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Great Characters With Disabilities In YA and MG : Guest Post by Sarah Heacox

Today we welcome Sarah Heacox, an aspiring MG and YA author from Los Angeles. If she's not skiing or writing or running, she might be baking cupcakes or sending query letters. She's currently polishing a MG novel about an action-adventure boy in a wheelchair and his high speed antics at summer camp, on the basketball court, and out on the slopes.


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.

Sarah's Favorites

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.

Photobucket 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.

"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.
Photobucket 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.

Photobucket 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.)
    -And my last DON'T is: Don't limit the adventure potential of your characters with disabilities! It's the twenty first century, and quadriplegics go skydiving, kindergarteners with cerebral palsy ski black diamond slopes, every marathon has its own wheelchair division, and a guy with no legs runs faster than almost everyone on the planet. Your readers with disabilities are the heroes of their own stories. Make sure they are the heroes in your stories too.

    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
    Kate Hart

    Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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    1. Great post! Thank you for all the tips-- I love what you said about making CWD characters well-rounded and avoiding cliches.

    2. Fantastic post. I love the tips. Reading about characters with disabilities makes a story interesting, I've found a couple of fantastic ones recently and they were great.

    3. So YOU'RE the one who was already doing a post on disabilities when I asked to do one :D

      This was great and really covered the points that an author needs to remember when writing about characters who have disabilities.

    4. I don't go looking for CWD. But two of my fave books have major characters with disabilities. THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, in a which a kid with Asperger's is accused of killing the neighbour's dog. And SORTA LIKE A ROCKSTAR with an ensemble cast of 'freaks' (it's what they call themselves).

    5. Thanks for the detailed post, Sarah!

      And Chelsey, we'd still love to have you post too! :)

    6. I'm writing a character with a disability right now and this post is SO helpful. I feel a little overwhelmed by it sometimes - like I'm not mature enough, or even just not the right person to write about it - but yes, this is a wonderful, and inspiring, post. Thank you!

    7. Awesome post, Sarah. You're so spot on with with your list of DON'Ts - I hope anyone writing a CWD takes note.

      And I'm honored that my book (Five Flavors of Dumb) made your list!

    8. I think another book that deserves to be on your list is "The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part Time Indian" He has a speech impediment. He was born with "water on his brain." And his disabilities are just there--not really the biggest factor in his life but a part of his life. I listened to this on audiobook and it was excellent (author narrates and the book is based on his life experience)

      I also recently read "Ball Don't Lie" and the main character had OCD though nobody ever named it. He repeated tasks but the book was not about OCD at all.

      Just wanted to add a couple of books with disabilities that I had read to your list.

      1. Sherman Alexie is one of my faves!

    9. Awesome post, Sarah! And thanks for letting me in on some books that will be joining my TBR pile soon!

    10. Sarah, these recs are fantastic, and your tips are great. Thanks so much for the post!

    11. Fabulous post, Sarah, thank you for sharing your insight. Great list of books, too!

    12. Thanks for this post! My sister has Down Syndrome and I'm always interested in books about people with disabilities.

    13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    14. Great post. I just watched a documentary about a girl with Tourettes today, and it causes her to pass out and stop breathing, and it kind of inspired me a bit, along with another CWD story I want to write.

      I haven't read it yet, but there's also a book entitled "(W)hole," by Ruth Madison, which is (if I'm remembering correctly) is about a girl who's got some weird fascination, obsession, etc, with the disabled. It's on my bookshelf, and I'm anxious to read it.

    15. One of my manuscripts has a paraplegic boy in it, and he's one of my favourite characters I've ever written. He has his really down moments, sure, but most of the time he's totally resilient and has learned to overcome his disability. I'm so sad I finished the manuscript and don't get to write more about him, though!

    16. GREAT post!

      One of my favorite classes at university was an accessible recreation class taught by a professor who had been shot as a 14 year old and was therefore in a wheelchair. He was a paraloympian who had a passion for defending the rights of individuals with disabilities. One of the most valuable things I learned from him the importance of using "people-first" terminology. We should be careful not to refer to CWDs as "the deaf girl" or "the autistic boy", as this dehumanizes them. Respectful language like "the girl who has a visual impairment" acknowledges disabilities, but recognizes that people are people and not a product--or victim--of their disability. (Sorry... looooong comment...)

      1. As an autistic girl, I will have to respectfully disagree with this comment. Person-first speech sometimes perpetuates shame. It suggests that the affected person can doff their disability like a jacket when, in reality, it is an integral part of who they are.

    17. If I may take a brief tangent from the awesomeness of this post to address the point Jess raises in her comment:

      Quite a few of us on the spectrum actually prefer to be called "autistic"- a some even find the person-first construction to be kind of dehumanizing Jim Sinclair has an essay on the subject here:
      I suspect there may be similar debate in other parts of the disability community, especially when considering phenomena like Deaf culture.

      Defaulting to person-first language, especially when speaking of fictional persons who can't exactly express a preference, is probably a good idea- but ultimately the most respectful way to refer to someone is to listen to them and call them what they prefer to be called.

