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.

Discussion #8: Intersectionality and Disability

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. Based on a suggestion from s.e. smith, we asked:

Why is it that diversity in young adult, middle grade, and children’s literature is often represented as an either/or, without intersectionality? Characters can either be autistic or gay, for example, or a wheelchair user or Black, but rarely both. Why do you think we see so few characters who are marginalized in more than one way?

Our contributors sent the following responses:

Marieke Nijkamp: Oh my goodness, I would love to read more queer, disabled characters. And I would love to see more intersectionality, period. Of course the queer, disabled experience is different than the queer experience or the disabled experience, but that only makes me wonder if there is such a thing as THE queer experience… or THE disabled experience. Because I have yet to find it.

It is always going to be a matter of research, trial and error. And if you feel characters have to have a reason to be multi-dimensional, multi-diverse? I’d love to see an equally legitimate reason for characters to be white AND straight AND able-bodied AND middle class AND AND AND. We are no checklists.

S. Jae-Jones: I think children’s literature, more than adult, is still stuck on a mainstream idea of “relatable”. The protagonist must be flawed—but not too flawed! The protagonist must have an “issue to overcome” (a phrase I loathe)—but nothing “too trying” or “too unusual” or worst of all, “too far from the physical ideal”. Invisible disabilities seem to have glamour (mental illness—providing it’s “quirky”, or a cosmetically appealing scars), but heaven forbid a protagonist have NOTICEABLE signs of a disability. In my opinion, it all comes back to this mainstream idea of a “default”. The “default” is relatable. Stray too far from it, and it won’t sell.

The other obstacle facing intersectionality in kidlit is the fear of tokenism. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at authors who’ve tried to include diverse characters, especially characters who are diverse in more ways than one. (E.g. “Why is this character bi, Black, and Jewish? It’s not realistic!” or worse, “The author is so lazy s/he can’t be bothered to come up with more characters.”) I think that we, as a society, are conditioned to thinking people should be put in boxes, and one box at a time, at that. It’s ingrained in the way our society—or at least American society—seems to function. I grew up in Los Angeles, which has a large multiracial population, and filling out the ethnicity portion on census forms often confused myself and my classmates—”Do I have to pick just one?” If you were Black and Hispanic, or Asian and White, you either had to choose, or were stuck with picking “Other”. And the word “other” is a powerful thing.

Corinne Duyvis: It’s such a multi-faceted problem: first there’s the fact that most people don’t even see the need for these characters–as though people like me aren’t just as real and valid as the cishet-white-abled people who are often written about, and as though we don’t need representation just as much or more. Then there’s the assumption that every “minority trait” is tacked onto a character, and thus requires justification in a way that, for example, whiteness and straightness don’t. Once writers get past those notions and do want to write these characters, there’s the joint fears over doing it wrong and over “trying too hard.” I understand and often share those fears. I’ve heard these same remarks about my debut novel: trying too hard, what’s the reason for these characters, etc. But it’s not as though writing a character facing multiple oppressions is some kind of performance or outrageous deed. I think it’s better to try too hard than to not try at all.

Even when writers overcome these hurdles, do their research, and successfully write intersectional characters … they need to find publishing professionals who are on the same wavelength. And that’s a challenge, too.

On a different-but-related note, as Andrea Shettle often and expertly points out, characters rarely have multiple disabilities. Many of my disabled friends have more than one disability, as do I. Many disabilities have high comorbidity rates. Plus, someone who requires a wheelchair is just as likely to also get migraines as an able-bodied person; being autistic makes you just as susceptible to mental illness. Perhaps even more, thanks to both personal and societal pressures.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: We’ve never had anything close to proportional representation of people of color in children’s and YA books, and the mismatch is more glaring now because the demographics in our society have changed but the presence of main characters of color in books has not changed since the 1980s. So I’m not surprised to see so few characters of color who also have disabilities.

s.e. smith: Agh this is such a cause of frustration to me! Sometimes it feels to me like authors are trying to hit diversity bingo — okay, I’ve got my Latino character, and my Lesbian character, and my Disabled character, now give me a prize! The fact is that many people have intersectional identities. Minority teens rarely get to see themselves in text at all, and those who experience multiple oppressions find it even harder to locate books that tell their stories.

