Sara Polsky interviews Merrie Haskell + HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS giveaway!

Earlier this year, Merrie Haskell‘s MG fantasy novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers, which is about a princess with a clubfoot, won the Schneider Family Book Award for its representation of disability. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Merrie Haskell and previous Disability in Kidlit contributor Sara Polsky to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed hardcover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERSSara Polsky: Can you sum up Handbook for Dragon Slayers in a few sentences, for readers who haven’t heard of the book yet?

Merrie Haskell: Essentially, Tilda, a girl who thinks of herself as a “princess librarian” goes on the run with her servant and a disgraced apprentice dragon slayer. They encounter the Wild Hunt and magic horses and an evil knight and Hildegard of Bingen, and several dragons.

Sara: What kind of research did you do to write about Tilda’s disability? 

Merrie: I dug through pretty much every medical and history database I could find to discover articles on how clubfoot was treated medically in the past. Mostly, for the actual feeling of life from Tilda’s point of view, I just relied on my own experiences with mobility issues, or stories from, and observations of, my grandmother (who was in a terrible car accident when my mom was young and almost never walked again).

Sara: Did you ever have to rethink a scene to account for Tilda’s disability, or find that you had unintentionally used certain tropes? If so, can you give an example?

Merrie: There was a point in one draft where Tilda was falling down quite a bit–which, given the way her foot is situated and the rough terrain seemed likely to me. But my editor was concerned that this wasn’t doing the things I wanted it to do (mostly, I wanted it to heighten tension). I spent some time thinking on that. Had I ever seen my grandmother fall? Actually–no. And I spent many whole summers with her, in the garden, not always on great terrain. The only time she fell to my knowledge was disastrous, and that was at the grocery store, on wet tile. She was always very careful about her footing, and fell less than most people, I think. So rethinking that was good; it was lazy writing.

Sara: What advice do you want to have for writers who want to write diverse characters that are outside their own experiences?

Merrie HaskellMerrie: The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and “what everybody knows,” and when they don’t approach the writing humbly, as a learning experience. That said, I’m no expert! Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have a book called WRITING THE OTHER and I know Nisi is involved in some workshops on that topic as well.

Sara: Since the book has a pseudo-medieval setting, I’m curious how any historical research you did intersected with research into disability. Did you research medieval attitudes toward disability? How did you adjust your portrayal of Tilda’s disability so that it felt “period” to the setting?

Merrie: Interestingly, it was a book on childhood in the Middle Ages that delved into the subject of disability the most, and as my heroine was still in her childhood, this was useful to me. She’s born with her disability, and has not acquired it through warfare, accident, or disease. But while I strive for a good deal of historical authenticity in my settings, it is sometimes difficult to research the things you want to be authentic about. It is simultaneously hard to find out something that goes against the popular conception of the Middle Ages, and it’s rather like rolling a rock uphill to write against expectations like that (I had trouble trying to explain the specific flavor of German pre-1100’s feudalism I’d researched for the book, for example; most Americans run around thinking of feudalism as basically a version of English manorial life and not much more. Or at least I did, until I studied more). In the end, the rock I chose was that I would people the world with some superstitious characters and some jerky characters, but the vast majority of people who are more practical and see a complete person and not merely a disability. Tilda has a perception that the superstitious and the jerks outweigh the practical, but I think it’s relatively clear by the end of the book where the balance lies.

During my undergraduate courses in anthropology, when I was learning about identifying human skeletal remains, I ran into a particular femur from the bone lab several times. It was a bone that had been badly fractured and then repaired with barbed wire. Someone had basically tied the bone back together with the wire by drilling into the bone and threading the wire through. The patient must have been incredibly resilient, because they had clearly lived long enough for the bone to repair and heal over completely, just a great knob of bone that had grown around the wire. The femur dated from the late 1800s. This kind of thing is not something you read about in books, at least–I never have. That femur–that response to the wound and the situation and what that person’s life must have been like–speaks to me when I think about disability throughout history. People make do. People are practical. Jerks find the thing to poke at that makes them feel strong, and the superstitious find the thing to hate that makes them feel safe, but in ordinary times, the rest of us remain practical.

Sara: What’s next for you?

Merrie: My third book, The Castle Behind Thorns, which I tried very hard NOT to make a Sleeping Beauty story and failed, came out in June.


Thank you, Merrie and Sara!

Merrie has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–copy of Handbook for Dragon Slayers to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to international addresses.

Kody Keplinger interviews Rachel M. Wilson + DON’T TOUCH giveaway!

