Sara Polsky interviews Merrie Haskell about HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS

Earlier this year, Merrie Haskell‘s MG fantasy novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers, which is about a princess with a clubfoot, won the Schneider Family Book Award for its representation of disability. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Merrie Haskell and previous Disability in Kidlit contributor Sara Polsky to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed hardcover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERSSara Polsky: Can you sum up Handbook for Dragon Slayers in a few sentences, for readers who haven’t heard of the book yet?

Merrie Haskell: Essentially, Tilda, a girl who thinks of herself as a “princess librarian” goes on the run with her servant and a disgraced apprentice dragon slayer. They encounter the Wild Hunt and magic horses and an evil knight and Hildegard of Bingen, and several dragons.

Sara: What kind of research did you do to write about Tilda’s disability? 

Merrie: I dug through pretty much every medical and history database I could find to discover articles on how clubfoot was treated medically in the past. Mostly, for the actual feeling of life from Tilda’s point of view, I just relied on my own experiences with mobility issues, or stories from, and observations of, my grandmother (who was in a terrible car accident when my mom was young and almost never walked again).

Sara: Did you ever have to rethink a scene to account for Tilda’s disability, or find that you had unintentionally used certain tropes? If so, can you give an example?

Merrie: There was a point in one draft where Tilda was falling down quite a bit–which, given the way her foot is situated and the rough terrain seemed likely to me. But my editor was concerned that this wasn’t doing the things I wanted it to do (mostly, I wanted it to heighten tension). I spent some time thinking on that. Had I ever seen my grandmother fall? Actually–no. And I spent many whole summers with her, in the garden, not always on great terrain. The only time she fell to my knowledge was disastrous, and that was at the grocery store, on wet tile. She was always very careful about her footing, and fell less than most people, I think. So rethinking that was good; it was lazy writing.

Sara: What advice do you want to have for writers who want to write diverse characters that are outside their own experiences?

Merrie HaskellMerrie: The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and “what everybody knows,” and when they don’t approach the writing humbly, as a learning experience. That said, I’m no expert! Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have a book called WRITING THE OTHER and I know Nisi is involved in some workshops on that topic as well.

Sara: Since the book has a pseudo-medieval setting, I’m curious how any historical research you did intersected with research into disability. Did you research medieval attitudes toward disability? How did you adjust your portrayal of Tilda’s disability so that it felt “period” to the setting?

Merrie: Interestingly, it was a book on childhood in the Middle Ages that delved into the subject of disability the most, and as my heroine was still in her childhood, this was useful to me. She’s born with her disability, and has not acquired it through warfare, accident, or disease. But while I strive for a good deal of historical authenticity in my settings, it is sometimes difficult to research the things you want to be authentic about. It is simultaneously hard to find out something that goes against the popular conception of the Middle Ages, and it’s rather like rolling a rock uphill to write against expectations like that (I had trouble trying to explain the specific flavor of German pre-1100’s feudalism I’d researched for the book, for example; most Americans run around thinking of feudalism as basically a version of English manorial life and not much more. Or at least I did, until I studied more). In the end, the rock I chose was that I would people the world with some superstitious characters and some jerky characters, but the vast majority of people who are more practical and see a complete person and not merely a disability. Tilda has a perception that the superstitious and the jerks outweigh the practical, but I think it’s relatively clear by the end of the book where the balance lies.

During my undergraduate courses in anthropology, when I was learning about identifying human skeletal remains, I ran into a particular femur from the bone lab several times. It was a bone that had been badly fractured and then repaired with barbed wire. Someone had basically tied the bone back together with the wire by drilling into the bone and threading the wire through. The patient must have been incredibly resilient, because they had clearly lived long enough for the bone to repair and heal over completely, just a great knob of bone that had grown around the wire. The femur dated from the late 1800s. This kind of thing is not something you read about in books, at least–I never have. That femur–that response to the wound and the situation and what that person’s life must have been like–speaks to me when I think about disability throughout history. People make do. People are practical. Jerks find the thing to poke at that makes them feel strong, and the superstitious find the thing to hate that makes them feel safe, but in ordinary times, the rest of us remain practical.

Sara: What’s next for you?

Merrie: My third book, The Castle Behind Thorns, which I tried very hard NOT to make a Sleeping Beauty story and failed, came out in June.


