Discussion #6: If We Could Tell an Author One Thing …

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:

If you could tell an author writing a character with your disability one thing–besides “do your research”–what would it be? For example: a piece of advice, a warning about a common inaccuracy or iffy plotline, etc.

Our contributors share the following:

Kody Keplinger:
I’d remind authors that blindness, like all things, is on a spectrum. Most characters depicted in fiction are completely blind – they see nothing. In reality, only 10% or so of blind individuals are completely blind. The other 90% fall on a spectrum. Depending on the disorder or trauma that caused the blindness, a person could see in a thousand different ways. So many people don’t realize this, though. I actually get accused of faking my blindness because I can read large print text on my phone. I often wonder if this is because the media only portrays complete blindness as “blind” and rarely acknowledges the other 90% who have some vision.

s.e. smith:
Something that’s really been bugging me a great deal lately is media and pop culture depictions of OCD. OCD is not about being ‘obsessively’ neat or fussy about personal appearance — it’s a very complex mental health condition that has serious ramifications and manifests totally differently in different people. I’m especially tired of the stereotype that people with OCD are super-clean (although I do keep a very tidy house).

It might help to break down what OCD is actually about — obsessive thoughts, and compulsive actions. OCD involves intrusive, traumatic, aggressive thoughts that don’t go away, and compulsive rituals that people use to manage them. Maybe for some people that’s checking the stove four times before leaving the house, or having to double and triple-check locks. But it can also involve hair pulling, or needing to reorder jars on the shelf, or being completely disrupted by environmental change. Avoid cheap shortcuts when depicting OCD, and make it a condition with actual consequences instead of the figure of fun or something quirky.

Corinne Duyvis:
I’ve spoken a lot about autism, but less so about AD(H)D. I’d love to see more accurate and varied portrayals: It’s not all about distractibility, impulsiveness and hyperactivity! Those traits may be common, but I’d like to see, for example, characters struggling with making decisions, or experiencing hyperfocus.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann:
I’d ask authors to avoid arranging scenes and entire plot lines around characters with Asperger’s who take everything literally, particularly if the author intends to use it for laughs. It feels as if you’re laughing at us and not with us. Besides, most tweens and teens with Asperger’s have learned what an idiom is and know the difference between literal and figurative meanings, even if the literal meaning conjures amusing images in our minds.

Marieke Nijkamp:
I’d love to see more spectrums, especially when it comes to daily life with a disability. For example, when it comes to my arthritis, it means I am in pain almost every day. It does not mean I’m in the exact same amount of pain every day, that the pain itself is exactly the same, or even that the pain is the worst of it.

Some days, I can barely hold a hairbrush. Other days, it’s more like an annoying ache in my bones. Some days, my painkillers are heavenly (and anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to come talk to me about how medication is poison can get out and check their privilege), other days I barely notice them. Some days, I can ignore the pain, and other days, it chips away at the very core of me because it’s so very invasive. It’s a spectrum, and no day is quite like the other.

Kayla Whaley:
In terms of my own disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), I’d like authors to consider the physicality of it beyond not being able to walk. Realize that neuromuscular diseases don’t affect ONLY one’s legs. My entire body is weaker than most and that affects my physicality–the way I look and move. I tend to sit leaning forward and to the right because it takes less strength for me than sitting upright. If I’m reaching for something on a table, I have to use my free arm to brace the other. When I’m moving my body (gesturing while talking, adjusting my sitting position, dancing, anything), I don’t tend to be the most graceful because it requires a decent amount of effort to do so.

I think because the only wheelchair-using characters we’re used to seeing are athletic people who have been paralyzed (not that those portrayals are necessarily accurate either), it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the walking issue while ignoring the rest. (And keep in mind that this is a very, very incomplete list and focuses purely on visible physical differences between me and those who are able-bodied.)

Cece Bell:
I agree with what several of the other contributors have said: disabilities are on a spectrum. That is definitely true with deafness—there’s such a big range, and so many different ways that each deaf individual might deal with their own level of deafness. I rarely see deaf people in fiction (probably because I don’t read nearly enough), but I often see them in movies or on TV as minor characters who exist for no other reason than for comic relief. You know, the stock deaf person who shouts all the time because he can’t hear what he’s saying. That joke’s so old even my dog won’t eat it. I guess this advice is more for movie directors than authors, but there you go!

What about you, commenters? Any advice to offer?

Corinne Duyvis: Autism, ADD, and Depression, a.k.a. Bad School Experiences 101

Corinne DuyvisCorinne Duyvis is a lifelong Amsterdammer and former portrait artist now in the business of writing about superpowered teenagers.  In her free time, Corinne studies Dutch Sign Language, finds creative ways of hurting people via brutal martial arts, and gets her geek on whenever possible. She also sleeps an inordinate amount. Find her on Twitter.

Her debut YA fantasy novel Otherbound (Amulet/Abrams, 2014) is about a boy who’s spent ten years involuntarily witnessing the life of a mute servant from another world every time he blinks–and what happens when they discover they can communicate.

I often see writers focusing on the social aspects of autism in high school, which I think is awesome and important. But for me, although I was a mess, socially speaking, the issue of schoolwork was far graver.

In this post, I’ll recount my high school experiences (in embarrassing detail) in the hopes it may shed a light on the kinds of problems autistic characters may be likely to encounter in school–both the practical issues and the emotional ones.

I entered high school at the age of eleven, one year earlier than usual, due to being picked on in grade school. I was instantly faced with two problems.

The first problem: one boy decided I made a great target. The rest of the class followed. I was consistently picked on throughout the entire first year. After that first year, a teacher cracked down on the class like a goddamn superhero, and I was no longer picked on. Still, I resigned myself to being a permanent outsider; I barely had friends, and though I would hang out with one or two people during school, I never met up with anyone outside of school hours. In retrospect, I was far too stuck in my other problems for my social skills to develop normally.

See, the second problem was that schoolwork had been a breeze all my life. Now, it no longer was. With upward of ten subjects–expanded to a mind-blowing nineteen later on–I had to learn to study for the first time ever. Notably, my best subjects were the ones that required memorization. Languages? Vocabulary was a snap. For grammar, it depended on how the rules were structured. Memorizing case inflections in Latin? Sure! Memorizing standard rules about sentence order? No problem. Anything more complex and nuanced than that? I crashed.

The same applied to maths: give me a few rules to memorize and I excelled. Enter nuance, and my frustration levels racketed. I’d stare at problems in my textbook and nothing made sense, which frustrated me to tears because I knew I should be able to do this–so why wasn’t it working?

History and geography were just as bad. I had to read long, complex narratives, when at the time I had no earthly idea of how to single out the most important aspects. I would read, and read, and read, and nothing would stick.

This was a big deal for a perfectionist like me. Homework took ten times as long as it ought to. I flailed my way through the first few years with the worst study habits possible: I procrastinated, got distracted, moaned and complained and agonized, never scheduled … Homework was basically my beating my head against a brick wall and wondering I was getting such a headache.

Eventually, even the thought of homework made me burst into tears. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to sleep at night knowing that I’d have school first thing in the morning. My bike rides to school were fuzzy with tears, and I had constant thoughts of flinging myself into this canal or in front of that truck. I had panic attacks. One of them was set off by a bad grade for a German test.

In short: I was hella depressed.

But I still got decent grades. I managed.

Up until I entered the fourth year, when a different homework system was introduced. This system promoted independence and discipline. Instead of teachers saying, “Memorize these words by Tuesday, study this maths problem by Wednesday, do all the assignments on pages 78-85 of your Chemistry textbook by Thursday,” we’d get assignments like, “Oh, make sure you’ve completed chapters one through fifteen by January.” We discussed certain topics during class and were left on our own outside of it.

I crashed and burned.

Before, the constant looming deadlines of homework had kept me agitated, frustrated, and without any sort of free time, but they also made sure I got at least some things done. Now, having distant, abstract deadlines, and each subject being nothing but nuance rather than rote memorization … Nothing got done.

My depression got worse. I’d skip class, sitting in the school library and staring at the computer screen in a film of tears, and then I’d have a panic attack because oh god I’m skipping class what am I doing this is not me this is not me. I couldn’t conceive of any sort of future outside of school school school for years to come, and after that, there’d be college college college. I wanted to curl in on myself and never wake up so I’d never, ever have to deal with homework or school or obligations or anything ever again.

A couple months into this new school system, we called it quits. The only classes I attended were English and Art. I spent the rest of the time working in the school cafeteria, since I still had to be on school grounds.

And for the first time in years, I had peace.

After being strung along by an incompetent doctor for a couple of years, we finally gave him the finger and went straight to a psychologist specializing in children’s mental health. We’d read a book about Asperger Syndrome, recognized a lot of symptoms, and explained our suspicions. They tested me. Not long afterward, I received an official diagnosis.

And I was so, so relieved.

It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t dumb for not succeeding. I wasn’t a failure.

Everything crashed into place. My social skills, or lack thereof. My obsessive focus on certain hobbies, to the exclusion of all else. My dislike of eye contact. My picky eating. My repetitive movements.

And my study skills.

Autistic people, as it turned out, often struggled with vague, abstract deadlines. Autistic people thrived on clear instructions. Autistic people had a hard time moving from one activity to another. Autistic people couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff when reading narratives.

If we’d known sooner, we could have avoided so many problems. Instead, what we had was a traumatized fourteen-year-old tentatively recovering from depression, a brand-new diagnosis, and a mother determined to find the right place for her daughter. We found one. I enrolled in art school at the age of fifteen. I had barely homework, I filled my days with something I loved, and I flourished.

At twenty-three, I was diagnosed with ADD. Another few pieces of the high school puzzle clicked into place. (Why was I distracted so easily during homework? Why did I zone out during explanations and classes? Why couldn’t I write more than a sentence in my notebook before feeling the urgent need to doodle in the sidelines?)

All in all, the story has a pretty happy ending. I’ve taught myself a lot of the skills I lacked, I’ve embraced my autism, and I’ll have a book on the shelves this June.

But despite that happy ending, over a decade after leaving high school, I still have recurring nightmares of going back. In the dreams, I’m not worried about facing the bullies. I’m not self-conscious about being unpopular, or not knowing how to act. Instead, I’m back in the classroom after all these years. I look at the blackboard or my textbooks, and I panic. I’m back. I don’t understand. I’m behind on everything. I’m never going to be able to catch up. I’m never going to understand.

I’m back, and I’m going to be a failure all over again.

And it’s so odd to see that something that left such lasting scars on me is rarely even mentioned.

Jamie Krakover: Lost in Translation

Jamie KrakoverGrowing up with a fascination for space and things that fly, Jamie turned that love into a career as an Aerospace Engineer. Combining her natural enthusiasm for Science Fiction and her love of reading, she now spends a lot of her time writing Middle Grade and Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Jamie lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her dog Sophie. When she isn’t being a Rocket Scientist by day and a writer by night, she can be found catching up on the latest sci fi TV, books, and movies as well as trolling Twitter. And no, the rocket science jokes never get old!

Follow Jamie on Twitter (@Rockets2Writing) and check out her Blog. She’s also a contributor at Middle Grade Minded.


When you look at me, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. You’d think I was a well adjusted adult with a good job as an aerospace engineer, who has not one, but two degrees in ‘rocket science’. I don’t throw those degrees around lightly, as a joke, or even to try and say I’m smarter or better than anyone else because I’m not. I mention it because I have a secret. I struggled every single step of the way and not just because becoming an engineer with two degrees is hard. I have learning disabilities. In college I was diagnosed with ADD and a reading comprehension disorder.

That diagnosis came as a bit of a shock. But when I looked back at my schooling and how I approached it, everything made sense. That diagnosis was long overdue but it came so late in my school career because I hid it so well. I’d learned how to cope in secret until things got so complex my coping mechanisms didn’t work anymore. If you go back to my early report cards the signs were there, glaringly obvious in fact. My second grade teacher wrote “Jamie is a very bright student but when I’m teaching or reading to the class, she is playing with things in her desk or on my bookshelf. I had to move her desk away from some of the distractions.” Now to me that screams ADD but at the time, if you weren’t acting out, disrupting class, or completely failing out, no one saw any issue with it. The problem is (and not to over generalize), girls tend to show signs of ADD in much different ways then boys. They are more quiet about it, and it’s less disruptive to the outside world. But it is disruptive to the individual. So disruptive in fact, that you tune out the world and often miss important instructions. I mention the ADD because it filters into the reading comprehension problem. Getting distracted often directly affected my ability to comprehend what I read. But there is much more to my reading comprehension problem than just the ADD. At a time when reading should be fun to explore, I found it painful and frustrating. Downright tear inducing at times. I could read, really well in fact, but I didn’t understand it.

My second grade teacher did do one amazing thing for me though. She got me to read. No, not just read, read tons and tons and tons. She had a solar system on her wall and each student had a rocket ship. When you read a certain amount of minutes, you got to move your rocket ship to the next planet. When you reached the sun you got a sticker on your rocket, a prize, and then you started the adventure again. For a giant nerd like me who loved space, this was motivation enough to get my nose in a book. By the end of the year I had the most stickers on my rocket by far. The problem is, I didn’t comprehend and therefore remember, ninety percent of what I’d read. But this system worked well for me because it was based on time spent reading not number of pages read.

After second grade I stopped reading most books unless they were assigned for class. Even then, I often didn’t read them. The reason being, when I read a sentence, I often didn’t understand it. Somewhere between my eyes seeing the words and my brain, the phrase disappeared into the ether. I’d read sentences upwards of 20 times and still it was like I hadn’t even seen the words on the page. Assignments that should take me thirty minutes or maybe an hour took three or more because I’d have to read and reread things over and over again. It was infuriating. So after a while I stopped trying. I gave up and found another way to deal with the problem.