September 2nd sees the release of Rachel M. Wilson‘s debut Don’t Touch, a contemporary YA novel from HarperTeen about a girl whose OCD is endangering her aspirations of becoming an actress. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Rachel to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed ARC of Don’t Touch! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for DON'T TOUCHKody Keplinger: First of all, can you tell us how you got the idea for Don’t Touch? How did this story come to be?

Rachel M. Wilson: Don’t Touch began as a very personal book. I experienced OCD and anxiety from age ten into high school, and even after my symptoms were under control, I was left with a lot to process. My first pages were close to my own experience, but I needed more distance to be able to craft a story.

Once I decided to focus on Caddie’s fear of touch, I was partly inspired by superheroes like X-Men’s Rogue. Caddie doesn’t have superpowers, of course, but we all have the power to affect the world around us. If we don’t trust ourselves, that can be scary. As a magical thinker, Caddie worries that her thoughts or actions might have dangerous consequences, and this freezes her up. She’s scared to act, to change or move forward, and compulsions like avoiding touch give her a temporary sense of control over those fears.

During the writing process, other bits and pieces gradually came to seem essential to my story. The scene in which Caddie and Peter visit an abandoned pool, for example, was inspired by an exploratory drive into old Irondale. That setting led me to Ophelia and to so much more of Caddie’s story.

Kody: I think a lot of people think it’s easy to write your own disability, but in my experience, it can be tricky. How was this experience for you? Were there any challenges you faced in writing about a character with OCD?

Rachel: Yes, I found it very tricky. First off, OCD can consist of many different obsessions and compulsions at once, and these are often hard for someone without OCD to understand. Media portrayals of OCD often stick to neat freaks obsessed with cleanliness or germs, but most of my own fears and compulsions were much more “creative.” For example, for years I avoided gum and blueberries like the plague for fear of blowing up like Violet in Willy Wonka.

All the different symptoms in my first draft overwhelmed my early readers and took away from a coherent story arc. My last advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Martine Leavitt, wisely encouraged me to narrow my focus, and at that point I zeroed in on touch. I considered presenting Caddie’s fear as a phobia, but that didn’t fit in with her magical thinking. Eventually, I found a balance by acknowledging that Caddie has other symptoms without spending too much time with them on the page.

The other big challenge was that obsessions are often constant. I had the phrase “don’t touch” in my novel about a zillion more times than it appears in the final draft. My editors convinced me that a little goes a long way, and we really pared it back. That was for the best because readers still comment on how constant that obsession feels to them.

I also found it hard to handle the dueling beliefs that go along with OCD. Some call OCD “the doubting disease” because OCD sufferers know our fears aren’t justified, but we doubt this knowledge. What if we’re wrong and the compulsions really do matter? We’ll do almost anything to avoid that uncomfortable worry. It’s good practice in fiction, though, to invest your characters with unshakeable drives and convictions. Some of my early readers had trouble with Caddie questioning or even ridiculing her OCD beliefs. I had to be true to that doubt, but it was challenging to make sure that it wouldn’t diminish the force of Caddie’s fear for the reader.

On a less technical note, writing about Caddie’s anxiety often brought up anxiety for me, but experiencing an emotion while writing doesn’t guarantee that your reader will feel it. I needed to make sure that those feelings came through on the page and not just in my head. The only way to do that is by getting distance from your character and reading with fresh eyes—or by soliciting feedback from honest readers. For me, getting distance came not only from taking time away between revisions but from giving Caddie experiences that weren’t as personal to me. Yes, I love theater, but I’ve never played Ophelia. I understand separation and loss from other experiences, but my parents are nothing like Caddie’s and they’re still happily married. The ways in which Caddie is not like me were as important as the ways in which she is for me to be able to write fearlessly.

Kody: Every disability has its tropes. Were there any specific OCD stereotypes you tried to steer clear of in writing DON’T TOUCH?

Rachel WilsonRachel: Yes. For one, OCD is often portrayed as quirky or cute. I don’t mind a comedic point of view on OCD as long as it’s balanced with the reality of how awful it can be. I addressed the quirky trope head-on by having Caddie attempt to pass off her symptoms as “artistic quirks.” She’d like people to think she’s a whimsical oddball if the alternative is being perceived as crazy, but she’s hiding the pain. In reality, this kind of anxiety can be completely debilitating, even life-threatening. It isn’t cute, and I don’t think anyone who reads the book will perceive it that way. Even Caddie’s friends, who want to support her, find her OCD frustrating. That’s true to life—it can be hard to empathize and be patient with someone who’s highly anxious. Caddie’s friends connect to her because of how she works to be open with them—not because her OCD is some adorable quirk.