Thank you, Merrie and Sara!

Merrie has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–copy of Handbook for Dragon Slayers to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to international addresses.

Sara Polsky reviews THE ELEMENTALS

Cover for THIS IS HOW I FIND HERSara PolskySara Polsky is the author of the YA novel This Is How I Find Her, published by Albert Whitman in fall 2013 and named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2014. Her non-fiction has appeared in Poets and Writers, the Forward, and other publications. Visit her at @sarapolsky.


The Elementals coverI’ll start with the verdict: I loved the way Saundra Mitchell writes about disability in The Elementals. Julian Birch, one of the protagonists, has a “withered” leg from a childhood bout of polio, and Mitchell’s depiction of him is one of the most believable, relatable portrayals of disability I’ve come across.

Julian’s disability is present but backgrounded to the rest of the story, which focuses on the mysterious powers that Julian and Kate, a girl Julian sees only in visions, seem to share. As Julian goes about his life — experimenting with his powers, working on his family’s farm, thinking about the girl he hopes to marry — Mitchell often notes the way Julian moves. In an early scene, he “hauled himself up,” “thumped” across a porch, and leaned against a railing for support, and the ways in which he uses his crutches to do things that an able-bodied person might do with his legs (trip one of his brothers, for instance). These adaptations, when described from Julian’s point of view, seem like a thoroughly ordinary part of his life.

That’s not how everyone else in his life sees things, though. Julian experiences rejection and surprise when he goes looking for work, with landlords and potential employers sometimes shooing him away and sometimes offering him jobs only on the condition that he never ask other employees for help. One potential employer, Mr. Zweifel, bluntly asks Julian, “What’s the matter with you?” while pointing at Julian’s leg. Even though he’s had several potential bosses notice his disability by this point, Julian still feels awkward and uncomfortable in these conversations.

His own attitude about his disability also changes based on how other people react to him. Early in the book, Julian’s disability is just a part of who he is, something he doesn’t seem to think about much. But when the girl he wants to marry rejects him because she thinks he won’t be able to work on her family’s farm, Julian looks down and “his bad leg taunted. It hung too short; in the intermittent light, it seemed not only withered but gnarled….The world, the wide, limitless world, shrank to the size of the barn where he’d once lain fevering in the night.” Going back into his family’s house, he sees only the way the house and his family members’ lives have been altered for him, with a slide over the stairs for him to use, hooks on which he can hang his crutches, and chores that don’t involve the use of his leg. His brothers, leaving for the army, highlight that Julian can’t fight or tend to the farm in their absence. He feels infantilized in a way he hasn’t felt before, and that feeling is part of what sends him fleeing west to make his own way (and, eventually, cross paths with Kate).

Julian has a magical power — the ability to breathe dead things back to life — that he may have gotten from the same polio that affected his leg. But the power in no way compensates for or cures his disability; in fact, it brings Julian another set of problems, and it is that power and its consequences, rather than disability, that drive much of Julian’s portion of the plot. Julian’s disability is one of his motivations as a character — the lack of independence he feels at home pushes him to try to make his own way in the world — but it isn’t a crucial engine of the book’s wider plot, and that felt, to me, exactly right.


Thank you, Sara!

Author Saundra Mitchell has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–hardcover copy of The Elementals be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to North American addresses.

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

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 #5: Is ANY representation better than NO representation?

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:

IS any representation better than no representation? That argument frequently comes up in response to criticism, but is it valid?

Here were their answers:


s.e. smith:
NO! If a representation is bad, it’s harmful, and it perpetuates negative beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes — or just erroneous information. This argument is totally invalid, because it suggests that we should be grateful for the scraps from the table, even if they’re stale or molding. That’s ridiculous. We’re owed a duty of care and respect, and people who want to integrate diversity into their storytelling (which everyone should!) need to be prepared to take it on seriously, not include it as a slapdash afterthought


Marieke Nijkamp:
Everything. s.e. said. Every. Single. Word.


Kayla Whaley:
Also no for me. I think what s.e. said was spot on: there’s this expectation that we (disabled folks) should be happy we’re included at all, no matter the form that takes. That ANY inclusion and representation is a GIFT we’ve been given, and it’s ridiculous for us to expect it to be an accurate, respectful portrayal on top of that. That that’s asking way too much of authors. Which, honestly, if you think putting some thought and care into writing your disabled characters is way too demanding, I’m going to assume you don’t put thought or care into any of your characters. I realize that answer got a little off track, but yeah, what s.e. said basically.