Part of the problem here may be that authors find it scary to imagine tackling multiple aspects of marginalisation in the same character: the Black and gay experience is different that the Black or gay experience, for example, just like the disabled and queer experience is different than either of those identities together. But these are problems that aren’t going to go away by not writing those characters — you have to plunge into them, and you have to do your research, and you have to commit to depicting a world where the true spectrum of diversity is shown.

Kody Keplinger: I think there’s a lot of fear. I think many authors (myself included) have a deep fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s scary enough to write about disability, but when you introduce another element, you double your chances of being offensive or problematic. Should that fear hold authors back? No. It should push them to do research, to approach with care, but not to avoid intersectionality all together.

Natalie Monroe: I personally think it’s because writers believe once a diverse element is added (ex: queer, ethnicity…), it’s done. Their book is now ‘diverse’ and ‘realistic’. But real life isn’t just one ball in a column, it’s a whole jumble of multicolored spheres across rows of columns. I’m Asian and am in a wheelchair. I know someone who is autistic, Asian, and in a wheelchair. I know a Filipino who is autistic. Diversity means exactly what it means, so stop treating it as a kind of ‘rules of requirement’ thing and mix it up.

Do you have any input, readers?

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.

Discussion #4: Disability tropes

For our final discussion post, we asked our contributors the following question:

Which are your least favorite disability tropes?

Here were their insightful answers:

Kayla Whaley:
My least favorite disability tropes may also be the most common (at least in my experience), which is precisely why they’re my least favorite. These tropes are some of the only representations of disability people see, which is very dangerous. After all, the media we consume greatly impacts how we view the world, so seeing these tropes only reinforces ableism and ignorance.

The first (though these aren’t ranked in any particular order) is that of the disabled saint. The pure, innocent, good little cripple. These characters serve largely as inspiration porn for both the audience and the other characters. Think Tiny Tim. It shows the ablebodied that those of us with disabilities are perfect despite (or perhaps because of) our tragic disability. So if we do anything outside those ideas of “goodness”, it’s quite a shock for the ablebodied around us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed or talked about drinking with friends and have gotten actual gasps and nervous giggling, because if I’m in a wheelchair, I must be a saint, right? I must fit into their tiny, preconceived box of “good”.

The second is the disabled villain. Interesting how the two most common tropes dealing with disability are polar opposites and neither come even close to reality, huh? There are so many examples of the disabled, disfigured, disgusting villain: Darth Vader, Captain Hook, innumerable weekly baddies on shows, etc. The (typically visible) disability serves as a cue to the audience that this character is one deserving of your revulsion and fear. Yeah. That’s definitely a message I want sent to the world.

Marieke Nijkamp:
Apart from the whole disabled character as inspiration (see inspiration porn), one of the tropes I hate most is the magically healed disabled character. The one where, at the end of the quest or story, the crippled character finds himself able to walk again because he’s learned to be nicer, or the blind character finds herself able to see because she was willing to sacrifice herself for her friends. After all in real life, everyone wants to be healed/disability makes you incomplete/if you only try hard enough…?

Because that’s the implication of such story lines. That disability equals something incomplete at best and more often something that’s morally reprehensible. It implies that only if you learn how to overcome that, only if you learn you’re too be generous, you’ll be healed and happy and be able to reach your full potential. (And secretly, that’s what we all must want.) Heavens forbid you’re happy just the way you are.

s.e. smith:
Obviously, magical cures are a big frustration for me–the disability that is magically fixed to further the plot, the disabled person stripped of her identity as a disabled person by a cure (and usually so appreciative of being saved from the eternal suffering and torment that is disability). This narrative positions disability as something tragic and terrible that needs to be fixed, and sometimes as something a character should be ashamed of–only after the disability is cured does the character become whole.

I also really loathe one-note depictions of disabled characters, where the character becomes consumed by the disability and doesn’t have any other qualities or characteristics. This is often compounded by another trope, such as the super crip or bitter cripple, two other depictions of disability that also make me gnash my teeth in frustration. These one-dimensional depictions aren’t authentic to real experiences and they also contribute to ableist attitudes in society.

Disability-as-educational-tool is another trope that should have been taken out back and shot long ago. Disabled people are human beings, not object lessons or props for character advancement. If a disabled character is being used to educate other characters, give them some kind of motivation, or teach a Very Special Lesson to other characters and/or readers, that character is being abused. Every time this kind of depiction of disability comes up, it reinforces the idea that this is the role of disabled people in society, to teach and educate the people around them, rather than to live as just another person navigating a sometimes complex and always diverse environment.