I’ve also been put off by stories that treat OCD (or any mental illness) as a character flaw or weakness of will. When the movie As Good As It Gets came out, I was excited because I’d never seen a movie or read a book about someone with OCD, but I was disappointed that Melvin’s OCD seemed conflated with his misanthropy and general nastiness. When he said he wanted to “be a better man,” it felt like he was saying that OCD made him a bad person and that he’d suddenly chosen to “fix” himself. It’s tricky because of course one can be nasty and have OCD; one might even become nasty in response to illness. But something about how that narrative mashed up out-of-control compulsion with willful bad behavior left me feeling icky.
I don’t think of Caddie as perfect by any means, but she’s trying to be a good friend and handle her anxiety as best she can. There’s strength in that, and I hope that comes through even when she’s struggling.

Kody: How similar is Caddie’s experience with OCD to your own? 

Rachel: Caddie’s younger history of handwashing and magical thinking is close to my own. My biggest symptom from fourth to eighth grade was handwashing—the bit about Caddie having raw and bleeding hands that her parents suspect might be caused by allergies comes from experience. At another point, a teacher thought I might have diabetes because I asked to go to the bathroom so often—for handwashing, of course. I never wore gloves, though I might have liked to. Instead, I kept my hands tucked under my arms and used my elbows to open doors and turn on faucets. I wore socks at all times and used my toes to change TV channels. I lined my school bag with paper everyday so it wouldn’t be contaminated by my social studies book, which had been contaminated by a copy of Watership Down that I checked out from the library. Random things like that were always turning menacing to me. Something about the intelligent rabbits—their glossary and the violence of the first few pages had really disturbed me. So all year, the social studies book had to be lined with paper and kept in its own cubbie hole—until one day, I accidentally let it touch my vocabulary book, and then there were two books in the cubbie hole. My own fears around touch had more to do with contamination, while Caddie’s are tied up with magical thinking—if she touches another person’s skin, her parents’ separation will be permanent. I had a lot of magical thinking games, but not specifically around touch. Some of mine involved clicking my teeth or blinking while looking at a particular color, focusing on “good” words or images to cancel out “bad” or scary ones, and repeating prayers over and over in my head. I chose to focus on touch with Caddie because it’s such a clear metaphor for what her anxiety does—it keeps her from connecting with other people.

Kody: What have you learned from your experience writing DON’T TOUCH? Do you have any advice for writers trying to negotiate that balance of writing characters with their own disabilities?

Rachel: Well, one danger of writing about your own issues is that you do have ownership. You may feel a sense of entitlement to write what feels true to you, but it’s important to remember that you’re still representing a group of people who are often underrepresented. There’s a need to step back and make sure your story doesn’t have implications you didn’t intend . . . But once you’re conscious of that, at a certain point, I think it’s important to let go of the fear of getting it wrong.

I definitely worried about getting things wrong in fictionalizing OCD, but ultimately I gave myself permission to tell a story. I learned that—for me—it was more important to capture the feeling of OCD and anxiety than to write the experience literally, moment-to-moment. Had I written a stream-of-consciousness account of my own OCD, it would have been distancing, chaotic, and frustrating to read. Some of that might serve my story, but a little goes a long way. I also found it important to be conscious that every element of a story doubles as metaphor. The idea of thinking about OCD as a metaphor made me uncomfortable, but I needed to consider how it worked as metaphor to know what story I was telling. There’s a delicate balance to that—the balance between medicine and metaphor—and I can’t promise I’ve handled it perfectly, but I think it’s more important to attempt the balance than to avoid sharing our stories altogether out of fear of getting it wrong.


Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–ARC of Don’t Touch to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to US and CA addresses.

Discussion #8: Intersectionality and Disability

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

Why is it that diversity in young adult, middle grade, and children’s literature is often represented as an either/or, without intersectionality? Characters can either be autistic or gay, for example, or a wheelchair user or Black, but rarely both. Why do you think we see so few characters who are marginalized in more than one way?

Our contributors sent the following responses:


Marieke Nijkamp: Oh my goodness, I would love to read more queer, disabled characters. And I would love to see more intersectionality, period. Of course the queer, disabled experience is different than the queer experience or the disabled experience, but that only makes me wonder if there is such a thing as THE queer experience… or THE disabled experience. Because I have yet to find it.

It is always going to be a matter of research, trial and error. And if you feel characters have to have a reason to be multi-dimensional, multi-diverse? I’d love to see an equally legitimate reason for characters to be white AND straight AND able-bodied AND middle class AND AND AND. We are no checklists.


