Discussion #5: Is ANY representation better than NO representation?

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:

IS any representation better than no representation? That argument frequently comes up in response to criticism, but is it valid?

Here were their answers:

s.e. smith:
NO! If a representation is bad, it’s harmful, and it perpetuates negative beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes — or just erroneous information. This argument is totally invalid, because it suggests that we should be grateful for the scraps from the table, even if they’re stale or molding. That’s ridiculous. We’re owed a duty of care and respect, and people who want to integrate diversity into their storytelling (which everyone should!) need to be prepared to take it on seriously, not include it as a slapdash afterthought

Marieke Nijkamp:
Everything. s.e. said. Every. Single. Word.

Kayla Whaley:
Also no for me. I think what s.e. said was spot on: there’s this expectation that we (disabled folks) should be happy we’re included at all, no matter the form that takes. That ANY inclusion and representation is a GIFT we’ve been given, and it’s ridiculous for us to expect it to be an accurate, respectful portrayal on top of that. That that’s asking way too much of authors. Which, honestly, if you think putting some thought and care into writing your disabled characters is way too demanding, I’m going to assume you don’t put thought or care into any of your characters. I realize that answer got a little off track, but yeah, what s.e. said basically.

Sara Polsky:
No, I don’t think any representation is better than no representation. One-dimensional, stereotypical, or inaccurate portrayals of characters with disabilities harm all readers, whether they have disabilities or not. Poor representation leaves readers who have no other experience with disability with narrow ideas about the lives of people with disabilities, and it leaves people with disabilities with no true reflection of their own experience.

What about you, dearest readers? How do you feel about the any representation is better than no representation suggestion?

Holiday Hiatus

Hello everyone!

We hope your holiday season has been wonderful so far. Disability in Kidlit will be taking a brief two-week hiatus beginning today, but we’ll be back on January 10, 2014 with more excellent posts.

As always, if you’re interested in writing a post or a review, please see our submission guidelines. We’d love to hear from you!

Have a happy New Year! We’ll see you on the other side.

Corinne, Kayla, Kody

Emily Ladau: Representation Matters

Emily LadauEmily recently graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, where she was born and raised. This past summer, she completed an internship at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) under the auspices of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) internship program. Emily is a passionate self-advocate and is pursuing a career in which she can use her communication and love of writing as a means of positive change for all disabled people. You can follow Emily on Twitter and check out her blog on disability issues and lived experiences with her disability, “Words I Wheel By.”

My parents raised me to be a voracious reader. Some of my favorite memories of growing up involve hearing bedtime stories as I drifted off to sleep, learning to read chapter books by myself, and filling my bookcase to the brim with my hauls from Barnes and Nobles. Because of this, I have always found joy and comfort in getting lost inside someone else’s reality, immersing myself in the lives of the characters unfolding in the pages of my book. Part of the fun came from finding connections between my lived experiences and those occurring in the stories I was reading. However, there was always a huge part of my life that was almost never reflected back at me in the children’s book characters I grew to know and love: having a disability.

So many of my favorite childhood books had morals and lessons about accepting people for who they are, but characters with disabilities were few and far between. It was always another reminder that I didn’t quite fit the cookie cutter traits used by so many children’s authors when I was growing up in the early 1990s. Themes of diversity were only just starting to gain momentum at that time. And even then, I can only recall seeing disabled kids in specialized genres.

In fact, the only two children’s books I owned that featured kids with disabilities, both of which I still have, are Andy Finds a Turtle and Patrick and Emma Lou by Nan Holcomb, published by Turtle Books. Emma Lou has spina bifida, and both Andy and Patrick have cerebral palsy. Each book centers on triumphing in the face of disability. And while I loved those books and read them until they were well worn, they were isolated instances of disability in children’s literature. A true sense of inclusion was missing.

Twenty years later, I notice that children’s book sections in libraries and bookstores are inundated with examples of diversity. The shelves are filled with titles promoting acceptance of all races, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, and family structures. It makes me wonder, though: why was I denied the chance to feel included when I was little? And is enough being to done to change that for disabled people now?