    18. Thank you for your insight, Anonymous. It was really eye opening. :)

    19. as a teenager with a chronic neurological condition, and a loyal reader of YA highway, I was appalled to read the following excerpt:

      "Don't limit the adventure potential of your characters with disabilities! It's the twenty first century, and quadriplegics go skydiving, kindergarteners with cerebral palsy ski black diamond slopes, every marathon has its own wheelchair division, and a guy with no legs runs faster than almost everyone on the planet. Your readers with disabilities are the heroes of their own stories. Make sure they are the heroes in your stories too."

      Yes, this is technically true: it is the 21st century, and there are amazing assistive technologies for people whose impairments may be strictly "mechanical" (lost limb, needs wheelchair because of paralysis, etc). But there are many disabilities that DO limit people's lives in huge ways. Teens with these limitations (especially those which have no "visible" signs) face incredible prejudice from peers and school administrations alike. They must be just lazy, they couldn't possibly have the limitations they claim to have! It is this sort of attitude which encourages it.

      I might also add that it shows an incredible lack of creativity to suggest that the only way to make your disabled character a "hero" is to have them perform amazing phsyical feats. for many teens with different limitations, it is heroic just to make it through day after day of pain and sickness, knowing that there is no end in sight.

      I suggest that you take your own advice. next time, before writing about disabilities, don't skip the research.

    20. LOL organizing lol cats...

      I have ADHD...its not easy.

    21. This comment has been removed by the author.

    22. Dear anonymous,

      You said "I might also add that it shows an incredible lack of creativity to suggest that the only way to make your disabled character a "hero" is to have them perform amazing phsyical feats."

      I wasn't suggesting or implying that anywhere in this post! Almost every book I listed as suggested reading has a non-action-adventure protagonist. All my suggestions relate to making a character active and well rounded--active in the literary sense of driving the plot, not active in the sense of joining the cross-country team :-) When I say "make you characters the hero of the story" I don't mean necessarily great physical feats or saving the galaxy, I simply mean having big goals and striving to achieve them. Hero in the literary sense of the word, not in the everyday sense. Whether those goals are saving the day or surviving the mean girls of tenth grade!

      I only listed those sporting examples as counter to so many people who see a character with a disability as someone who is completely inactive. I'm sure you don't hold this belief, but many people do.

      The protagonist of "Out Of My Mind" can't walk, speak, feed herself, dress herself, or do chores, but she is absolutely an active character, and the heroine of her own story. The protagonist in "Alchemy and Meggy Swann" is exhausted after walking even a short distance with her canes. She must count up her spoons to make sure she will have enough energy to find a meal for the day. But she is still an active protagonist, and heroine of the story.

      I'm sorry you felt appalled. But I think you misread my intentions when I used the word "hero" and "active". Heroes come in every shape and size, which is the main point I hope to make in this post :-)

    23. I love this post so much, and not just because I love its author. Thanks, YA Highway & Sarah, for sharing it!

    24. Suuuuuper post. You inspired me to start a similar list for adult fiction. If I may link:

    25. Thank you for sharing this post, Sarah! I hadn't heard of some of the books you recommend, but I'll be checking them out.

      My now-15-year-old daughter was diagnosed with ADHD at age six, and loved the Joey Pigza books once she was old enough to read them. She said they helped her feel like she wasn't the only one who lost control sometimes.

      My 12-year-old has Asperger's Syndrome, and one book that she loves--and that I would highly recommend-- is Rules, by Cynthia Lord. The main character has a younger brother with autism who has to be taught "rules" about things like not throwing toys in the fish tank. It's been a while since I've read the book (my daughter swiped my copy when she was nine and I haven't seen it since), but I believe the MC also befriends a boy with a physical disability, though I may be jumbling two books there. Cynthia Lord has a son with autism, so she drew heavily on her own experiences while writing Rules.

      I have a secondary character with autism in one of my YA urban fantasy series, and I'll be closely re-reading the manuscripts that haven't been published yet to make sure I've presented her well.

    26. Excellent post. Thanks for collecting your favorite reads and providing a list of don'ts. You've given me some important info to consider.

    27. This was excellent, especially your advice on not skimping on research. I recently read House Rules by Jodi Piccould, where the MC had aspbergers, and it was amazing.

    28. Excellent post that I missed the first time around. Good food for creative thought--thanks!

    29. Can I throw in another series and character? Lois McMaster Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" space opera series. I don't know if it counts as YA, but I loved them in high school, and still do.

    30. Great post! I completely agree that we need more fiction that gives us characters who have disabilities as well as interesting and complex lives. We need disabled characters who stretch way beyond stereotype!

      I'm equally passionate about this and actually started my publishing company specifically to publish books of this kind!

    31. Even though I'm 3 years late in commenting, this is a great post and I'll definitely check out some of these titles! One no-no that struck me as particularly true (or annoying) was this one: "CWD who exists only to teach a very special important lesson to the MC"

      It pains me to no end when diverse characters are subjected to having no motives/personality/character of their own without the protagonist! I'm glad that other people also similarly have this gripe :)


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    Item Reviewed: Great Characters With Disabilities In YA and MG : Guest Post by Sarah Heacox Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart