Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

(And on and on.)

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

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

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

Dinah Bellman from The Langoliers.

Little Pete from Gone.

Kazan from The Cube.

Gabriel from FlashForward.

Kevin Blake from Eureka.

(And on and on.)

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

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

John Coffey from The Green Mile.

Jake Bohm from Touch.

Lil’ Bro from NYX.

Duddits from Dreamcatcher.

River Tam from Firefly.

(And on and on.)

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


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

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

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

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

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Defined By Others

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!

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!

Discussion #7: Warning Flags and Turn-Offs

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:

What kinds of words, phrases, or situations used in book or character descriptions send up warning flags for you? We’re thinking of clichés, ableist language–anything related to disability that may be a turn-off.

Our contributors sent the following responses:


Natalie Monroe: What I hate is when books try to ‘beautify’ disabilities. For example, the character has a limp, but we don’t know the ugly and gritty, like maybe his/her one hip is higher than the other; or he/she lurches forward with every step; or he/she walks bowlegged or duck-footed. It may be that to make the character seem attractive (I have never read a book in which the character in a wheelchair doesn’t have a nice, straight back. My back is as curved as a waterslide), but the point is to make the character’s personality eclipse their physical appearance.

Tyrion from A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin is a good example: he’s described as hideous in text, but fans still go wild over him because they find him funny, clever and honorable.


Sara Polsky: I get frustrated by any reference to a character “overcoming” disability or anything that sets a character with a disability up as an inspiration.


s.e. smith: Well, magical cure narratives, obviously. But if I’m casually looking at jacket copy, things I tend to look out for are ‘despite her disability’ or ‘overcoming adversity’ or ‘brilliant but [disabled]’ or something along those lines, where characters are separated out from their disabilities. I’m also leery of anything that talks about disabled characters as inspirational, courageous, or amazing just because they’re disabled. Language like ‘wheelchair bound’ also makes me very uncomfortable, as it suggests the publisher isn’t in tune with disabled people, and that the target market for the book is nondisabled people, not people like me.

I think this is one area where authors are really in a bind, because many don’t have control over their cover copy, and the flap copy may have nothing to do with the book. Those who are in a position to advocate definitely should, both to send a message to the publishing community and to ensure that their books get to people who need to read them. If I was buying a book for a recently-disabled teen, for example, I wouldn’t get something with a cover that described people like her as ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘overcoming adversity,’ because that’s not language she needs to hear ever, but especially in the early stages of adapting to disability.


Marieke Nijkamp: I’m seconding that completely; the adversity narrative makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It’s so inherently othering–people with disabilities may be lesser, but look at what they can still achieve! Aw, yay! /sarcasm

Closely related are those instances when books and/or blurbs talk about disabilities in terms of inspiring other characters. We’ve talked about inspiration porn before, so I will not say too much about it, but I’d like to think it’s not my only purpose in life to be an inspiration to able-bodied people.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann: I think the protagonist with Asperger’s who solves a mystery a la Sherlock Holmes is overdone. It feeds into the same kind of compensatory superpower cliché that has characters with hearing impairments read lips perfectly from across the room. You don’t do justice to a person with a disability by portraying characters with disabilities as superhuman, because most of us aren’t superhuman and are doing the best we can. I understand that the cliché is well meaning in that it acknowledges that persons with disabilities can and do make contributions to society.

And my own character with Asperger’s, Kiara, dreams of being one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In fact, though, she helps not by being extraordinary, but by being present.


Corinne Duyvis: In addition to the excellent examples already listed, I tend to get turned off “autism books” when the flap copy references the character’s “unique worldview” or starts out listing all the character’s peculiarities. I’d rather know what actually happens in the book. Something like this is usually a good indicator that the MC is seen as quirky and special and otherworldly and, well, is written with a neurotypical audience in mind. Also: “doesn’t let disability define him/her.” Gag.

Oh, and plots about how difficult it is having a disabled sibling or parent. While it may be true in many cases, it’s an overwhelmingly common narrative, and it contributes to a really problematic idea of disability.


Kody Keplinger: The “inspirational” thing is an immediate turn off for me, too. Blindness specific, though, any time a character is introduced in a way that shows us how advanced their other senses are (this is a myth, people. When one sense is cut off the others don’t get better, you just get better at using them).

Furthermore, whenever a blind character is introduced who needs help with the most mundane of things (cutting vegetables, for instance) and they spend a lot of time bemoaning how difficult it is to do things when you can’t see. I’ll shut a book pretty fast for those offenses.


Any additions, beloved readers? Share them in the comments!

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 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!

Corinne Duyvis and s.e. smith review VIRAL NATION

Corinne DuyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative MG and YA novels, such as the forthcoming YA fantasy Otherbound (Amulet Books, June 17, 2014). She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Visit her online at @corinneduyvis.

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


Viral NationAfter a virus claimed nearly the entire global population, the world changed. The United States splintered into fifty walled cities where the surviving citizens clustered to start over. The Company, which ended the plague by bringing a life-saving vaccine back from the future, controls everything. They ration the scant food and supplies through a lottery system, mandate daily doses of virus suppressant, and even monitor future timelines to stop crimes before they can be committed.

