Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

Corinne DuyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Find her on Twitter or Tumblr. Her YA fantasy debut Otherbound released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It has received four starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”


The trope of the mystical disabled person is varied, flexible, and very common.

At its core, it’s about a disabled character—frequently mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and/or blind—with some sort of unusual ability. While this trope is related to that of the “disability superpower” and often overlaps, I feel like it has a unique status of its own. Rather than just any superpower, these abilities are often unexplained and mysterious; the characters either hold or are the clue to saving the day, giving them a unique, mystical role in the plot.

A blind girl who’s the only one to see the ghosts haunting the main characters.

A little kid with Down’s syndrome who solves the riddle everyone is struggling with.

A schizophrenic person whose seemingly nonsensical ramblings hold the clue to the mystery.

An autistic boy with world-altering powers beyond anyone’s comprehension.

(And on and on.)

All of these characters are ridiculously easy to imagine because we see them so often. They’re most common in SFF settings, where either they’ll be the only person with a magical ability, or—in a world where these abilities are commonplace—theirs will be the rarest, strongest, or most important. They also appear in settings without any supernatural aspects, in which case the character often has savant-like abilities or unusual insight.

One of the typical things about this trope—although not essential—is that the characters usually aren’t well-rounded, realistic, grounded characters. They’re Othered. They’re ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshiped, set apart. They’re unusual. They’re mystical. They’re mysterious. They’re different. They’re unexplained.

They’re rarely just a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast. Instead, their disability and their ability—and the seeming contradiction thereof—are defining aspects of their characters.

Dinah Bellman from The Langoliers.

Little Pete from Gone.

Kazan from The Cube.

Gabriel from FlashForward.

Kevin Blake from Eureka.

(And on and on.)

Writers are often intrigued by the unusual. We see something interesting and our mind starts working overtime, thinking of how to integrate this into a story. This results in seeing a disabled person and thinking of how differently that person must perceive the world, and how that could be used for plot purposes. Or we’ll need a character to perform a certain task, but putting that ability in the hands of a non-disabled character would ruin the plot. Instead, we hand that ability to a disabled character. That way we have a great excuse to only trot out the ability when it’s convenient to the plot. Or maybe we don’t want to explain the reason for the ability, so we just give it to a disabled person. They’re different as is! It’ll be all mysterious and creepy!

There are all kinds of reasons for writers to fall back on this trope, but that doesn’t make it OK. It’s based on existing prejudices and misinformation. Just give disabled characters roles like any other character in the book rather than setting us apart.

John Coffey from The Green Mile.

Jake Bohm from Touch.

Lil’ Bro from NYX.

Duddits from Dreamcatcher.

River Tam from Firefly.

(And on and on.)

I want to encourage writers to start recognizing these characters when they occur, and to steer clear from them in their own fiction. We don’t need some mystical ability to make up for our disabilities. We should not only exist to impart meaningful advice. And we’re not prophets or plot devices.


Otherbound Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea … until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Defined By Others + ROGUE giveaway!

To wrap up our anniversary month, here’s an article about the importance of letting people speak for themselves–an important guideline here at Disability in Kidlit–written by author Lyn Miller-Lachmann. To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed hardcover of Lyn’s book Rogue! Details at the end of the post.


Lyn Miller-LachmannLyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of resources for educators and fiction for teens. Her young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Its forthcoming companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015), portrays a 16-year-old girl’s journey to Chile to visit her estranged father and her dangerous romance with a local boy. Lyn is the author of Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection about a girl with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. When she isn’t writing fiction, Lyn is the co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM, a blogger, and a Lego builder. She reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree. For more information and cool Lego pictures, visit Lyn’s website.


People with disabilities often encounter situations where we are not allowed to speak for ourselves. For instance, restaurant servers may ask a companion what a person in a wheelchair, or with a visual or hearing impairment, would like to eat, rather than asking the person directly. This is just one example of what people with disabilities, people of color, and other marginalized peoples encounter on a regular basis. Due to their privilege, some people believe they have the right not only to speak for those of us on the margins, but also to depict and define us. And when privileged outsiders define us, they often do so out of ignorance, self-interest, or malice, and their versions of ourselves, rather than our own realities, become the norm.

As someone diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, I have experienced this first-hand. Over the past decade, books and other media depictions of people on the autism spectrum have proliferated. While Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison, both diagnosed on the autism spectrum, have published acclaimed memoirs for adult readers, fiction for children and teens with protagonists and major secondary characters on the spectrum is predominantly the work of outsiders. (I would consider neurotypical parents of children on the spectrum to occupy an in-between position, but one with its own baggage.)

I approach each new book written by outsiders with trepidation. These books tend to define us by our disabilities rather than showing us living our lives day-to-day. Because I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood—the Asperger’s diagnosis didn’t exist in my youth—I thought of myself as someone who had different interests from my peers and few friends as a result, but I was not a compilation of stereotypical traits. Nor was learning to accept my difference my core desire. (My desire as a teenager was to get into a prestigious college and leave the narrow, conservative community where I grew up.) Outsiders who haven’t lived the life but who base their stories on book research are especially vulnerable to writing characters defined by their disabilities.

Problematic portrayals of children and teens with autism written by outsiders (and baggage-laden parents) have won major awards and become the canon, often helped by their writers’ superior publicity and marketing skills. As part of the canon, these books determine how teachers and librarians view their students on the spectrum and what those students may or may not be capable of accomplishing. These books affect the image young people on the spectrum have of themselves. Some portrayals that I have read have left me feeling humiliated—such as when a fictional child similar to me spends two days trying to cut down a huge oak tree with a coin because she takes something too literally. I know what classmates not on the spectrum would have said to me had they read that scene in class. (It would have involved the “r-word.”) In this way, exaggerated and stereotyped portrayals meant to combat bullying make the bullying worse. Always portraying children and teens with Asperger’s taking everything literally (contrary to popular portrayals, we usually do figure out idioms pretty quickly) invites cruel pranks, which I have suffered as much in our supposedly enlightened and aware times as when I was growing up. Finally, when outsiders’ inauthentic and insensitive depictions are lauded as authentic and sensitive, the stories I tell, even if based on my own life, are seen as inauthentic if they fail to conform to the canon. I watch helplessly as my experiences and feelings are denied, and my truth is no longer the truth. I have essentially been defined by others—as have my characters on the spectrum.

Do cultural outsiders have the “right to write” about us? Only if they are genuine allies, have done their homework, ask us to vet their work—and act to increase opportunities for us to tell our own stories. If you are writing a book that features a major character with Asperger’s, I would appreciate your listening to me and telling your story with thoughtfulness and humility. I would also appreciate your support as I try to find my own place as a writer.


Cover for ROGUEKiara has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard for her to make friends. So whenever her world doesn’t make sense—which is often—she relies on Mr. Internet for answers. But there are some questions he can’t answer, like why she always gets into trouble, and how do kids with Asperger’s syndrome make friends? Kiara has a difficult time with other kids. They taunt her and she fights back. Now she’s been kicked out of school. She wishes she could be like her hero Rogue—a misunderstood X-Men mutant who used to hurt anyone she touched until she learned how to control her special power.

When Chad moves in across the street, Kiara hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. When she learns his secret, she’s so determined to keep Chad as a friend that she agrees not to tell. But being a true friend is more complicated than Mr. Internet could ever explain, and it might be just the thing that leads Kiara to find her own special power.


Lyn has generously donated a signed–and if desired, personalized–hardcover of Rogue 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 limited to North American addresses.

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.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

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.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

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!

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!