S. Jae-Jones: I think children’s literature, more than adult, is still stuck on a mainstream idea of “relatable”. The protagonist must be flawed—but not too flawed! The protagonist must have an “issue to overcome” (a phrase I loathe)—but nothing “too trying” or “too unusual” or worst of all, “too far from the physical ideal”. Invisible disabilities seem to have glamour (mental illness—providing it’s “quirky”, or a cosmetically appealing scars), but heaven forbid a protagonist have NOTICEABLE signs of a disability. In my opinion, it all comes back to this mainstream idea of a “default”. The “default” is relatable. Stray too far from it, and it won’t sell.

The other obstacle facing intersectionality in kidlit is the fear of tokenism. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at authors who’ve tried to include diverse characters, especially characters who are diverse in more ways than one. (E.g. “Why is this character bi, Black, and Jewish? It’s not realistic!” or worse, “The author is so lazy s/he can’t be bothered to come up with more characters.”) I think that we, as a society, are conditioned to thinking people should be put in boxes, and one box at a time, at that. It’s ingrained in the way our society—or at least American society—seems to function. I grew up in Los Angeles, which has a large multiracial population, and filling out the ethnicity portion on census forms often confused myself and my classmates—”Do I have to pick just one?” If you were Black and Hispanic, or Asian and White, you either had to choose, or were stuck with picking “Other”. And the word “other” is a powerful thing.


Corinne Duyvis: It’s such a multi-faceted problem: first there’s the fact that most people don’t even see the need for these characters–as though people like me aren’t just as real and valid as the cishet-white-abled people who are often written about, and as though we don’t need representation just as much or more. Then there’s the assumption that every “minority trait” is tacked onto a character, and thus requires justification in a way that, for example, whiteness and straightness don’t. Once writers get past those notions and do want to write these characters, there’s the joint fears over doing it wrong and over “trying too hard.” I understand and often share those fears. I’ve heard these same remarks about my debut novel: trying too hard, what’s the reason for these characters, etc. But it’s not as though writing a character facing multiple oppressions is some kind of performance or outrageous deed. I think it’s better to try too hard than to not try at all.

Even when writers overcome these hurdles, do their research, and successfully write intersectional characters … they need to find publishing professionals who are on the same wavelength. And that’s a challenge, too.

On a different-but-related note, as Andrea Shettle often and expertly points out, characters rarely have multiple disabilities. Many of my disabled friends have more than one disability, as do I. Many disabilities have high comorbidity rates. Plus, someone who requires a wheelchair is just as likely to also get migraines as an able-bodied person; being autistic makes you just as susceptible to mental illness. Perhaps even more, thanks to both personal and societal pressures.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann: We’ve never had anything close to proportional representation of people of color in children’s and YA books, and the mismatch is more glaring now because the demographics in our society have changed but the presence of main characters of color in books has not changed since the 1980s. So I’m not surprised to see so few characters of color who also have disabilities.


s.e. smith: Agh this is such a cause of frustration to me! Sometimes it feels to me like authors are trying to hit diversity bingo — okay, I’ve got my Latino character, and my Lesbian character, and my Disabled character, now give me a prize! The fact is that many people have intersectional identities. Minority teens rarely get to see themselves in text at all, and those who experience multiple oppressions find it even harder to locate books that tell their stories.

Part of the problem here may be that authors find it scary to imagine tackling multiple aspects of marginalisation in the same character: the Black and gay experience is different that the Black or gay experience, for example, just like the disabled and queer experience is different than either of those identities together. But these are problems that aren’t going to go away by not writing those characters — you have to plunge into them, and you have to do your research, and you have to commit to depicting a world where the true spectrum of diversity is shown.


Kody Keplinger: I think there’s a lot of fear. I think many authors (myself included) have a deep fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s scary enough to write about disability, but when you introduce another element, you double your chances of being offensive or problematic. Should that fear hold authors back? No. It should push them to do research, to approach with care, but not to avoid intersectionality all together.


Natalie Monroe: I personally think it’s because writers believe once a diverse element is added (ex: queer, ethnicity…), it’s done. Their book is now ‘diverse’ and ‘realistic’. But real life isn’t just one ball in a column, it’s a whole jumble of multicolored spheres across rows of columns. I’m Asian and am in a wheelchair. I know someone who is autistic, Asian, and in a wheelchair. I know a Filipino who is autistic. Diversity means exactly what it means, so stop treating it as a kind of ‘rules of requirement’ thing and mix it up.


Do you have any input, readers?

Sara Polsky reviews THE ELEMENTALS + giveaway!

Cover for THIS IS HOW I FIND HERSara PolskySara Polsky is the author of the YA novel This Is How I Find Her, published by Albert Whitman in fall 2013 and named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2014. Her non-fiction has appeared in Poets and Writers, the Forward, and other publications. Visit her at @sarapolsky.