Maggie Desmond-O’Brien:
In my opinion, one of the most damaging disability tropes is the idea that a disability can be “healed” through sheer force of will, without treatment. That instead of the infinitely more difficult task of living with the disability, you can simply eliminate it in one fell swoop by being “tougher” or not buying into the “system.” My experience with this has been mostly in the mental illness arena, which is tricky–some acute mental illnesses really do pass with time. But others, such as certain types of depression, bipolar disorder (my own disability), and schizophrenia, tend to be lifelong battles. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days, you’ll have days where you accept it and days where you don’t, but the truth is that it’s never going away and you just have to deal with it–no matter what pop culture tells you.

Corinne Duyvis:
My first pet peeve is the disabled relative–sibling, parent or child–who only exists to further the main character. The disabled character rarely has an actual personality or plot line of their own, and does not get to have a normal, complex familial relationship with the abled character; instead, they exist to provide angst or obstacles, or to make the abled character look sympathetic and heroic for taking care of them. Sometimes both! Remember: disabled people are fully-rounded people, with lives and passions of our own, not merely bit parts in abled people’s lives.

My second pet peeve is the ~magical~ disabled person, who often holds–or is–the clue to saving the day. They’ll be the only person with a magic ability, or, in a world where these are commonplace, their ability will be the most special or powerful. Examples include Dinah Bellman from Stephen King’s The Langoliers or Little Pete from the Gone series. This trope can also be used without any supernatural aspects, in which case the disabled person will have savant-like abilities such as Kazan in the film The Cube or Kevin Blake from the TV series Eureka. This trope bugs me because it’s so Othering; the disabled character is something to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshipped, set apart, instead of just being a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast.

Kalen O’Donnell:
My least favorite disability trope? Yeah, that’d have to be ‘character has a deep dark secret – turns out he/she is bipolar, or else someone close to them is’. Sure, usually this one is trotted out with the best of intentions, as our heroes learn or express by the end of the story that its nothing to be ashamed of or they love and accept them in spite of it, etc, etc. But a book is more than just its climax or last three chapters. If a story makes an impression on a reader, its the whole book that’s going to stick with them, not just the shiny red bow that wrapped everything up all nice and neat at the end. And so while the author may have hoped their story would impart the idea that a bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, to any reader who can actually relate to that, they might actually just be confirming that ‘yup, people are ignorant about this sort of thing and there is a reason to keep it a deep, dark secret….at least unless and until you meet that special enlightened person who loves and accepts you anyway.’

So how about we see more bipolar characters who are living with it with grace and dignity, neither hiding it nor flaunting it. Who don’t shy away from discussing it with the romantic interest if and when it ever becomes relevant, and is comfortable enough with it to refuse to be belittled or patronized by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about? That’s a trope I could get behind.

Kody Keplinger:
I’m forever frustrated by the “damaged disabled person” trope – wherein the disabled character is a brooding, broken character, scarred both physically and mentally, etc etc. I see this way too often, and it makes me so angry. Where are all the happy disabled people, yo?

What about you, dearest readers? Any thoughts on the above tropes, or do you particularly loathe a trope that hasn’t been mentioned?

Corinne Duyvis reviews GONE

Corinne DuyvisCorinne Duyvis is a YA author and portrait artist who lives in Amsterdam, where she writes, drinks a lot of tea, 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.


Cover for GONEMichael Grant’s Gone series came to a conclusion earlier this year with the publication of the sixth novel Light. I was lucky enough to get to read it early, and devoured it in record time. I grew up on the Animorphs books, which Michael Grant contributed to/co-wrote, and the Gone series shares several elements I loved: ensemble cast, heavy focus on characters, epic scope, moral dilemmas, high-stakes action, and utter addictiveness. In short: I sort of love these books.

… but I also sort of don’t. And the biggest thing that stops me is the portrayal of Little Pete, an autistic four-year-old boy. He’s the little brother of fourteen-year-old Astrid, who’s one of our main characters, and Pete becomes a significant character in his own right–in importance if not page time.

Spoilers will be clearly marked.

As an introduction, here’s how Pete and his autism are described in the first book, Gone:

“He’s autistic. Severely. He doesn’t–he doesn’t relate. He won’t answer [if I call to him], all right? I can yell his name all day.”

Little Pete was four years old, blond like his big sister, but freckled and almost girlish, he was so pretty. He didn’t look at all slow or stupid; in fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought he was a normal, probably smart, kid.