What concerns me is that disabled characters are often integrated in the form of tokenism, meaning one token character that could be considered “different” is included in the plot. And even then, such characters are frequently depicted in stereotypical ways, despite being created by authors who may have the best of intentions.

I find this not only in children’s books but also in adult literature. I’ve spent so much of my life missing accurate reflections of my reality in the books I read. From the bedtime stories of my younger years to the ever-growing collection of novels I’ve amassed in my adult years, disability is rarely represented well, if at all. After so many years of reading, I’ve grown weary of this.

There is an incredibly misguided and oversimplified assumption made by many authors that disability is negative, so they either use it as a literary device or avoid including it altogether. Once, I was asked why I’d even want more disability representation in what I read if I choose to look at reading as an escape or a relaxing break from reality. I don’t see my disability as something unfortunate that I want to escape. Perhaps I may want to escape emotional or physical issues related to my disability, but it is inherently part of me – and I’m proud of it. So, to have disability reflected back at me as an unfortunate circumstance, as something that needs fixing, or to have it seem as though disability just shouldn’t exist in a perfect literary world, makes reading the opposite of an escape at times. Instead, it makes reading another reminder of the ways in which disabled people are still not accepted and included.

I’d love to see inclusion of disability in literature become less about morals or tokenism and instead become a seamlessly integrated aspect of literature for audiences of all ages. I know there are authors out there who work tirelessly to overcome misrepresentations and the lack of disabilities in both children’s and adult literature, and theirs is the writing I will continue to seek out to fill my bookshelves.

Recommended Reading List

Throughout the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.

However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (John Green) – Blindness

“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability – he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”

CRAZY (Amy Reed) – Bipolar

“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”

WILD AWAKE (Hilary T. Smith) – Unspecified, but likely Bipolar

“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”

COLIN FISCHER (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – Autism

Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure–Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD (Francisco X. Stork) – Autism

Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability–while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”

KNOWING JOSEPH (Judith Mammay) – Autism, ADHD

“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal – from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”

THE BOYFRIEND LIST (E. Lockhart) – Anxiety, Panic attacks

“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON (John Green and David Levithan) – Depression

“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed – instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?

No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.'”

“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”

LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP (Amy McNamara) – Depression

“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully-written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”

Disability in Kidlit Lives On!

As you know, Disability in Kidlit was conceived as a one-month blog event, intended to be a resource for the kidlit community to learn more about disability and encourage more and accurate portrayals in MG/YA fiction. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response, and we want to thank everyone who has joined us this month. Because of this response and what we feel is a hunger for more content, we’re thrilled to announce:

Disability in Kidlit will live on!

We have decided to continue Disability in Kidlit as an ongoing blog rather than a one-time event. We will still feature the same types of content (articles about disability and reviews of MG/YA books), and we’re hoping to bring some exciting new content as well!

We have also created a Goodreads account which will allow us to do two things: 1) crosspost reviews that appear on the blog, and 2) provide a comprehensive, up-to-date list of MG/YA novels featuring characters with disabilities. We can’t vouch for these books–we haven’t read most of them ourselves–but we hope this will help connect readers with the books they want. You can find more info about our Goodreads account on our new Book List page, including the ways we’d love for you to help us curate our bookshelves.

This month couldn’t have happened without all the work from our contributors, and that will continue to be the case. We are actively seeking posts from both current and new contributors! If you’re interested in being a contributor, please see our brand-new, shiny guidelines.

We’ll be taking the month of August to prepare and will re-launch in September! Posts will appear weekly rather than daily to ensure a steady stream of posts and the moderators’ relative calm of mind. We couldn’t be more excited for the chance to continue. We’re so thrilled that you all share our passion and hope you’ll be back with us come September!

Thanks for everything!

Kody Keplinger, Corinne Duyvis, and our fabulous newest addition to the mod team, Kayla Whaley