Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Defined By Others

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.

The winner has been selected, and the giveaway is over. Thanks for participating!

Sara Polsky interviews Merrie Haskell about HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS

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 about DON’T TOUCH

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!

Sara Polsky reviews THE ELEMENTALS

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 about YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE

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!

Kody Keplinger interviews April Henry about GIRL, STOLEN

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.

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

s.e. smith interviews Hilary T. Smith about WILD AWAKE

Last year, writer and journalist s.e. smith reviewed Wild Awake, a contemporary YA novel by Hilary T. Smith featuring a protagonist with bipolar disorder. We invited the both of them to the blog to discuss books, mental illness, and everything in between.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed copy of Wild Awake! Details at the end of the post.

Welcome, s.e. and Hilary! Take it away …

Cover for WILD AWAKEs.e. smith: What are some of your favourite literary works (for any age) depicting mental illness? What about them speaks to you?

Hilary T. Smith: I love everything by the New Zealand author Janet Frame. Her books aren’t “about” mental illness; however, they immerse the reader in the minds of characters who experience the world very differently than the norm (or perhaps less differently than you’d think, the difference being that Frame wasn’t afraid to set down a messy, strange, and sometimes disturbing internal reality for her characters, where other authors feel the need to tidy it up and make it coherent). Her descriptions of social anxiety in Towards Another Summer are scarily accurate, taking readers deep into the experience without labeling it or making it an issue. Everyone should read her books!

On the more well-known side of things, I was moved by Allie Brosh’s depiction of suicidal depression in her collection Hyperbole and a Half — raw and funny and heartbreaking and completely relatable. I have no doubt that book saved a lot of lives.

s.e.: What’s it like being an out mentally ill author? Do you feel like you’ve experienced discrimination or other barriers as a result of your frankness about your mental health status, or just the opposite?

Hilary: I’m really not aware of any differences. My life is pretty quiet…it’s not like I’m making public appearances all the time where that status/identity gets discussed or called into play. In fact, my status as an author (let alone “author with mental illness”) has so little impact on my daily life that it feels a little disorienting to hear myself referred to that way — I certainly don’t think of myself in those terms.

s.e.: Identity politics, and the decision to label or not label, gets complex. I totally know what you mean when you say it feels disorientating to be called an ‘author with mental illness,’ but do you think labels have a function? Where and when?

Hilary: There is quite a debate about the label thing, isn’t there? We live in an age of labels and categories, and this is reflected in our fiction — just look at our obsession with the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, the Factions in Divergent, and all the associated personality quizzes and “which-blank-are-you” tests online. We want to belong to something, to say “I am this!,” to make some coherence out of this noisy reality. And there is obviously value in that (people building communities around a certain identity, finding support, pushing for change…) and also some problems (because once you are in that community, there may be a certain pressure, whether intentional or accidental, to conform to a model of that identity that isn’t quite true for you). Personally, I am growing more and more uncomfortable with any kind of us-versus-them duality, especially when it comes to something like mental illness – because our society as a whole is deeply disturbed, and to single out some people as “mentally ill” implies that the problem is contained in a small population, when in fact it’s embedded in our way of life.

s.e.: In the larger conversation about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a complementary hashtag was started: #WeNeedDiverseAuthors. How do you think the publishing industry can work on the shortage of diversity on spines, not just between the covers?

Hilary T. SmithHilary: My answer to this question would entail a complete dismantling of our economic system. *grins*.

This is a multifaceted problem. On one hand, you have the publishing industry, which includes well-meaning but underpaid and overworked editors who are under tremendous pressure to acquire profitable books (at the expense of diversity and other good qualities) and do not have much latitude for taking necessary risks. On the other side, you have a population of writers, some of whom have much more of the time, resources, connections and skills needed to get a toehold in the publishing world than others. The publishing world (if we’re talking about the big houses, as opposed to small presses) is very corporate, and it can be hard to navigate unless you are comfortable working within those parameters and speaking that language.