“He talks,” Edilio said.

“He can,” Astrid said. “But he doesn’t much.”

“He talks. Great. What else does he do?” Quinn demanded pointedly.

“He seems able to do a lot of things. Mostly we’re good, the two of us. Mostly he doesn’t really notice me.”

“Petey is not intellectually impaired […] He has at least normal IQ, and may have a higher than normal IQ.”

In book three, Lies, he’s described as follows:

Little Pete was severely autistic. He lived in a world of his own imagining, unresponsive, only rarely speaking.

I’d like to discuss various aspects of Pete’s autism. For the sake of organization, I’ll break up this review into different sections. First, I’ll discuss the details of how Pete’s autism manifests; next, Pete’s role in the narrative, particularly in relation to his sister and the overall series plot; finally, the way Pete’s autism itself is perceived.


I want to start this section with a big bold disclaimer: autism can present in many different ways. It’s not as simple as “Asperger” and “classical autism” and “PDD-NOS,” or “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” or “severe” and “mild”—autistic people with high intelligence who seem social and easy-going may require lifelong live-in care; non-verbal autistic people may function independently and perform great in a regular college; and all the ranges in between.

Because of that, it’s difficult to point at something and definitively declare it Right or Wrong. Autism presents itself in seemingly unlikely ways for some people, and lord knows my own autism is very different from Little Pete’s. Still, there are a number of common symptoms, and there are many misinterpretations and misrepresentations in modern-day media, and that’s where I’m coming from.

And from that perspective, the portrayal of Pete’s autism never rang true to me. My biggest concern is Pete’s lack of responsiveness. Petey does occasionally react fiercely–I can think of at least two or three times he has a ‘freak-out’ in the series–but most of the time, he’s almost completely unresponsive and oblivious. This is even the case in extreme situations, which strikes me as nigh-impossible, given that one of the most common aspects of autism is a love of structure and familiarity. Unfamiliar environments and unexpected changes often result in stress which can manifest in different ways. Pete, however, doesn’t even acknowledge changes.

Take the following situations–all from Gone–as an example:

Little Pete rubbed sleep from his eyes and stared past them, indifferent to them, maybe not even aware that they existed. Maybe wondering why he was standing in the damp night air outside a nuclear power plant. Maybe not wondering anything.

Context for the following quote: Pete and his sister Astrid are in an unfamiliar hotel room, and someone is using a shotgun to blast through the door.

The door had a hole in it the size of a dime, with the metal puckered out.

Another explosion and the door handle was hanging half off.

Little Pete […] was still calm, still oblivious.

Context for the following quote: Pete is on a boat that just got hit full-on by a speedboat–their boat flipped into the water and back up, the metal twisted and torn, parts of the boat missing. There’s immense noise and panic. This is Pete’s reaction:

Little Pete was alone, staring, almost as if this at least had really penetrated his consciousness.

Pete is similarly unresponsive to touching, which many autistic people struggle with. His sister Astrid touches him in almost every scene they have together, with zero reactions: “he seemed barely to notice” (Gone); “of course he gave no response” (Hunger); “his indifferent body” (Hunger).

The way Pete tolerates Astrid’s touch isn’t necessarily improbable. In fact, some children with autism are extremely clingy with a select number of people. I would’ve accepted this as Pete simply being used to Astrid’s touch, if not for the way he fails to respond even when people who are practically strangers touch or even carry him.

This lack of responsiveness–indifference, blankness–may be realistic for some people with autism, but it’s extremely unusual. It struck me over and over again how rarely Pete actually interacted with the world around him. Most people with autism–even severe autism, even when non-verbal–do communicate in some way, and respond to stimuli, even if it’s not always in the “appropriate” way.

(For example, here’s a blog post about this from the perspective of a seemingly “unresponsive” autistic person.)

Getting caught up in particular interest, like Petey’s video game, definitely happens, but usually not to the extent that he’d be able to  experience the quoted situations without any response. Those situations would be completely overwhelming.

Similarly, in Gone, the following occurs:

[Astrid] had a particular way of talking to Little Pete when she wanted his attention. She held his face in her hands, carefully blocking his peripheral vision, half covering his ears. She put her face close to his and spoke calmly but with slow, careful enunciation.

I can see the logic of blocking sensory input, but most autistic people I know–including myself–would be scared shitless by this. Being held still on both sides, a face so close to your own, is nothing but sensory input.