Brilliant but autistic, sixteen-year-old Clover Donovan has always dreamed of studying at the Waverly-Stead Academy. Her brother and caretaker, West, has done everything in his power to make her dream a reality. But Clover’s refusal to part with her beloved service dog denies her entry into the school. Instead, she is drafted into the Time Mariners, a team of Company operatives who travel through time to gather news about the future.

When one of Clover’s missions reveals that West’s life is in danger, the Donovans are shattered. To change West’s fate, they’ll have to take on the mysterious Company. But as its secrets are revealed, they realize that the Company’s rule may not be as benevolent as it seems. In saving her brother, Clover will face a more powerful force than she ever imagined… and will team up with a band of fellow misfits and outsiders to incite a revolution that will change their destinies forever.

Warning: this discussion contains significant spoilers. Go here to skip directly to our spoiler-light conclusions. Continue reading

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.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Separating Writer from Character

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. Her most recent novel is Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection. 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.


Many writers yearn to turn their life stories into fiction.

I avoided it. While I understood the advice “write what you know,” I couldn’t bring myself to write about the person I had been in middle and high school—the weird girl nobody liked, the one other kids teased whenever they got bored.

In general, downtrodden characters don’t make interesting or appealing protagonists (at least until they take action to change the situation), and I didn’t want to relive those years anyway. However, when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, seven years ago, I thought of all the young people today who face the social challenges and bullying that I faced decades earlier. I wanted to create a character like me, but one who fights back against the way others treat her in a way that I never did.

I started with an incident from middle school that still haunted me decades later. In seventh grade, I decided that I could become part of the popular girls’ group by sitting at their table at lunch. As soon as I set my tray down, all of the girls stopped talking. One of them stood and pushed my tray to the floor. I began to cry, and everyone around me laughed.

In Rogue, Kiara doesn’t just stand around crying. She picks up the tray and slams it into the girl’s face, thus getting herself suspended from school for the rest of the year. I wished I could have done that—both to get back at the girl who tormented me and to get out of going to a school I hated—but my parents were strict and they would have severely punished me. Kiara’s parents, on the other hand, are struggling economically, and her mother has to take a job in another city to support the family. Because her mother isn’t around, Kiara has a lot more freedom than I had to make decisions about her life—both good and bad.

Of course, Kiara isn’t me but a character I created, a character whose actions I control the way I control the actions, say, of a doll or a LEGO minifigure. However, characters tend to take on their own life in the story, as they interact with other characters and with the setting. For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a sprawling city in the South, after which my family moved to an upscale suburb. Kiara lives in a working-class rural New England community across the river from a wealthier college town. Rogue takes place in 2006, long after my own middle school years.

These differences of setting and family situation helped me to separate Kiara’s story from my own. In addition, I wanted her to be bilingual and bicultural, which I am not (although I have a decent command of Spanish and Portuguese, acquired later in life). That is an important reason why she hasn’t yet been diagnosed at a time in which our awareness of Asperger’s and autism is much greater than it was when I was growing up. Her parents have their own difficulties communicating because her mother speaks Spanish primarily and her father only speaks English. People who aren’t aware of the research on bilingual language development might believe that growing up with two languages spoken at home led to Kiara’s temporary muteness in kindergarten (which happened to me as well in early elementary school even though I grew up in an monolingual household). At the same time, Kiara’s experience of two languages helps her to understand people and their emotions, as it did for me much later when I started learning Spanish in middle school.

For some of Kiara’s story, I had to do research because it wasn’t part of my experience. For example, while I appreciated the early X-Men for their focus on characters who were different and rejected by society, the lack of female role models meant I didn’t actually become a fan the way Kiara is. I had to do research to find out about the X-Men characters Rogue and Gambit because they didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Basically, I wove my experiences into the creation of my main character, but she isn’t me.  She isn’t even a twenty-first century version of me. She has taken on a life of her own, because she is the product of parents who are very different from mine, she lives in a community that is very different from mine, and the people around her with whom she interacts—like Chad and Brandon and Antonio—aren’t the people I knew when I was that age.

I wrote Rogue because I wanted some good to come out of my suffering in middle and high school. However, I didn’t want to present my experiences in the form of an autobiography or a memoir. My life was lonely and boring, and I didn’t make much effort to change my situation even when presented with the opportunity. At the same time, my status as an outsider looking into a world I struggled to understand and join honed my powers of observation and my imagination. I imagined what could have happened, say, had I picked up the tray and slammed it into my tormentor’s face. It took me decades to find my voice as a writer—what I consider my special power—but I know what it felt like when I did. I could transfer that feeling to my character, who finds a very different special power over the six-week time frame of the novel.

That is the advantage of fiction. The writer isn’t wedded to the truth. We can change the truth in service to the story. We should change the truth in service to the story, because the story always comes first. We can create characters that combine what we were like with what we wish we were like. If we didn’t make good choices, our characters give us a do-over. Our characters can make the spectacularly bad choices we didn’t make, face the consequences, and grow in the process of trying to recover or make amends. Finally, we can end our stories with hope, even if we didn’t discover that hope ourselves until many years later.


Cover for ROGUEThe poignant story of a girl coping with Asperger’s syndrome as she navigates the foreign territory of friendship…

Kiara has a difficult time making — and keeping — friends. She has Asperger’s syndrome, so relating to other people doesn’t come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet — her go-to when the world doesn’t make sense, which is often — and her imagination, where she daydreams that she’s Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn’t discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. She’s even willing to keep Chad’s horrible secret, if that’s what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

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.”