In my ideal world, everything would be human-scale…smaller publishers, slower pace, no auto-responders or form rejections. While we’re at it, how about less pollution, fewer cars, more trees, less noise…you see where I’m going with this!

s.e.: Tell me EVERYTHING (well, okay, something) about [your next book] A Sense of the Infinite! That’s not a question, but whatever.

Hilary: It was hard to get Kiri’s voice out of my head after writing Wild Awake, and I had to find subtle ways of forcing my brain to change gears (past tense instead of present, East Coast setting instead of West, expanded timeline instead of compressed one, short chapters instead of long ones, etc. etc.) The result is a book that is as different from Wild Awake as it could be, yet it’s still a very “Hilary” book…same animal, different dance, if that makes any sense. I’m terrible at plot summaries (“hero goes on a journey! stranger comes to town!”) so I’ll leave it at that…

s.e.: What has the response to Wild Awake been like?

Hilary: Unless someone e-mails me directly, I don’t track response to my books. The e-mails have been heartwarming. Other than that, I can’t say!

s.e.: I know that many authors prefer not to follow responses to their books — is this a tactic you used to help manage your mental health, allow you to focus on writing, or just avoid pointless one-star Goodreads reviews from people who got mad because their copies were delivered late and never actually read the book?

Hilary: When I was blogging a lot, I used to feel a lot of anxiety about comments — I was afraid to check them, and I don’t know why. It got to the point where I was feeling bad about myself all the time, for no good reason — I just had this general sense of doom, like some cosmic axe was about to fall, like all these imaginary people were very, very disappointed in me. It wasn’t productive. It wasn’t doing anybody any good. By the time Wild Awake came out, I realized that most of what I was doing on the internet was making me unhappy. So I stopped.

I don’t spend much time on the internet anymore. I practice music. I work in the garden. I’m not saying I’ll never do more internet writing, or participate in that community, but I needed to prove to myself that I didn’t OWE it to anybody to tweet, or blog, or track reviews, or feel that anxiety. And yes: less response-tracking = less anxiety = more creativity. So there’s that.

s.e.: As an author, and a person with mental illness, and a person writing mentally ill characters, what’s your advice for noncrazies looking to authentically depict the experience of mental illness in teens and young adults?

Hilary: There’s no such thing as a non-crazy, there are just people who have yet to experience their crazy. So if you want to write a character with a mental illness, but you do not consider yourself to have experienced anything on a spectrum with depression, mania, paranoia, obsession, anxiety etc, one idea would be to live another decade or two before you attempt it. I’m not saying you need to have a mental illness yourself in order to write good fiction involving mental illness, but it helps to find some kind of seed in your own experience. For example, ask yourself “What does it feel like when I’m anxious?” Then imagine that feeling expanded ten times. Starting with your own experience, no matter how mild that experience may be, is going to yield better results than assuming that you have nothing in common with your mentally ill character.

s.e.: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sarah McCarry’s Working Project – it’s a fascinating series of interviews with mentally ill writers (and authors) speaking frankly about their mental illnesses. I’ve also noticed more and more YA authors, like Lauren DeStefano, speaking up about how mental illness affects their lives (she speaks quite frankly about the disruptions anxiety causes for her, for example). Do think we’re starting to see a renaissance of openness, and perhaps a shift in the way people talk about mental illness as a result?

Hilary: I do think the internet has made it easier for people to write about mental illness and other “personal” topics – you’re not shouting into a void, and there is often a flood of support and validation that you might not “hear” if you’re publishing on paper or speaking in a school gym. I think everyone feels a little safer when they reveal things on the internet, both writers and readers/commenters…because it’s not you revealing things, it’s your avatar, your e-personality, which may be very close to your everyday self, or it might be a braver version. And of course, it’s easier for your writing to find its intended audience.

Of course, the real test will be to see if all this openness and sharing results in different lives for people who are currently homeless or otherwise suffering due to their mental illness…it’s one thing to do a lot of talking and commenting, and another thing to change the way we operate as a society.

s.e.: Could you tell me a little about your working environment/habits? Because somehow I imagine you buried in a cabin in the woods like me and I really like this visual image. Cats in the office or no cats? Cake or pie? Coffee or tea?