Again: it might be fine for some people… but it’s likely to be an exception.

The books also fail to acknowledge other common aspects of autism: Pete seems to have no problem with eye contact, which is a frequent point of difficulty for autistic people. In addition, many autistic people struggle with particular flavors and textures of food, which can make meals an adventure the moment we stray from familiar brands or methods of preparation. In the Gone series, the characters quickly run out of food and often improvise their meals with whatever is at hand. Yet, no mention is made of Pete ever having a difficult time with this.

Petey does occasionally react in ways that are common to autistic people. He’ll rock back and forth, flap his hands, and repeat words he’s just heard others say–all of which is very common. I’ve done it! Over six books, though, he only acts in ways I recognized a small handful of times. While I don’t want writers to simply go down a checklist of symptoms when writing autistic characters–as I mentioned, symptoms vary widely–in combination with the other points I raised about Pete’s portrayal, his unusual behavior struck me as more of an oversight than a deliberate choice.


You can look at Pete’s role in the books from multiple angles: how other characters interact with him, his role in the overarching plot, and how the narrative treats him. All of that coheres quite neatly into one conclusion, though: Pete is a prop.

This is particularly evident in the scenes from his sister Astrid’s perspective. Even though she’s “the person he’s closest to in the whole world” (Gone) she doesn’t seem to communicate well with him. She recognizes when he’s about to freak out, but not whether he’s hungry or whether he fears, enjoys, or understands something. Even if Pete expresses himself differently from other kids, a sister would learn at least some of those habits by virtue of seeing him grow up. Without that insight, Pete’s character feels flat, and his and Astrid’s sibling relationship feels like it’s written from an outside perspective.

The narrative emphasizes all of this by sympathizing strongly with Astrid, to the exclusion of Pete himself. Astrid is his sole caretaker due to the disappearance of their parents–and every adult in town–and it’s continually pointed out how hard it is for her to have a brother like him. Consider these quotes from GONE:

She put one protective arm around Little Pete, who had buried his face back in his game. Astrid blinked, looked down, took a deep shaky breath, and deliberately turned away.

Astrid rose and without really thinking about it wrapped her arms around Sam like she did when she was trying to comfort Little Pete.

But unlike Little Pete, Sam responded to her touch by awkwardly hugging her back.

[S]he had to keep Little Pete calm. That was her top priority, her brother. Her blank-faced, helpless, unloving brother.

She resented him. He had turned her into a mother at age fourteen. It wasn’t right. This should be her time to shine, to be bold. This was her time to use her intellect, that supposedly great gift. Instead, she was a babysitter.

She hated him for being what he was, for being so needy […]

Astrid dropped to the ground, shielding Little Pete again, still, always protecting Little Pete.

Quotes from Hunger:

She bent over to kiss him on his forehead. Of course he gave no response. He didn’t hug her or ask her to read him a story, or say, “Hey, thanks for taking care of me, sis.”

When he spoke, it was only about the things in his head. The world outside meant little or nothing to him. That included Astrid.

She lay down beside her brother and cuddled close to his indifferent body.

“Sorry,” she said to Little Pete, who was as indifferent to her apology as to everything else.

She stepped back, stepped away, not trusting herself to be near him. Hating him at that moment. Terrified that the enraged thing inside her head would lash out at him again. A voice inside her rationalized it even now. He is a brat. He does these things deliberately.

It was all his fault.

“Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh!”

“I do everything for you!” she cried.

“Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh!”

“I feed you and I clean you and I watch over you and I protect you. Stop it! Stop it! I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t stand it!”

She wondered if he even remembered her loss of control. She wondered if he knew how terrified she was, how hopeless and defeated. She knew he didn’t care.

No one cared.

Part of Astrid’s feelings are understandable–being a caregiver is hard, and Astrid had to deal with that on top of enduring extreme trauma. There’s a lot of resentment, obligation, and guilt when she thinks about Pete. Although it made me wince to read, it’s a believable reaction for someone–particularly a teenager–in her position.

What seems less realistic is the lack of affection. Pete is portrayed as a burden, never as a beloved brother. Astrid says she loves him, and shows concern, but never once does she sincerely smile looking at him or seem to feel even a hint of affection. On top of the seeming lack of understanding, that made the love feel hollow.