The Elementals coverI’ll start with the verdict: I loved the way Saundra Mitchell writes about disability in The Elementals. Julian Birch, one of the protagonists, has a “withered” leg from a childhood bout of polio, and Mitchell’s depiction of him is one of the most believable, relatable portrayals of disability I’ve come across.

Julian’s disability is present but backgrounded to the rest of the story, which focuses on the mysterious powers that Julian and Kate, a girl Julian sees only in visions, seem to share. As Julian goes about his life — experimenting with his powers, working on his family’s farm, thinking about the girl he hopes to marry — Mitchell often notes the way Julian moves. In an early scene, he “hauled himself up,” “thumped” across a porch, and leaned against a railing for support, and the ways in which he uses his crutches to do things that an able-bodied person might do with his legs (trip one of his brothers, for instance). These adaptations, when described from Julian’s point of view, seem like a thoroughly ordinary part of his life.

That’s not how everyone else in his life sees things, though. Julian experiences rejection and surprise when he goes looking for work, with landlords and potential employers sometimes shooing him away and sometimes offering him jobs only on the condition that he never ask other employees for help. One potential employer, Mr. Zweifel, bluntly asks Julian, “What’s the matter with you?” while pointing at Julian’s leg. Even though he’s had several potential bosses notice his disability by this point, Julian still feels awkward and uncomfortable in these conversations.

His own attitude about his disability also changes based on how other people react to him. Early in the book, Julian’s disability is just a part of who he is, something he doesn’t seem to think about much. But when the girl he wants to marry rejects him because she thinks he won’t be able to work on her family’s farm, Julian looks down and “his bad leg taunted. It hung too short; in the intermittent light, it seemed not only withered but gnarled….The world, the wide, limitless world, shrank to the size of the barn where he’d once lain fevering in the night.” Going back into his family’s house, he sees only the way the house and his family members’ lives have been altered for him, with a slide over the stairs for him to use, hooks on which he can hang his crutches, and chores that don’t involve the use of his leg. His brothers, leaving for the army, highlight that Julian can’t fight or tend to the farm in their absence. He feels infantilized in a way he hasn’t felt before, and that feeling is part of what sends him fleeing west to make his own way (and, eventually, cross paths with Kate).

Julian has a magical power — the ability to breathe dead things back to life — that he may have gotten from the same polio that affected his leg. But the power in no way compensates for or cures his disability; in fact, it brings Julian another set of problems, and it is that power and its consequences, rather than disability, that drive much of Julian’s portion of the plot. Julian’s disability is one of his motivations as a character — the lack of independence he feels at home pushes him to try to make his own way in the world — but it isn’t a crucial engine of the book’s wider plot, and that felt, to me, exactly right.


Thank you, Sara!

Author Saundra Mitchell has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–hardcover copy of The Elementals be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to North American addresses.

Corinne Duyvis interviews Jennifer Castle + YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE giveaway!

Last year, writer and Disability in Kidlit co-founder Corinne Duyvis reviewed You Look Different in Real Life, a contemporary YA novel by Jennifer Castle featuring an important secondary character with autism. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Jennifer to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed copy of You Look Different in Real Life! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFECorinne Duyvis: Can you sum up You Look Different In Real Life in one or two sentences, and tell us a little about Rory and how she fits into the book?

Jennifer Castle: You Look Different in Real Life is the story of five teenagers who are the subjects of a documentary film series that checks in on their lives every five years, beginning when they were six years old. Now they’re sixteen, and the film crew is coming back at a time when they’re struggling with who they really are, what they mean to one another, and how to reconcile the past with the present and future. Rory is one of these teens. She was diagnosed with autism sometime after the second film (shot when the kids were eleven). As a film subject, she’s gold, because she’s honest and un-self-conscious. She has the strongest self-identity of the group, but she has other battles to try and win…and now she has to do it in front of a camera. Juicy stuff happens.

Corinne: How did Rory come into being? Was her autism an integral part of her character from the start, or did that aspect develop later on?

Jennifer: I knew from the beginning, even before the idea for this book came together, that I wanted to write about a teenage girl with autism. There are quite a few kids and teens in my life who are on the spectrum, and watching them overcome challenges big and small has always affected me. I’d also just come off ten years of producing a website for tweens on PBS Kids called “It’s My Life” which had a robust online community, and many of our regulars were kids who talked openly about their autism. One of them kept referring to it as “my blessing and my curse.” That stayed with me. I wanted to explore that blessing/curse dichotomy in my writing somehow.