Despite all signs, no one recognized the issue because I quickly found a way to cope. From grade school through high school and some of college, I never read textbooks. Not a one. It took too long and I’d still be doing my 10th grade history homework at the age of 31 if I had actually attempted to read my textbooks. In order to complete homework assignments, I scoured my notes from class, which the teachers often pulled directly from the book. If I couldn’t find the answers in my notes, I skimmed for a header in the textbook. When I found the most logical one, I looked for keywords until I found the answer. This worked about ninety percent of the time. When it didn’t, I went to Mom for help. She unfortunately didn’t do me any favors. She must have known I hadn’t read the book because within five minutes of reading, she usually found the answer for me. This technique got me through science, history, and a few other classes. Math was never a problem, though. Numbers were awesome. I could see a problem and immediately know what to do, no reading required. Word problems though, were my nemesis. I actually had to read, so I sucked at them.

But there were times when coping failed me. I also didn’t read instructions on assignments. Well, until 5th grade when I got an assignment that was all about reading instructions. Instructions took too long to read and I never understood them so why bother? On this particular assignment I got a page full of math problems that was a color by number, so figuring I knew what to do I went to town. I answered all the problems and colored the whole thing in. Meanwhile wondering why half the class had finished so fast. Turns out I failed the assignment. The instructions were a giant paragraph that basically boiled down to, do not complete this worksheet, write your name on the paper and turn it in. The way I had coped, had failed me. From that point on, I at least read instructions even if it was painful and time consuming.

Of all my classes though, English was a nightmare! When a teacher assigned a short story or a book, I was sunk. There was no way to fake reading a novel. So a thirty page reading assignment was hell. That was easily one to two hours of reading for me, sometimes more. And reading quizzes, forget about it! I’d sit down to take the quiz and it was like I was on a totally different planet. Literally! I’d read a question and think to myself, that was in the book? That happened? I had no recollection. None. And then I’d fail the quiz. I frequently got between two and five out of ten on my reading quizzes.

But this wasn’t a memory problem. In fact, my memory is superb. When I sat down and finally got tested, the doctor would give me sequences of numbers to repeat back to him. We went up to 15 numbers in a row. I could repeat them back immediately without even batting an eye. In fact, I could even repeat them back in reverse order, which amazed the doctor. He’d never had a patient complete all the number sequences forwards and backwards. And yet when I read, words just didn’t sink in. Something was wrong. I couldn’t explain to someone what I’d just read because there was a blank hole where the words should have been.

And yet I coped, exceedingly well. I graduated middle school with a 4.0 and high school with a 3.9 GPA, without reading a single textbook. This didn’t work in college. By sophomore year the material was so in depth. The teachers actually expected you to read the textbooks because they taught more complex theory in class. They didn’t regurgitate what was in the book, they taught supplementary material. BLASPHEMY! Even worse the grade weighting had shifted significantly. Homework went from 70-80% of your grade to about 30%. It was all about how you tested. I was screwed! I was in engineering which was mostly math, but engineering is also word problems. FREAKING WORD PROBLEMS! I went to war with my exams and I lost. Miserably. Epically bad. Now engineering exams are notorious for having averages of 30-50%. But I would get well below the average. Meaning I maybe did 20-30% of the exam right. And believe me I wasn’t average. Not even close. I was an A student. I got some B’s don’t get me wrong and I failed reading quizzes but I DID NOT get D’s and F’s on exams. And yet I had, multiple times.

Something was glaringly wrong, and it wasn’t that I was misunderstanding the material. In fact, my biggest clue was that I had a two part class with the same teacher. In the first semester I got a nearly perfect grade in the class. I aced the first exam. But in the continuation of the material I was flunking. I don’t flunk. So I pulled out the exam I aced and the exam from the semester I failed. Same teacher, similar material, and yet I’d failed. Then I pulled out an exam from another class that I’d also failed. I started to see a correlation. On the exam I aced, the word problems were a maximum of two lines. The exams I failed, paragraphs of words. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the material, I’d failed to comprehend what was being asked of me. It had gotten lost in that black hole between my eyeballs and my brain.

So I got tested. Sure enough I had a significant deficiency in reading comprehension and ADD. And once I had a diagnosis, I found new and more effective ways to cope with the problem. Including getting extra time on tests so I could clarify with teachers that I understood what was being asked of me. But now that I’m an adult, this issue hasn’t just magically disappeared. It’s still there. Whether I sit down to read a long email at work, or I’m just reading for pleasure. Often times things just disappear into the ether. I have to take a step back and go wait, what did I just read? Did I really understand that? But I push on. Despite all the issues, I love to read. I wish I’d learned to cope with reading at an early age. I’m deeply saddened when I think about all the books I missed out on as a kid. Nothing interested me enough to make me fight through the time it took to read, so I quit doing it.

