is just a wonderful funny character, smart enough to go to college before she hits puberty but has major difficulties in most social situations. It could be that the author just intended for her to be a very awkward Supernerd, but my diagnosis stands! The other one is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (and its sequels) by Sue Townsend. Adrian is a similarly confused and lovable character. The book came out long before Asperger syndrome was a defined disorder, but I really suspect that the author knew people IRL who would in the 21st century receive that diagnosis, and based her character on them. (Please know that I don't define Asperger syndrome as 'smart but socially clueless', that's just a quick description of why these particular characters are so engaging.)
Sarah's Big List of Don'ts
Obviously books are published regularly that haven't followed my list, because I read them all the time! But like any other character (and I shouldn't have to say it, but I will), it's so important to have a well-rounded three-dimensional realistic characterization.
-Skip the research! Get your research right, both reading up on your subject and getting to know people in real life. I read so many awful unrealistic depictions of CWD, especially characters with autism spectrum disorders. Good research, knowledgeable beta readers, and knowing people who are like the people you're writing about are all essential!
-Go in for the same old tired clichés! Using one-note clichéd notions of CWD takes away the personhood of those characters and defines them only in terms of one small aspect of who they are. I call that bad writing. And most of these clichés have troubling implications as well. Sarah's list of wretched clichés:
- CWD who exists only to teach a very special important lesson to the MC, either by being plucky, dying, or being plucky and then dying. These characters don't exist for their own benefit, they're only there to provide Life Lessons.
- CWD who only exists to inspire or motivate the MC but has no goals or desires of her own (similar to the "magical negro" trope, and problematic for similar reasons).
- CWD who is an object of pity, and acts only as a completely inactive idle piece of scenery on the novel stage.
- CWD who is 100% solely about their disability. No one is 100% all about one thing. Why wouldn't a character with a disability have a whole spectrum of other characteristics—traits, hobbies, interests, friends, and family like any other well-rounded character?
- CWD who is magically cured of their disability in a fantasy novel. It's a cheapo plot point that only serves to emphasize how undesirable it is to be a person with a disability. My favorite author did this at the end of a children's book, and it broke my heart. If a CWD is already awesome and has already managed to save the world, isn't he great exactly the way he is? If it happens midbook or midseries it basically feels like the author grew weary of writing a character with a disability and wanted to stop doing so immediately. This bears little to no resemblance to the real world.
- CWD who has a superpower that more than makes up for said disability. Daredevil, I'm looking at you. It's an awfully old, awfully boring trope, and IMO not a true CWD. (Someone like Professor X doesn't count as he still has to deal with his disability despite how powerful he is. Although he does pretty well with his magical flying wheelchair and loyal band of superhumans to defend him.)
Many thanks to YA Highway for inviting me to do this guest post! If you have a favorite novel featuring a character with a disability, or you've got your own DON'Ts, please leave it in the comments! I would really love to find a MG or YA novel about a character with a cognitive disability but so far I have not.
~ Sarah Heacox