Hilary: Haha! Right now, I am living across the river from some very nice woods, which are currently packed with thimbleberries. I have a nice big desk I got off Craigslist—it is cluttered with bird skulls and bottles of fountain pen ink and postcards from Morocco and the “Author! Author!” button from my first book event. No cats. The house was built in 1905 as a millworkers shack, and it has an attic full of squirrels, eaves full of birds, and no appliances. I love it!

Thanks so much, s.e. and Hilary!

Hilary has generously donated a signed copy of Wild Awake 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 US addresses.

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

Disability in Kidlit interviews Alyson Beecher, 2015 Schneider Family Book Award Jury Chair

While disability is regularly brought up in discussions of diversity in MG/YA, there aren’t many websites or organizations dedicated to it–which means we particularly appreciate the Schneider Family Book Award, an ALA award which highlights depictions of disability in children’s literature. We’ve been wanting to shake hands with them for a while, and this is the perfect time: while we’re celebrating our first anniversary, the Schneider is celebrating its tenth! They’ve organized a blog tour–with giveaway at the bottom of each post!–and invited us to host one of the posts.

Disability in Kidlit was excited to interview Alyson Beecher and talk a little bit about the Schneider …

Schneider Family Award Blog Tour

Alyson BeecherAlyson Beecher is currently a Literacy Specialist for the Pasadena Unified School District, and the Chair for the 2015 Schneider Family Book Award Jury.  After volunteering in high school as a peer tutor for students with special needs, she decided to become a Special Education Teacher.  On her road to becoming a teacher, she spent two years as one of the few hearing students at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the deaf and hearing impaired. She has been a Special Education Inclusion Teacher, and an administrator of Special Education Programs.  She loves to read and talk about books, and match students with the perfect book.  Alyson blogs at and can be found on Twitter.

Disability in Kidlit: The Schneider Family Book Award “honor[s] an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Can you explain the judging process? 

Alyson: Every Schneider Family Book Award Jury’s (Jury) judging process is considered confidential so I am limited with what I can say.  What I will mention is that the Jury carefully considers every book that is submitted for consideration before making their final decision. Also, the Schneider Family Book Award manual (found on the webpage) provides the committee with the following input on the definition of a disability:

Dr. Schneider has intentionally allowed for a broad interpretation by her wording, the book ‘must portray some aspect of living with a disability, whether the disability is physical, mental, or emotional.’  This allows each committee to decide on the qualifications of particular titles.  Books with death as the main theme are generally disqualified.”

As a result, each jury takes this statement seriously and must determine how each book does or does not meet the criteria of the award.

Disability in Kidlit: Do you find your previous award winners trend more toward books with “incidentally” disabled characters, or toward books where disability (themes) play(s) a bigger role? Why do you think that is?

Alyson: This is interesting.  I would be curious in knowing how you determine “incidentally” disabled characters vs. disability themes?  Since the committee is limited to those books that are submitted for consideration, the jury is then also limited to what was published in a given year (books submitted must be published during the year of consideration).

Over the course of the past ten years, there has been an increase in the number of books featuring characters with a disability.  This has provided the jury with more books to consider, which is obviously a good thing.  Additionally, the spectrum of types of disabilities has grown beyond the more obvious disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, physical disabilities, autism to name a few), which is of course, another good thing.

Disability in Kidlit: When choosing winners, would you say the book’s literary merit and its portrayal of disability are equally important?

Alyson: Each year, the Jury is tasked with finding books that best meet the following criteria:

1.  Content

  • May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction.
  • Must portray the emotional, mental, or physical disability as part of a full life, not as something to be pitied.
  • Representation of characters with disabilities should be realistic, avoiding exaggeration or stereotypes.
  • Person with disability should be integral to the presentation, not merely a passive bystander.
  • The theme must be appropriate for and respectful of the intended audience age.
  • Information on a disability must be accurate.