But in the end I chose to tell this whole story to make a point. Just because you have a learning disability does not mean you are stupid. It just means you deal with things in your world differently. Smart people have disabilities too. They often hide them, exceedingly well. Like most with disabilities, they cope. When that doesn’t work, they step back re-evaluate and find another way. Just because they aren’t failing out of school and life, doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem or that they aren’t struggling. Imagine if you had to go through life not understanding what you read. You’d be sunk. Unless you learned how to work around it like I did. My methods aren’t always perfect. They still sometimes fail me. But I keep pushing on day after day. One thing is for certain though, I will never let it keep me from enjoying books again.

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.”

Bethanie Borst: A Middle-Grader’s Perspective on Middle-Grade Literature

03Bethanie Borst is a 13-year-old with ADD and ASD. She writes twisted middle-grade fairy tales with her mom, Amie. Their first book, Cinderskella, releases October 2013! Bethanie can be found at http://www.facebook.com/AmieAndBethanieBorst You can visit her mom at http://www.amieborst.com and at http://www.twitter.com/AmieBorst.

Bethanie:  I’m not sure how to start this blog post.

Amie: *types*

Bethanie: Are you kidding me?

Amie: *smiles*

Bethanie: Stop writing everything I say! Now I’m mad.

Amie: Well, what do you want to say?

Bethanie: I don’t know.

Amie: *laughs*

Bethanie: Me being mad is cute?

Amie: *smiles* *types*

Ever seen the Allstate commercial?  “I’m a random windstorm. Shaky, shaky.”


Well, sometimes that’s how life feels when you’re a kid with disabilities.  Because I’m both very random and my life can be, well, pretty shaky.

I’m an avid reader and I read all types of books and genres. I never really paid any attention to whether characters had disabilities (or how many there were) until I was asked to write this blog post. Then I picked up my books and realized there were lots!

One of my favorite kinds of books is action adventure/fantasy. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton captured me as a reader. The main character, Persimmony, might seem like a normal kid to most people, but because I have a disability I get the vibe that she’s ADD.  Mostly it’s the way she talks and thinks. It’s all over the place. Much like me!

“Persimmony angrily kicked a stone (which, unfortunately for her toe, remained in place). ‘It’s all Prunella’s fault!’ she cried. ‘If she hadn’t pestered me about sweeping the floor right in the middle of my glorious dream about rescuing a baby from the teeth of a murderous alligator, I would have never have thrown the broom across the room. Then the broom would never have hit the Giving Pot, and I wouldn’t be here trudging through the Willow Woods in the middle of the night to fetch a new pot from Theodore. And with a storm coming, too!’”

Yeah, my brain kind of works just like that.

Ever seen the tee-shirt, “I’m not ADD, it’s just….hey! Did you see that rabbit?” Yup. That’s me.

Then there are paranormal stories.  School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari has four kids with phobias. I have a fear of circuses. And screaming.  There’s also May Bird by Jodi Lynn Anderson. The main character sees ghosts. If I saw a ghost, I’d scream and then my phobia would kick into high gear! Ghosts don’t like salt and quartz.  Or spit. So I’d make sure I stockpiled that. *Patooey!*

There’s contemporary fiction like Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor, Things Not Seen by Avi, Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech, and Larger Than Life Lara by Dandi Mackall. These characters all have different disabilities. Not all disabilities have to have the same struggles. In Waiting for Normal, Addie is a dyslexic flute player. Bobby, in Things Not Seen, is invisible and is best friends with a blind girl. Zinny, in Chasing Redbird, suffers from depression when her favorite aunt dies. Zinny is also socially awkward and doesn’t like to talk, which makes me wonder if she might have something like Aspergers or ASD. But the best one of all is Larger Than Life Lara who is faced with obesity. Despite her body image, she’s a positive upbeat girl.

Everyone with disabilities handles their situation differently. I used to go to public school but advocated (more like begged) to be homeschooled. School was distracting, boring and disorganized (all those kids taping pencils, making noises and hours of homework made my brain feel like it would explode! Or be eaten by a zombie.). So I started homeschool last year in 7th grade. I went to a co-op and took high school classes and got all A’s (whereas in middle school I mostly got C’s, D’s and F’s.)

Homeschooling has been a great experience for me to learn the way I need to in order to succeed.  So, you can imagine how excited I was to read stories with characters who were homeschooled.  Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli features a girl who is very different from her peers.  While she does attend public school, she was previously homeschooled. This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh has a main character (Ratchet) who is homeschooled. In my best opinion it wasn’t a great example of homeschooling, but maybe it is for other kids. In the book, Ida B by Katherine Hannigan, Ida was snippish when she went to public school and seemed much happier as a homeschooler. Although I’ve never been snippy, I’m definitely much more content to stay at home!  People have many reasons for homeschooling, sometimes it’s due to religious reasons and sometimes it’s because kids learn better in another environment.