That’s why Pete feels like such a prop: he’s there purely to make Astrid sympathetic. Pete doesn’t get to be a character in his own right, with his own personality, likes, dislikes, or agency. He has no opinions on or reactions to anything that happens. He alternates between acting as a plot device and sitting around mysteriously playing his game. Even when Astrid is forced by the antagonist to call Pete a retard, the text lingers on how difficult it is for her to betray him without giving Pete any reaction of his own–“They were meaningless words. Just words. Little Pete didn’t care.” (Gone) and “He had forced her to insult Little Pete. To betray him. It hadn’t bothered Petey, of course.” (Fear)

This quote from Light emphasizes his lack of agency and personhood even more starkly:

Little Pete was not thought to have done it maliciously–Petey was incapable of malice. Or any intention, really.

Details in the narrative also seem to treat Pete very differently from the rest of the characters. His descriptions struck me as fey and Other: he’s described as “almost girlish, he was so pretty” and as his eyes are referred to as “too-pretty” and “those innocent eyes.” (Gone) Sometimes, it strongly feels like he’s being dehumanized–treated as an animal, an object, or even a computer to be programmed. Consider these quotes from Gone:

[Astrid] started to move away, but Little Pete began to whimper. It was the sound a puppy makes when it wants something.

Little Pete began to screech. It was a primitive sound. An earsplitting, insistent, repetitive, panicky baboon sound.

“I can’t kiss you with your little brother watching,” Sam said.

Astrid stepped back, took Little Pete by the shoulders, and turned him so he was facing away.

“How about now?”


It was time to get Little Pete ready for bed. [Astrid] stood up and called to him, using the trigger phrase he understood. “Beddy boody, beddy boody.”

Little Pete gave her a hazy look, as if he had heard her but had not understood. Then he got up from his chair and headed obediently up the stairs. Obedient not to Astrid’s authority, really, but to what was, in effect, programming.


Little Pete howled like an animal. Howled like a mad thing, howled in a voice impossibly large.

“Ahhhhhhhh!” A cry of loss, a mad tragic cry.

He bent into a backward “C” and howled like an animal.

In the fourth book, Plague, Pete isn’t even a regular PoV character. Where the other characters get scenes in regular, numbered chapters, Pete’s scenes are treated more like interludes; they’re labeled with his name, in between numbered chapters. That really hit home how separately he’s treated from the rest of the cast.

These things would bother me on their own, and put together, they tick practically every box of the “dehumanization” checklist, which is unfortunate in a series that otherwise features such strong, vibrant characters.

Sadly, his role in the overall story arc isn’t much better. The next few paragraphs contain significant spoilers.


In the overall story arc, Pete is a similar prop. The trope of “Disability Superpower” is one with a long history, and even in a book where lots of people have superpowers, Pete is still the special one, with nigh unlimited power. Because this is such a familiar trope, and this review is long as is, I won’t go into this too deeply. Instead, I’ll link to other sites tackling the topic:

In addition, while I wouldn’t exactly call Pete “cured” after Plague on account of him, er, sort of dying, he’s still a conscious entity who’s suddenly no longer autistic. That falls into a different trope–the Disability Cure. Only without his autism does Pete end up saving the day, and even then it’s not because he’s grown over time, or realizes that what he did was bad, or wants to help his sister, or anything: it’s because “hitting is bad” and it made him upset.

While that’s not necessarily an unlikely motivation for a five-year-old, it doesn’t help the already simplistic portrayal of his character. In the end, Pete saving the day only reduces him to more of a plot device. I can’t see his role in the books as anything but a way of putting the cast in a far-fetched situation and promptly solving it once the series ran its course. Afterward, he doesn’t even get to have a happy ending: he dies for good.


However, as displeased as I was about both the depiction of Petey’s autism and his role in the books, it wasn’t until we got scenes from Petey’s own perspective that the books became genuinely upsetting for me to read.


When the reader first encounters Pete’s point of view and thus gets an inside perspective of his autism, I was a little unsure. To me, the sequences came across more like what a non-autistic person would imagine autism to be like, rather than how someone with autism would experience it themselves.

An example from Lies:

Little Pete woke up.

Dark. Dark was good. Light filled his brain with too much.

It was quiet. Good. Sounds made his head hurt.

He had to be quiet himself or someone would come and bring light and noise and touching and pain and panic and it would all come at him like a tidal wave a million feet high, spinning him, crushing him, smothering him.