Jennifer CastleAfter a lot of thought, I realized the thing I was most interested in was not necessarily the journey of an autistic protagonist (and honestly, I didn’t feel I was qualified to pull that off), but the story of a friendship between a neurotypical protagonist and her childhood bestie whose autism created problems that drove them apart. Because that’s a story you don’t see often in literature, but one I think many readers can relate to. So as the premise of You Look Different took shape and I had to come up with five very different characters who would fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces, Rory came into being. In the book, Rory and the main character, Justine, are inseparable at age six, but by eleven, Rory’s quirks are beginning to wear on Justine. I think that happens normally among girls around that age, autism or no autism — in general, their tolerance level for anything they see as “weird” goes way down. Peer pressure goes way up. Many kids who are stuck in the middle get socially crushed by that collision.

The autism factor felt like an intriguing prism to look at how friendships change as we grow up. Now sixteen and more mature, Justine feels intense regret and guilt about the way she cut Rory out of her life, but doesn’t know how to fix it. The fact that the filmmakers have returned, pushing them into situations together, makes it better and worse at the same time. (Which of course is not-so-fun for Justine, but excellent for me as a storyteller.) What Justine has to learn is that she can’t make amends until she can see Rory as a person, and not an autistic person. I don’t like to put “messages” in my work, but I did see an opportunity to give readers a look at that process in the hopes that they can apply it to their own lives and people around them.

Once I got deeper into the book, Rory herself took on more dimension and I figured out what her personal journey was going to be. The plot puts her in some challenging situations. I love the way she gets through them, and the surprising new connections she forges as a result.

Corinne: In a world full of stereotypical portrayals of autism, Rory’s portrayal struck me as delightfully realistic. I recognized many of her symptoms and enjoyed details like her love of navigation, which I totally share, or the way she’ll make brief eye contact before looking away again. How did you go about your research?

Jennifer: It means a great deal to me, that Rory felt real and not stereotypical. Thank you! (And phew.) Because it’s freaking scary to write a character who people will be examining more closely for accuracy and dimension. I got dead serious about research, and did a lot of reading — but not endless reading, because I believe there’s such a thing as too much research. There’s a great book called “Asperger’s and Girls” which I found particularly useful. I also found a wonderful documentary called “Billy the Kid,” which is a portrait of a teenage boy who happens to be autistic (but terrifically, his autism is not mentioned at all in the film). Then I really lucked out, because I met a mom in my community who has both a daughter and a son with autism, so she was able to give me very specific insight as to how the experience is different for girls and boys. I had an early draft at that point and I just kept asking her, “Rory does this. Does that seem organic to you? Do you buy it?” She read a later draft and gave me line notes, both positive and critical, on everything Rory. When she said she really loved the book and how Rory was portrayed, I felt confident about putting the character and her story out into the world.

Corinne: Writing disabled characters requires awareness and thought. Rather than letting authors use that as an excuse to not write disabled characters at all, we want to acknowledge the potential complications and show ways to navigate these. Can you perhaps share an example of where you had to re-think a scene to account for Rory’s autism, or where you unthinkingly used certain tropes?

Jennifer: For me, writing the backstory of how Justine ditched Rory as a friend was surprisingly difficult. Because as Justine is telling it, she has retrospective awareness of Rory’s issues. But the Justine in the flashbacks does not, and the Justine in the flashbacks found her friend annoying and high maintenance. I had to portray Rory at eleven not just as Justine sees her now, but as she saw her then, and it was a delicate balance. I cringed as I was writing some of those memories, because I didn’t want to seem insensitive or paint too negative a picture of Rory. I concentrated on making Rory as likable as possible, accepting Justine’s “dumping” and gracefully letting her go.

But then my autism-mom expert called me out on it. She said Rory would not give up the friendship so easily. She would be persistent. She would not get the social cues and yes, she would be totally irritating about it. It felt so uncomfortable to rewrite that section, even though I knew it was truer to Rory’s character. I was worried what readers would think.

And that’s one of the big dangers, when it comes to writing disabled characters. It’s sort of the opposite problem of stereotypes or one-note characters, which is obviously an issue too. But I think many authors are so focused on sensitivity and creating sympathy that they forget who their characters actually are, flaws and all. Sometimes these flaws are somehow related to the disability, and sometimes they’re just part of who a character is, just like flaws should be part of any character you’re writing. Perfect, saintly characters may not piss anyone off, but they also feel totally inauthentic. Once I stopped handling Rory with kid gloves, she truly leapt off the page. I don’t regret taking on that challenge of awareness and thought, as you beautifully put it; I think I’m a better writer now as a result of that challenge.


Thank you, Jennifer!

Jennifer has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–copy of You Look Different in Real Life be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to international addresses!