There’s all sort of disabilities and many ways to handle them. I’m glad to see there’s a variety of books out there so readers can understand what it’s like to have a disability. Or for people like me so we can have someone to relate to!

Thanks for inviting me to be part of this Disability in Kidlit event, Kody and Corinne!

My mom said I should mention these other great links:

Bethanie and Amie Borst’s novel Cinderskella is available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble.

Cindy is just a normal 11¾-year-old. At least until she wakes up one night and finds out she’s dead. Well, she isn’t technically dead—she just doesn’t have any hair . . . or a nose . . . or skin. Yep—all bones, no body.

Human by day and skeleton by night, Cindy is definitely cursed. And because her mother recently died, Cindy has no one to turn to except a father who’s now scared of her and an evil stepmother who makes her do the housecleaning with a toothbrush. To make matters worse, the Spring Fling dance is approaching, and Ethan, the cutest boy in sixth grade, doesn’t seem to know Cindy exists. Of course, Cindy doesn’t think letting Ethan find out she’s part skeleton is the best way to introduce herself.

While facing such perils as pickled pig’s feet, a wacky fortune teller, and a few quick trips to the Underworld, Cindy’s determined to break the curse—even for a single night.

Kalen O’Donnell: Much Ado About ADD

Kalen O'DonnellWriter, actor and occasional print model. Trained in the fine art of Lying Creative Truths, studied at the Institution of Making Things Up, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the field of Convincing People to Give Him Money in Exchange for the Performance of Ridiculous Labors. Significant moments in his career training have involved falling out of windows, driving other people’s expensive cars without crashing or obeying traffic laws, and kissing pretty boys and girls because the nice man in the director’s chair assured him it was a legitimate acting gig. His last recorded full night’s sleep was in the late nineties, and he would really appreciate it if you’d pass him some more coffee. Find Kalen on Twitter.

I am so totally ADD.

No, for real. I’m totally scatterbrained, procrastinate like whoa (just ask Corinne and Kody about how long it took them to get this post from me), and in general have so many wee little thoughts buzzing around me noggin’ that it’s next to impossible to focus on any single one of them long enough to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

It’s been that way since high school. I had an Enforcer Mom, one of those stern taskmaster types who used her superpowers of Hyper-Vigilance to ensure I dedicated myself to excelling in all things in life at all times (for my own good, natch). She would make me sit at the kitchen table before every exam and study within eyesight so she could make sure I wasn’t goofing off as I was wont to do, and even with all that, I STILL couldn’t make myself study. I would sit at the kitchen table and flip through textbooks with a look of intense concentration on my face, while internally I was busy kicking ass on level eight of Super Mario Bros. 3, and then the Shadow Man level of Megaman 3 and then trying to figure out how to beat that damn boss from Streets of Rage 2 and so on ad nauseam. I LITERALLY had NOTHING better to do; I was practically super-glued to my chair under supervision with my textbook and notes in hand, and yet still I had an allergic reaction to actually doing anything productive with my time.

Yeah. I was THAT awesome.

This pattern repeated itself in college (where I dropped out), in most 9-5 jobs I tried (all of which I quit or was fired from) and my attempts to write a book and kickstart a writing career (which progressed from taking two years of stops and starts before finishing one 50K book, to then writing a 50K book every couple months and then doing absolutely nothing with those drafts because OMG you guys revisions are HARD).

And here’s the thing. I totally knew I had ADD. Wasn’t angsting about it either, like oh noes, I have a messed up brain, I am a Super-Freak, if only there was some toxic ooze to mix with my synaptic misfires and elevate me to full on supervillain status, whut whut. Nah. It was my go-to apology, my self-deprecating trademark shtick for when my usual procrastination pushed me from loveably anti-punctual to just completely obnoxiously LATE.

‘Ugh, I am SO sorry dude/dudette. I can’t believe I took so long getting this to you, I am so ADD, what is my brain I can’t even.’

Said with a smile and a laugh, but the thing was, I wasn’t even joking, I totally knew I had ADD, I just…didn’t think it was a big deal. I mean, it was just ADD. I’d been this way my whole life, and bad habits aside I still paid my bills and fed and clothed myself and kept a roof over my head without ever actually resorting to a life of crime. (Except for that one time, but that doesn’t count. I was coerced, long story, shush, I had a point here).