2.  Style

  • Should be well written
  • Should be engaging with distinctive use of language for plot and character development and setting delineation.
  • Book should be judged on its own merit as a self-contained entity, not as part of a series, and irrespective of supportive materials such as a CD or other supplemental material.

3. Illustration and Design

  • Text and images should complement or enhance each other, with differentiated contrast between text, pictures, and background.
  • Format and typeface must be of age appropriate size, clearly readable, and free of typographical errors.
  • Layout should be easy to follow, enhancing the flow of the story or information.
  • Preference will be given to books that can be made available in accessible formats.

Note: Criteria can be found on the Schneider Family Book Award webpage.

Every committee reads and evaluates each book submitted for consideration with the above criteria in mind. Of course, there is the hope that the jury will be able to find a book that is both well written and positive in its portrayal of the disability experience. From there, it is confidential as to why a committee selects one book over another book.

Disability in Kidlit: Have you noticed any trends–one disability that is portrayed more than others, for instance–in the books you consider for the award?

Alyson: Though I cannot speak for all of the committees, I can say that in the past couple of years there has been an increase in the number of books that feature children or adults with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and other mental and emotional health disorders.

Disability in Kidlit: How do you put together your judging panel, particularly given the frequent problem of disabled people being spoken over/for by non-disabled people?

Alyson: There are seven members of the Schneider Family Book Award Jury.  Every member must be a member of the American Library Association (ALA).  ALA appoints a certain number of the positions and the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) each appoint members.  One of the members appointed by ALA must be a representative of the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped/Library of Congress since it is important that each winning book be made accessible to those readers who could not read the book in a traditional format.  There is also a goal to find jury members who will be knowledgeable in the area of disabilities, as well as, have an understanding of diversity.  It’s a tall order, but the ALA staff work hard to find the best possible jurors.

Disability in Kidlit: Do you find that there’s a wealth of quality books and disability portrayals to choose from each year, or do you notice a dire lack of good options?

Alyson: In speaking with those who have had long-term experiences with the Schneider Family Book Award, there is an increase in the quality, as well as, the number of books being published each year that portray individuals with disabilities.  This is a fabulous thing; however, there still needs to be more, especially for young children under the age of eight years old. The Award is helping to bring more attention to this need, but just as with other aspects of diversity (race, culture, sexual orientation, etc) there is a continued need to make known this gap to publishers.

Thank you, Alyson!

Check out all of the links of the Schneider Family Book Award 10th Anniversary Blog Tour & Giveaway:

July 6, 2014    Nerdy Book Club
July 6, 2014    Kid Lit Frenzy
July 7, 2014    Nonfiction Detectives
July 9, 2014    Teach Mentor Texts
July 10, 2014    There’s a Book For That
July 11, 2014    Kathie Comments
July 12, 2014  Disability in Kidlit
July 14, 2014    Librarian in Cute Shoes
July 15, 2014    The Late Bloomer’s Book Blog
July 16, 2014    Read, Write, and Reflect
July 17, 2014    Read Now Sleep Later
July 18, 2014    Unleashing Readers
July 20, 2014    Maria’s Mélange

A picture showing covers of 2014's Schneider Award winners: A Splash of Red, Handbook for Dragon Slayers, and Rose Under Fire.

One person will win a set of all 3 Schneider Family Book Award Winners from 2014.  Participants must be 13 years or older and have a US or Canadian mailing address. Readers can enter from any blog participating in the tour. Enter the giveaway now via Rafflecopter!

Cece Bell: Chapter 9 of EL DEAFO Almost Wasn’t–Here’s Why

Cece BellCece Bell lives in an old church with her husband, author Tom Angleberger, and she works in a new-ish barn (by herself). She has written and illustrated several books for children, including the Geisel Honor book Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover; some of her other works include Itty Bitty, Bee-Wigged, the Sock Monkey series, and the illustrations for Crankee Doodle (written by Tom). She still wears behind-the-ear hearing aids, and wishes that people in restaurant settings would come equipped with closed-captioning!