Discussion #7: Warning Flags and Turn-Offs

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

What kinds of words, phrases, or situations used in book or character descriptions send up warning flags for you? We’re thinking of clichés, ableist language–anything related to disability that may be a turn-off.

Our contributors sent the following responses:


Natalie Monroe: What I hate is when books try to ‘beautify’ disabilities. For example, the character has a limp, but we don’t know the ugly and gritty, like maybe his/her one hip is higher than the other; or he/she lurches forward with every step; or he/she walks bowlegged or duck-footed. It may be that to make the character seem attractive (I have never read a book in which the character in a wheelchair doesn’t have a nice, straight back. My back is as curved as a waterslide), but the point is to make the character’s personality eclipse their physical appearance.

Tyrion from A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin is a good example: he’s described as hideous in text, but fans still go wild over him because they find him funny, clever and honorable.


Sara Polsky: I get frustrated by any reference to a character “overcoming” disability or anything that sets a character with a disability up as an inspiration.


s.e. smith: Well, magical cure narratives, obviously. But if I’m casually looking at jacket copy, things I tend to look out for are ‘despite her disability’ or ‘overcoming adversity’ or ‘brilliant but [disabled]‘ or something along those lines, where characters are separated out from their disabilities. I’m also leery of anything that talks about disabled characters as inspirational, courageous, or amazing just because they’re disabled. Language like ‘wheelchair bound’ also makes me very uncomfortable, as it suggests the publisher isn’t in tune with disabled people, and that the target market for the book is nondisabled people, not people like me.

I think this is one area where authors are really in a bind, because many don’t have control over their cover copy, and the flap copy may have nothing to do with the book. Those who are in a position to advocate definitely should, both to send a message to the publishing community and to ensure that their books get to people who need to read them. If I was buying a book for a recently-disabled teen, for example, I wouldn’t get something with a cover that described people like her as ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘overcoming adversity,’ because that’s not language she needs to hear ever, but especially in the early stages of adapting to disability.


Marieke Nijkamp: I’m seconding that completely; the adversity narrative makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It’s so inherently othering–people with disabilities may be lesser, but look at what they can still achieve! Aw, yay! /sarcasm

Closely related are those instances when books and/or blurbs talk about disabilities in terms of inspiring other characters. We’ve talked about inspiration porn before, so I will not say too much about it, but I’d like to think it’s not my only purpose in life to be an inspiration to able-bodied people.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann: I think the protagonist with Asperger’s who solves a mystery a la Sherlock Holmes is overdone. It feeds into the same kind of compensatory superpower cliché that has characters with hearing impairments read lips perfectly from across the room. You don’t do justice to a person with a disability by portraying characters with disabilities as superhuman, because most of us aren’t superhuman and are doing the best we can. I understand that the cliché is well meaning in that it acknowledges that persons with disabilities can and do make contributions to society.

And my own character with Asperger’s, Kiara, dreams of being one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In fact, though, she helps not by being extraordinary, but by being present.


Corinne Duyvis: In addition to the excellent examples already listed, I tend to get turned off “autism books” when the flap copy references the character’s “unique worldview” or starts out listing all the character’s peculiarities. I’d rather know what actually happens in the book. Something like this is usually a good indicator that the MC is seen as quirky and special and otherworldly and, well, is written with a neurotypical audience in mind. Also: “doesn’t let disability define him/her.” Gag.

Oh, and plots about how difficult it is having a disabled sibling or parent. While it may be true in many cases, it’s an overwhelmingly common narrative, and it contributes to a really problematic idea of disability.


Kody Keplinger: The “inspirational” thing is an immediate turn off for me, too. Blindness specific, though, any time a character is introduced in a way that shows us how advanced their other senses are (this is a myth, people. When one sense is cut off the others don’t get better, you just get better at using them).

Furthermore, whenever a blind character is introduced who needs help with the most mundane of things (cutting vegetables, for instance) and they spend a lot of time bemoaning how difficult it is to do things when you can’t see. I’ll shut a book pretty fast for those offenses.


Any additions, beloved readers? Share them in the comments!

Kody Keplinger interviews April Henry + GIRL, STOLEN giveaway!

As a blind woman (and formerly a blind teenager), I’ve found it very difficult – damn near impossible – to find books that accurately portray blind characters. This is why April Henry’s Girl, Stolen was such a pleasant surprise for me. The main character, Cheyenne, is a teenager who lost most of her sight a few years prior to the events of the story. One day she is in the backseat of her stepmother’s car when it is stolen by a teenage boy named Griffin, who might be in just as much danger as Cheyenne when they return to his father’s house.