Because here’s the thing about ADD awareness as a teen, the first impression garnered from books and shows and movies. It tends to cater to one of two extremes.

The first is, OMG you have ADD but it’s okay, it’s okay baby, just take your magic pills and it’ll all be okay (said while stroking a child’s hair as though said child is a wild animal that will bolt if not properly soothed).

These are the books, shows and movies that are so consumed with making sure people are absolutely clear that ADD is NO BIG DEAL and you are TOTALLY OKAY AND NORMAL and NO, MOMMY’S NOT CRYING, SHE WAS JUST CHOPPING ONIONS that in actuality it comes across like you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and everyone’s trying to be strong for you.

Which umm… not the best impression you want to give to a child, srsly.

So then you get the second extreme which attempts to normalize ADD by treating it so hyper-casually that it in essence becomes a punchline. Oh it’s just ADD. Practically every other person has it, it’s no big deal, so you’re a little flighty, a little flaky, whatevs, it is allllll good. You’re just ADD.

And then shocker of shockers, you end up with a bunch of attention deficit dudes like me who look at said two extremes and are like, well I definitely don’t feel like I’m dying so I’m gonna go with Door Number 2 and treat it like it’s barely worth mentioning. It’s just a little personality quirk, pay it no more mind than that. And time passes and I’m working, I’m a semi-productive member of society, I get by. So what’s the problem, right?

Except, you know… I’m still ADD. And it doesn’t quite work like that.

I finally got diagnosed last year when things came to such a head that I was kinda just like screw it, I might as well look into this whole ADD thing and see if there’s something I should be doing differently. And sure enough, they gave me my shiny diagnosis, and they gave me my magic pills to take in the morning so everything calms down upstairs and I can focus on one damn thing at a time, and I’m still treating it like a punchline. Because partly that’s just who I am, and if someone’s not dying, EVERYTHING’s a punchline to me, but also partly it’s residual embarrassment like, why is everyone making such a big deal, it’s just ADD. It’s so ingrained in me that I attempt to treat it like it’s inconsequential even now that I know better.

Because here’s the truth about ADD, the impression I would like to see more kids like me get early on so they can ask the right questions and get the right answers:

ADD isn’t an end of the world big deal. It’s really really not. But it is A deal, it’s a thing. It’s a disability. It puts you on a different default setting. Getting an official diagnosis and medication to help you handle ADD isn’t confirming your super-freak status or accepting that there’s something wrong with you. It just gives you another set of tools. That’s all.

I mean, we’re all just a bunch of hyper-evolved monkeys at the end of the day. Ask any scientist, the only thing that differentiates us from our feces-flinging cousins is our critical thinking and tool-using capacity. Yeah, sure, that’s probably not how they’d put it, but POINT IS. We all use tools. It’s what makes us human instead of just your average primate. So it really is no big deal if some humans just happen to use a different set of tools than others. The important part is just making sure everyone knows what those tools are, and where to find them if they need them.

Tara Kelly: The Problem with Normal

Tara KellyTara Kelly adores variety in her life. She’s a YA author, one-girl-band, web/graphic designer, editor, and she’s back in school getting her M.Ed in School Counseling. She lives in Portland with her ten guitars, supercool bf, and a fluffy cat named Maestro.

If you’ve read my book HARMONIC FEEDBACK, you probably know I’ve got a problem with the word ‘normal’. Sure, it has its purpose. Like–your blood tests came back normal. Yay! I just don’t think it’s a good way to describe who we are or how we think.

Perhaps ‘normal’ behavior is best described as a ‘normative spectrum’ (Hey, autism has a spectrum—why not?) For example, how do YOU think most people would react if a stranger called them ugly? They might get angry, insult the person back, cry, walk away, etc. These are fairly predictable reactions, right? What if they laughed? What if they responded by giving the person a hug or asking them where they got their shoes? Your first thought might be something like…wow, that was weird. But is it wrong? They’re not really hurting anyone by reacting that way.

Let’s add culture to the mix. What we consider ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ here in the U.S. might be a crime in another part of the world. Where we grow up and how we grow up (good ole nurture) has a huge impact on who we are and how we behave. I believe our genetics give us the foundation and our environment turns that foundation into a whole person. We wouldn’t be who we are if we were born with the same genes but different parents in a different part of the world.

So, to me, there is no such thing as normal behavior. There is just behavior that is considered acceptable where you live.

Here’s my other issue with ‘normal’. We can tell some people are different as soon as we look at them or hear them speak. Someone on the severe end of the autism spectrum, like the Rain Man, does not pass as ‘normal’ in our society. So, people are able to rationalize their behavior. Well, he doesn’t want to hug me because he’s autistic. That doesn’t make him a bad person.