Then he would have to shut down. He would have to turn it all off. Hide from it. Go back to the game, back to the game, because inside the game, it was dark and quiet.

From Plague:

Down there were his mom and his dad and his sister. Down there were jagged edges and harsh noises that made him want to clap his hands over his ears. When he looked at those things, those people, the wobbly, insubstantial houses, the sharp-edged furniture, the claw hands and hooked noses and staring, staring, staring eyes and yelling mouths, he wanted to close his eyes.

But it didn’t work. Even through his closed eyes he saw them. And he heard them. But he did not understand their wild, pulsating colors. Sometimes their words weren’t words at all but brilliant parrot-colored spears shooting from their mouths.

Mother father sister teacher other. Lately only sister and others. Saying things. Some words he got. Pete. Petey. Little Pete. He knew those words. And sometimes there were soft words, soft like kittens or pillows and they would float from his sister and he would feel peace for a while until the next jangling, shrieking noise, the next assault of stabbing color.

On the other side—the agitated, jangly, hard side—his sister, her face a stretched mask beneath yellow hair, a mouth of pink and glittery white, loud, was pushing at him with hands like hammers.

After a long and peaceful escape he had been recaptured by the too-much world of furious activity and disjointed images.

From Light:

Life had always been strange and disturbing for Peter Ellison. From the moment of his birth the world had attacked him with noise and light and scraping touch. All the sensations that were easy for other people to make sense of were terrifying and overwhelming for him. Other people could filter things out. Other people could turn down the noise, but Pete could not.

Since experiences of autism can differ so much person-to-person, the above descriptions may ring true to some people. For me, though, they veered on simplistic. They take one aspect of autism–sensory overload–and extrapolate from there what autism must feel like, taking it into an almost cartoonish realm.

Much worse, though, is exactly how Pete’s experiences with autism are described.

The narrative talks of “the tortured, twisted, stunted brain that had made the world so painful to him” (Plague); “his distorting, terrifying brain” (Plague); “his strange, distorted brain” (Fear); “a twisted, distorted brain” (Fear); “miswired brain” (Fear); “his jangled life” (Fear); “the severe autism that had crippled him” (Light); “a life that had been short but painful” (Light); “his brain had been his enemy all his life” (Light); “a strange little boy whose own brain made him a prisoner, whose own mind made life painful and terrifying. Unbearable.” (Light)

At one point in Fear, Pete even wonders, Had he ever laughed before?

And this, to me, is where Pete’s portrayal went from “doesn’t feel truthful, contributes to misconceptions of autism” to “outright damaging.”

His autism is portrayed over and over again as being non-stop pain and suffering. That got incredibly hard to read: do people really think this is what autism is like? Even if the author’s intention is to show understanding and sympathy, portraying our experiences this black-and-white is hurtful and borders on demeaning. Our autism might make things harder, and people might struggle to understand us, but that doesn’t instantly translate to suffering. To the outside observer, things like rocking back and forth, flapping hands, being blank-faced, compulsively arranging objects, screaming, etc. may look like being trapped, but they probably look completely different from the autistic person’s perspective. Any of the above can translate to fear, tension, relaxation, happiness, excitement, or a dozen other things.

When I quoted the above excerpts to a fellow autistic friend, she commented about how it was akin to the kind of speech used by Autism Speaks, a supposed charity that’s notoriously unfriendly to autistic people. There, it’s fear-mongering; here, however well-intentioned, it’s still misrepresenting and damaging. This depiction of Little Pete skims the surface, and invites pity and horror from the audience. That’s not what autistic people need, even those who do suffer from their autism.

Presenting the experiences of autistic people as a non-stop nightmare risks putting the blame on the autism itself. It implies that autism equals suffering, and there’s no fixing it. It absolves people of the responsibility to look further and adapt.

And that’s dangerous.

I’ve often recommended the Gone series: in addition to the gripping story and characters, the series strives to be inclusive, with positive portrayals of queer people, people of color, and fat people. Unfortunately, I think it failed when it came to Pete. Although I recognized a handful of details of Pete’s autism, for the most part, his behavior felt either unlikely or flat-out wrong. In addition, he seemed to be treated less as a fleshed out character in his own right and more as a prop, often by indulging in damaging tropes.

Pete’s portrayal has both angered and hurt me, but in the end, seeing these sorts of things pop up in books I could almost love if not for…?

It just saddens me.

I hope this review helps people understand why, and perhaps recognize and avoid these tropes in their own work.