I’m very excited about the release of my graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I’m also kind of nervous about it. I worry about what other deaf people will think of the book. Here’s one of the reasons why:

I lost my hearing to meningitis when I was four and a half years old. I was lucky to have a little bit of time as a hearing person to acquire some language, because as soon as I lost my hearing, communication with my family and friends became really, really tricky.

The summer after everything changed, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten class for deaf kids, and that decision became the basis for how I dealt with—and still deal with—my deafness. In the class, we were taught how to lip-read. I describe this in the book. However, something that I don’t talk about directly is that our teacher did not teach us any sign language. At all. Zero. It was 1975, and whether it was the thinking of the time or the particular reasoning of that school system (or both), lip-reading was in, and sign language was out.


But lip-reading is not always easy. Success in lip-reading depends on so many factors: who is talking, how familiar you are with the person talking, where the person is talking, how animated the person is while talking, the presence or absence of background noise and distractions and light, and on and on. Writing El Deafo made me realize that I wish I had learned sign language when I was in kindergarten, before I became so self-conscious about everything to do with my deafness. Perhaps learning both lip-reading and sign language would have helped me and my classmates communicate more comfortably than we could with lip-reading alone. But after kindergarten, I was good enough at lip-reading to go to school with hearing kids, and suddenly I was the only deaf kid in my class. No way was I going to do anything that made me different—it was bad enough that I looked different because of my enormous hearing aid. If I was using sign language, everyone would have stared at me even more, right? Oh, such faulty reasoning, especially since I was probably already getting stares. So I never learned how to sign, not even when my well-intentioned mother gave me an opportunity to do so. Over the years, I got better and better at lip-reading, and felt less and less inclined to learn to sign.


The toughest chapter to write in El Deafo, by far, was the chapter in which I reject sign language. I initially hesitated to write it because I didn’t want to admit to the world, and in particular other deaf people, just how much I really and truly hated sign language when I was a kid. It is a terrible and unsettling thing to admit, but ultimately I decided to include my sign language story because I needed to be truthful to my unique experience of deafness. The book would not be complete without it.


I sincerely hope that this chapter adequately explains the reasons for my mixed-up feelings about sign language, even if those reasons were irrational—and I also hope that I accurately portray just how bratty I was about it. It’s all true, including the last pages of the chapter, in which I witness two adults arguing in sign language. They weren’t interpreting a song in sign language like we sometimes did in music class (corny!), or following me around spelling my name with their hands the way some of my classmates did (annoying!). They were communicating. I was more than impressed, I was jealous. But not enough to actually do something about it. I was still too worried about being “different” from my hearing classmates.


The irony of all of this is that my absolute favorite people to talk to—because they are easy to understand—are the animated folks who make grand gestures when they speak, who “talk with their hands.” Isn’t talking with your hands what sign language really is, after all?

So, to all the deaf kids and the deaf adults who use sign language and who might read El Deafo: please know that I have nothing but respect and admiration for sign language and for those who use it. I sincerely hope that you will not be offended by the sign language chapter in the book. And I also hope that if we meet, you might teach me a bit.


El Deafo coverGoing to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

Coming September 2, 2014, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cece!

Amulet Books has generously donated an ARC of El Deafo 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 US addresses.

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

Corinne Duyvis and s.e. smith interview Shaunta Grimes about VIRAL NATION

In February, authors Corinne Duyvis and s.e. smith reviewed Viral Nation, a YA dystopian/fiction novel by Shaunta Grimes. We invited everyone back to the blog to discuss Viral Nation, its sequel Rebel Nation–which released last week!–and the series’ autistic main character, Clover Donovan.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away shiny copies of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation! Details at the end of the post.

This interview contains some spoilers for Viral Nation.

Take it away …

Viral Nation coverCorinne: How would you describe Viral Nation and Rebel Nation to those who haven’t heard of the books yet?

Shaunta: At its core, the Viral Nation series is about a bunch of kids who accidentally find the cracks in their Utopian post-post apocalyptic society, and end up starting a second American Revolution. This is basically a story about kids who are forced to deal with the bad choices made by generations of adults. I wrote the bulk of Viral Nation in 2008, when the American economy was collapsing and the news was full of stories of war, global warming, and fear of epidemic flus. I started to read about sustainable living and how to get through worst case scenarios. Viral Nation was basically born out of my overactive imagination wondering what would happen if even one of the things happening at that time actually did meet that worst case scenario ending.