Sara Polsky:
No, I don’t think any representation is better than no representation. One-dimensional, stereotypical, or inaccurate portrayals of characters with disabilities harm all readers, whether they have disabilities or not. Poor representation leaves readers who have no other experience with disability with narrow ideas about the lives of people with disabilities, and it leaves people with disabilities with no true reflection of their own experience.


What about you, dearest readers? How do you feel about the any representation is better than no representation suggestion?

Sara Polsky reviews GATHERING BLUE

Cover for THIS IS HOW I FIND HERSara PolskySara Polsky is a writer and editor whose debut YA novel, THIS IS HOW I FIND HER, will be published by Albert Whitman on September 1. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, The Christian Science Monitor, Poets & Writers, The Awl, and other publications. She lives and writes in New York City. Visit her at her website or on Twitter or Facebook.


Cover for GATHERING BLUEPeople with disabilities aren’t usually allowed to remain alive in the society of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue (loosely a companion novel to The Giver). But Kira, the protagonist, has managed to make it to young adulthood with a “twisted leg,” thanks to a mother who fought for her and a grandfather who was powerful in the community. When her mother dies, though, Kira’s protection disappears. And society is ready to cast Kira out: the neighbor women decide they would rather have Kira’s land to build a pen for their children. They go before the community’s leaders, the Council of Guardians, to argue that Kira “has not contributed,” and so doesn’t deserve to keep her land. She is a burden because “she cannot dig or plant or weed…She is slow, and she eats a lot.”

The Council grants the neighbors’ request for the land, partly because it has other plans for Kira. She is a talented threader, so she is given a room in the Council’s building and a task — work she can do, unlike the physical labor she has been unable to participate in her entire life. She is to repair the Singer’s robe, worn at an annual ceremony. And in the Council Edifice she encounters other artists, also made to live apart from the community (though these artists, as far as the story indicates, are able-bodied), with specific tasks to complete. Kira ends up becoming friends with the other residents, a carver and a singer — but she is also doubly isolated by her disability and her artistic ability.

The story suggests that Kira’s talents as a threader make up for her disability, justifying her continued survival and the Council’s support of her. Since her birth, Kira’s mother has told her that, for example, “one bent leg is of no importance when measured against your cleverness. The stories you tell to the tykes, the pictures you create with words — and with thread! The threading you do! It is unlike any threading the people have ever seen!” It is because of this skill that the Council takes the unusual step of granting Kira a new role, with the disturbing implication that without it, she would be worthless.

Kira’s disability is never far from the story. She can’t rebuild her cott — the small house she shared with her mother — because she cannot climb. She can’t expect to marry because “no one would desire Kira.” Even once Kira has found her own meaningful work, a fit for her particular talents, the physical effort involved in some of that work, like walking to the hut of an old woman from whom Kira is learning to dye thread, still poses problems. This felt, to me, realistic — chronic pain remains a constant, even when one is engaged in consuming, enjoyable work. Given how much Kira’s disability affects her standing in the community, it made sense that it dominated so much of the narrative.

What I found frustrating, though, is that Kira doesn’t question the assumptions about disability that are built into her world and into the story. It’s true that Kira will never be able to perform some of the physical tasks expected of members of her community. It’s not necessarily true, though, that these limitations must make Kira a burden; that the physical labor she is able to do, picking up scraps for the weavers, is not meaningful or necessary; that she can’t expect to be able to marry because of what another character describes as her “horrid gimp”; or even that she must have other talents to give her worth. None of these assumptions are inevitable consequences of Kira’s disability — they are social attitudes. They are beliefs that can be changed.

It’s only at the end of the book, when Kira learns of another society with different ideas, where people with disabilities are welcome to live in the community and accommodate everyone by working together, that she senses there might be another way to look at things. Even then, her thoughts are more about her art than about her disability. She wants to free herself to use her talents for her own ends, rather than the Council’s, and thus help her community imagine a different way of life. There’s little indication, though, that a radically different approach to disability is part of Kira’s vision. And if dystopian stories reflect our world back to us at extremes, letting us see its most problematic attitudes and allowing us, perhaps, to imagine solutions, that seems a missed opportunity.