But those of us who appear ‘normal’ (and those are some serious italics around appear) are expected to ACT normal. If we don’t, it’s generally assumed that we have defective personalities. An example:

Crowds make me very uncomfortable. The voices coming from every direction. People pushing up against me, breathing down my neck. I get dizzy. My heart races. I feel like I’m literally going to jump out of my skin. Sometimes I can swallow back my discomfort and just go with it. Other times… I can’t. When I can’t, people get angry with me. I’ve been called selfish (because I’m ruining other people’s fun), a drama queen (because obviously I’m just doing it for attention), and insane (because doesn’t everyone love being crushed up against a blockcade at a concert?) When I was younger, I lost friendships over this kind of thing. And, at the time, I would’ve given anything to be like everyone else—to just get lost in the moment and be able to filter out unnecessary noise.

But that’s the thing about me. I go into sensory overload very easily—sometimes I even get it in grocery stores. My brain has a lot of trouble focusing on ONE thing when there are a million noises and things going on around me.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, and what my neurologist described as one of the worst cases of anxiety he’d ever seen. These disorders (as they like to call them) are nothing but labels to me. Labels that make other people feel more comfortable about me being different than they are. They don’t define who I am. They don’t make being different any easier. Just like everyone else, I have to go out into this world, work a job, pay my bills, and function. There are many situations, like at work or large social gatherings, where I have to mask my ‘differences’. And I have quite a few…

Sensory overload is a big one for me. Whenever I’m in a situation where I have to converse with a group of people, I leave with a mother of a headache. I have to concentrate really hard on the following:

  • Focusing on the person speaking to me, rather than everyone else who is talking
  • Figuring out how to insert myself into the conversation without interrupting anyone
  • Trying to avoid saying something random or irrelevant—because my brain is often hopping from one thought to the next
  • Ignoring the need to run out of the place because I feel trapped
  • Smiling through it all and acting like nothing is wrong

I’m MUCH more comfortable socializing with people in smaller groups and in quiet places. In fact, I rather enjoy that. So, when I can, I often invite friends over to my house or for a hike. I’ve also discovered that ear plugs help me immensely with crowds. This obviously works best at a concert or when I don’t have to carry on conversations. But just dulling the noise around me works wonders.

I’m afraid of germs (this is where my OCD comes in). I cringe inside when I have to shake someone’s hand or touch a doorknob. The best ‘coping’ mechanism I’ve found  is to always carry hand sanitizer with me. I know it doesn’t kill everything, but it’s enough for me to function normally.

My OCD is actually the most disruptive when it comes to food. I hate going out to eat at restaurants because I don’t know what the ingredients are or who touched it. I generally don’t like to eat any food that I or someone who knows me and my quirks (less than a handful of people) didn’t make. I check expiration dates obsessively. I give everything a sniff test before I eat it. I will no longer eat anything that has ingredients I can’t pronounce. My coping mechanism for this is simple: I eat at home 99 percent of the time. But you can imagine how difficult it is when someone invites me over for dinner or out to eat. I either say no and hurt their feelings or explain myself and risk them thinking I’m nuts.

The thing is…I don’t think I’m crazy. In my mind, I’m trying to protect myself from getting sick and I’m, um, very thorough. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that washing your hands in a public bathroom is pointless if you touch the doorknob when leaving. Hey, medical doctors will back me up on this one—look it up!

Sometimes I wonder…is there really something wrong with me? Or is my caution level just much higher than most people? I guess it doesn’t really matter since these ‘quirks’ of mine do affect my daily life and my ability to have relationships with other people. Believe me, there are so many days I wish I didn’t have these ‘disorders’. And I really hate that they are called disorders—because we are really just saying that these people think differently.

On the other hand, I like being different. I like that my brain can just wander and gather up all these bizarre and wonderful ideas. Melodies just come to me. I can pick up almost any instrument and start playing it—no joke. I can often see perspectives others can’t. I don’t think I’d be the writer or the musician I am if my brain worked differently.

The best I can do is take the good with the bad and cherish the people in my life who love me and accept me for who I am.

Cover for HARMONIC FEEDBACKSixteen-year-old music and sound design obsessed Drea doesn’t have friends. She has, as she’s often reminded, issues. Drea’s mom and a rotating band of psychiatrists have settled on “a touch of Asperger’s.”

Having just moved to the latest in a string of new towns, Drea meets two other outsiders. And Naomi and Justin seem to actually like Drea. The three of them form a trip-hop band after an impromptu jam session. Justin swiftly challenges not only Drea’s preference for Poe over Black Lab but also her perceived inability to connect with another person.

It’s obvious that Drea can’t hide behind her sound equipment anymore. But just when she’s found not one but two true friends, can she stand to lose one of them?