Lots of dystopian books focus on the time right after an apocalypse, and I’ve noticed that in most of them people turn against each other. When I really thought about it, I realized I didn’t think that’s what would happen if something globally devastating took place. I think that people would ban together. There wouldn’t be a shortage of resources, at least not right away, and people would be terrified—the fight and the flight would be scared out of them. At least, that was my hypothesis. I also really believe that in a case like that, someone would find a way to monetize the situation or use it to leverage themselves into a position of power.

Rebel Nation covers.e.: You’ve mentioned on Twitter that my and Corinne’s discussion of Viral Nation helped you with book two, Rebel Nation. Can you share a little bit about how it affected the sequel?

Shaunta: I remember seeing you Tweet something about the back copy of Viral Nation calling Clover brilliant, but autistic. I didn’t write the back cover copy, and those aren’t the words that I’d use, but when I saw that called out I thought about how important it was for me, going forward, to make sure I didn’t write Clover as brilliant, but autistic.

I wrote Viral Nation, at least in part, because I wanted my son (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) to have a story with a character like him in it where that character had adventures and did really cool things, without the story itself being about autism. I didn’t want Viral Nation to be an autism issue book. I wanted to write an adventure story with a character who had autism.

I was inspired, by your conversation with Corinne about Viral Nation, to include characters in Rebel Nation who have more severe forms of Autism than Clover does. That will carry through more strongly in the third book in the series, but the foundation was set in Rebel Nation. I was also inspired to think about the trope of the magic disabled person. I hadn’t considered the idea that only autistic people being able to travel through the time portal as fitting into that trope. Thinking about that let me really deepen the idea behind the time travel in my series. It doesn’t come out much in Rebel Nation, but it will in the third book.

I also was much more conscious, when I was writing Rebel Nation, about how Clover manages physical touch. I tried hard not to fall into every touch but Jude’s making her uncomfortable.

s.e.: Since Viral Nation has a strong science fiction aspect, what are your thoughts on the erasure of disability from science fiction and the absence of disability in all but dystopian visions of ‘the future’?

Shaunta: When I was writing Viral Nation, I thought a lot about demographics. If almost everyone was gone from a non-discriminating global catastrophe, who would be left? I thought about how statisticians can extrapolate a slice of society into a pretty good approximation of the whole, and realized it would kind of work backwards from that. That slice would be all that was left.

Since my book is set in Reno, and the people who live in Reno are the people left alive in the state of Nevada, I looked at the demographics for the state and tried to make the people in the book representative of the people I thought would be left after the Virus. That included people on the autism spectrum.

I love science fiction, but I don’t want to live in a world devoid of diversity. In my family we make a pretty big deal out of celebrating difference. One of the reasons I wrote Viral Nation was because I wanted to write a story where my son could find someone like him. I really believe that being able to find yourself in popular culture is important.

This question makes me think of the whole ‘debate’ about vaccinations and how there are still people who believe that vaccines cause autism. Here’s the thing: even if they did (and they so do not), the suggestion that it would be better to die of whooping cough or wind up in an iron lung thanks to polio than to be on the autism spectrum is, in itself, kind of a terrifying dystopian idea to me.

s.e.: I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy in the disability community over Autism Speaks and who is allowed to speak for disabled people, along with the saying ‘nothing about us, without us.’ How do you, as the parent of an autistic child and author working to increase diversity in children’s literature, feel like you fit into this paradigm?

Shaunta GrimesShaunta: As the parent of a child who has autism, one line I’ve had to walk for a long time is the line between advocating for my son and just taking over for him. Making sure that he’s been involved in decisions regarding his education, for example, rather than just going in and taking charge. That meant, in our family, sometimes homeschooling Nick when that was what he felt was best for him.