Cheyenne is a well-researched, well-written example of blindness. It’s not her whole life, though it is a part of it. She’s not always bitter and angry about her disability, but she’s not constantly cheerful either. She uses what little vision she has in a way that felt very real to me. And, as a guide dog user myself, her anxiety over not having her guide dog with her during these horrifying events felt very authentic. I was so impressed that I had interview April Henry–New York Times-bestselling author of nearly 20 mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults!–about creating Cheyenne and the story of Girl, Stolen.

Take it away …


Cover for GIRL, STOLENKody Keplinger: What made you want to write about a blind character?

April Henry: Girl, Stolen began with a story I saw in the local news. A blind teenager was with her mom and step dad.  They went out to dinner and then they wanted to go Christmas shopping.  Heather decided to stay in the car.  Her mom left the keys in the ignition in case Heather got cold. A man came along, saw the keys, jumped into the car, drove off – and then realized there was a girl in the back seat. She eventually talked him into letting her go. But I thought, “What if he had kept her?”

Eventually I asked myself more questions:  “And what if the thief was a teenager too? And what if his dad was running a chop shop for stolen cars? And what if they thought about letting her go – until they learned she was the daughter of Nike’s president?”

Kody: Writing about blindness isn’t easy. I’ll be honest and say that nearly all the portrayals I’ve read have been woefully inaccurate – which was why GIRL, STOLEN was a pleasant surprise to me. How did you go about researching and writing such an accurate portrayal?

April: I started by reading.  I read a lot of autobiographies written by people who had gone blind or were born with little sight, such as Cockeyed, Follow My Leader, Planet of the Blind, Touching the Rock, and more. If I could figure out how to contact the author, I did, and then asked questions. I also emailed and talked on the phone with a girl in high school who was blind and went to a mainstream school.  For example, I asked her what might be a distinctive smell Cheyenne could recognize someone by, and she suggested a couple of things, including mint-flavored chewing tobacco.

And I interviewed two people I knew who did podcasts or radio shows about books and who happened to be blind. One woman in Austin had strong feelings about how blind people are portrayed in the media. She had her computer read it to her and caught some typos. So Girl, Stolen was actually proofread by a blind person!

Kody: One of my biggest complaints about blind characters is that, too often, they are completely blind with no vision at all while, in reality, 90% of legally blind people have some vision. Cheyenne actually does retain a bit of vision, which I found refreshing. Why did you choose to give her some vision? What difficulties did you come across in trying to write from Cheyenne’s perspective? April Henry

April: I decided I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be blind from birth, like Heather.  (I’m pretty sure Heather doesn’t see, or sees only shadows).  Because Cheyenne had seen once, I could have her imagine how things would look. As for how she went blind, I remembered how my daughter and had been walking on an unlit road and a car came up behind us and did something cool with our shadows (as the car got closer, it looked like our shadows were walking backward).  I decided to use that scene, only to have a car careen out of control, killing Cheyenne’s mom and throwing Cheyenne into a sign. I interviewed an ophthalmologist about what would happen to her and why head injuries cause blindness. He’s the one who told me about how many people in that situation still retain a little sliver of vision, but it’s out of focus. I then spent several hours wandering around my house with my hands almost all the way over my eyes. I also bought a cane and learned how to (sort of) use it.

And I guess I just used my imagination.  Without glasses or contacts, I am legally blind.  My “best” eye is 20/275.  I can see that people have a flesh-colored smudge for a face, but I can’t see expressions.

Kody: While Cheyenne’s guide dog isn’t around to be much help in the story, we do get a lot of insight into her life with a guide dog. As a guide dog owner, I found these little tidbits to be really, really true and honest – at least to my experience. Did you do any specific research on this, despite Cheyenne being without her dog for most of the story?

April: The more I researched, the more I learned how important guide dogs are to many blind people, so I decided to give her one.  I figured Cheyenne would think about him a lot even if he wasn’t there. I spent a day at Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring, Oregon. They even put a blindfold on me and brought out a dog for me to harness and walk. It’s very hard to do that if you have never seen the dog or the harness, but I finally managed. Then I tried to pat the dog on the head – and realized I had harnessed the tail end. The head trainer, Malinda Carlson, reviewed the manuscript for me, answered lots of questions, and helped me figure out whether an untrained dog might be able to briefly be a guide dog. I actually had to do a lot of research into what it’s like to own a dog, because I have never lived with one, and am somewhat afraid of them (got bitten when I was five).


Thanks so much, April!

In addition to answering a few of our questions, April was kind enough to donate a signed copy of Girl, Stolen to giveaway to one of our awesome readers! To enter, leave a comment here and/or reblog our Tumblr post.  Yes, doing both increases your chances of winning. In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.