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.”

Tracey Carter reviews WILL & WHIT

Tracey CarterTracey Carter is a Library Associate II in Teen Services with Frederick County Public Libraries and is earning an MLIS from Florida State University. Lots of things make her nervous. To keep from worrying too much about everything Tracey likes to spend her free time reading YA books, playing video games, knitting, and keeping up with new technology trends. The best book she’s read so far this year is a three way tie between Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, and Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge. If you put an ampersand in your book title instead of the word “and” Tracey would appreciate it.

Cover for WILL & WHITWriting this review makes me nervous. Knowing that you, out there in Internet-land, will be reading this review, makes me nervous. For me, that’s what generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is: lots of things make me nervous. It doesn’t stop me from doing anything, it doesn’t prevent me from living the life I want to live, but it does make me a bundle of nerves and it does make me think very carefully before doing things that other people might not think twice about. Some of my anxieties and fears are perfectly reasonable, and others…not so much.

I can’t tell you when my anxiety began. In all likelihood it’s something that’s always been there in the back of my mind, but I was officially diagnosed with GAD in my mid-20’s. The diagnosis didn’t change anything for me, it just told me something I already knew: that I am a nervous Nellie. But somehow, putting a name to it made me feel better. If this is actually a condition it means that it can be treated. And if it can be treated that means it can get better.

One thing I have always loved is reading. Even as a child I could lose myself in books for hours at a time. Reading has always felt safe to me. Even reading scary books delighted me as a child. Books were, and are, a safe space for me. There are no judgements, no nagging questions in the back of my mind, no worrying about anything. Books are an escape. And just as books are an escape for me, lamps are an escape for 17-year-old Wilhemina “Will” Huckstep in Laura Lee Gulledge’s newest graphic novel, Will & Whit.

Will lives with her Aunt Ella Foxx in Virginia and together they run Foxxden Antiques. The first thing we learn about Will is that she loves to make lamps, and on the very next page we find out why her hobby is so important to her. As Will explains, “It’s embarrassing, but I’m scared of the dark. You could call it an overactive imagination, but if your shadows were like mine, you might be weary of them, too.”

Throughout the book Will talks about being afraid, about trying not to freak out, about trying to avoid thinking about things that bother her, but not once does she use the word anxiety. Everybody experiences anxiety differently and everybody describes their own anxiety differently, and some might not even call it anxiety at all. You might come from a family of worriers, you might be a worry wart, or a nervous Nellie, or Chicken Little. But no matter what it’s called, anxiety can still be a paralyzing part of one’s life. Like Will I’m lucky that my anxiety is manageable. I know for others that this isn’t the case.

Will uses a variety of coping mechanisms throughout the book to manage her fears and her anxiety. Building lamps and doing something constructive to distract herself may be a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for her. CBT can be helpful for some people with anxiety. I tried it and found that it did help, but my CBT didn’t involve building lamps. I focused on exercising, like running, walking, and yoga, to give my mind a goal to focus on and my body something to do rather than sit around and get quagmired in fear and worry.

Noel and Autumn, Will’s BFFs, provide her with a wonderful support network. Aunt Ella also encourages Will to go out and spend time with her friends and to do things that a normal teenager would do. A caring and encouraging support network of family and friends is something we all need, but this is especially true for those struggling with mental health issues. But I have to pause for a minute because I can only imagine at this point, dear reader, that you’re wondering who Whit is? Seven paragraphs into a book review of Will & Whit and I’ve only told you about Will…

I’ve focused my review on Will because she’s our main character, she’s the one with anxiety, and she’s the one from the book I identify the most with. But I also haven’t mentioned Whit yet because Whit isn’t a person. Whit is short for Whitney which is the name of the hurricane that’s about to blow through Will’s town, and for someone who’s afraid of the dark storms can be very scary things indeed.

The best part about this story being told as a graphic novel is Gulledge’s ability to show us Will’s anxiety. Throughout the book we can literally see the shadows and worries and anxieties that plague Will. Unlike the thick lines used to draw the characters and the backgrounds, Will’s anxieties are shown through stippling, or for those unfamiliar with art, drawn with groups of small dots very close together. This allows the background and other things going on in each frame to remain the focus, while still allowing the readers to see what’s going on in Will’s mind. For readers with anxiety, this probably won’t be surprising. For readers without anxiety, it might be surprising to see some of the things, both rational and irrational, that someone with anxiety might be thinking about or focusing on.

We’re also able to clearly see which parts of the story happen before the storm, which parts take place during the blackout following the storm, and what parts take place after the lights come back on. Initially, pre-storm, the pages are framed in white. During the blackout the pages are framed in…you guessed it! Black. And after the black-out the pages are once again framed in white.

Gulledge’s use of a main character with anxiety is honest and charming. Will’s fears aren’t shied away from, nor is her mental health overemphasized. Anxiety is simply part of Will’s life and Will’s story, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, anxiety is simply part of my life and part of my story. It doesn’t dominate my life, it doesn’t keep me from leaving the house, it doesn’t keep me from doing the things I love, but sometimes anxiety makes me hesitate, sometimes anxiety distracts me, sometimes my anxiety embarasses me, but anxiety isn’t WHO I am. It is a part of my story but it isn’t the whole story.

Also, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it is possible that in the story Will’s anxiety is a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is a condition I do not have. Readers interpret stories in different ways and as someone who has anxiety I read Will & Whit as the story of an anxious teenager who learns how to cope with and how to deal with her anxiety. If you have PTSD or know someone with PTSD you might read Will & Whit as the story of a teenager suffering from PTSD who learns how to cope with and how to deal with PTSD. I cannot speak to how true or realistic the story might be from a PTSD perspective, but from my perspective Will & Whit can certainly give readers insight into what it’s like to live with anxiety and what’s it like to deal with fears and worries that you know are perfectly irrational but that you still have anyways.

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?