Interestingly, that mindset has spilled over to the way I parent my non-autistic children. Specifically, being Nick’s mom has taught me that traditional schooling isn’t always the best choice. It’s never been mandatory in our family. Nick’s sister, Adrienne, was homeschooled for eighth grade when she needed a break from the classroom. My youngest daughter, Ruby, has always chosen regular school, but I think the idea that in our family school is not mandatory has not only helped Nick get the best, least stressful education possible—it’s done the same for his sisters.

Part of my job, though, as Nick’s mom, has been advocacy. I feel like it’s been really important to not only be a voice for Nick, but to help make sure that his own voice is heard. That’s meant standing by his decisions about his education and, now, his place in the workforce, even when they aren’t the decisions I would make. And, I think, that in many ways writing Viral Nation, and especially Clover, has been a way to reach out to other people in the spirit of advocacy and in support of self-determination.

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 Clover’s autism, or where you unthinkingly used certain tropes?

Shaunta: The one trope I definitely used without realizing that I was doing it was the idea of disabilities as magical. I wanted autism to be the portal to adventure in Viral Nation, and I can see now how that fell into a trope that I wouldn’t have consciously used.

I’ll be honest. Writing diversity is kind of scary. It’s particularly scary when the author is not a very diverse person herself. Obviously, I can write about women with some authority. I’ve lived in deep poverty, so that’s something that came up in the Viral Nation series, and that is a focus of my next non-Viral Nation project. But, basically I’m white, straight, healthy physically and mentally, non-disabled, from a Christian background, educated, middle class—I have a lot of privilege and there is not very much about my personal life that is particularly diverse. Just about any diversity I put into my books comes from research, rather than personal experience, and it’s scary to think about all the ways I can get it wrong.

I kind of think of it like rings. My personal experience with diversity involves being female, having lived with deep poverty, and being a fat woman. The next ring includes raising a son who has autism, a daughter who struggles with anxiety, having parents and siblings who live with addiction. Those are—for lack of a better term—my comfortable diversities. Those are the things that I feel like I can write about, to add diversity to my stories, and draw on my own experiences to inform them.

Completely outside my range of personal experience are things like being a person of color, physical disability, coming from a non-Western culture, having a non-Christian belief system, being part of the LGBTQ community. In the Viral Nation series, there are characters who are not white, but I hope, as I grow as a writer, that I can incorporate even more diversity into my stories.

Corinne: Can you share some of the research you did to write Clover?

Shaunta: Although I switched their genders, Clover and West were very much inspired by my son Nick and my daughter Adrienne. I wanted to write about the sibling relationship where disability is involved. I wanted to write a character who has autism, but I also wanted to write a character in the position of supporting that character. I wanted Nick to be able to find himself in Clover, but I also wanted Adrienne to find herself in West. One of the most gratifying things that has happened since Viral Nation published has been hearing from readers who have a sibling who has a disability, telling me how they felt connected to West.

So, I guess most of the research I did involved spending twenty years raising Adrienne and Nick. I’ve also done a lot of training in learning to advocate for people with disabilities, including how to support them in advocating for themselves. I’ve worked in the school system with kids who have a wide range of disabilities. I read books, I watched videos, I asked Nick and Adrienne a lot of questions.

Some of the coolest research I did was for Mango, actually. Believe it or not, Mango was inspired by a cat! Nick had a little white cat named Angel, from the time he was nine years old. The two of them were so bonded. I actually thought about giving Clover a cat instead of a dog, but in the end, obviously, decided not to. Autism service dogs are pretty incredible. I’ve been really happy to be able to draw some attention to them programs that train and provide them.

Corinne: What’s next for you? Will we see more of Clover in the future, or are you working on something different?

Shaunta: I’ll write one more book in the Viral Nation series. I’ve got a novella-length prequel coming out in the next few weeks that I’m really excited about. It’s about Leanne, who is Clover’s trainer in Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and takes place when she’s a teenager. Leanne is an amputee, and the story takes place during the time she loses her leg.

Thanks so much for your time!

Shaunta and her publisher, Penguin, have generously donated copies of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation 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 both books. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.

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