Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith review SAY WHAT YOU WILL

Emma CreesEmma Crees is 32 and lives in Oxfordshire, UK. A life long wheelchair user she’s passionate about all things disability and can often be found online ranting about this. If she’s not ranting about disability she’s probably talking about books or writing. All of this and more is on her blog, A Writer In A Wheelchair, or on her twitter account @FunkyFairy22. When Emma isn’t online she can often be found knitting, sailing or volunteering.

Courtney GilfillianCourtney Gilfillian lives, writes, and works in New York City. She is constantly on the hunt for a good cocktail, the best pancakes in the city, and most of all a good book. Find her on Twitter at @whitegirlbkcvrs and at her blog about diversity in YA lit.

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.

Today, we’re hosting a discussion of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (titled Amy and Matthew in the UK). Our participants were Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith, who discussed the portrayal of both main characters’ disabilities–cerebral palsy and OCD–as well as several other disability-related issues that came up in the book.

Please note–this discussion contains spoilers.


John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park in this beautifully written, incredibly honest, and emotionally poignant novel. Cammie McGovern’s insightful young adult debut is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about how we can all feel lost until we find someone who loves us because of our faults, not in spite of them.

Born with cerebral palsy, Amy can’t walk without a walker, talk without a voice box, or even fully control her facial expressions. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Matthew is consumed with repeated thoughts, neurotic rituals, and crippling fear. Both in desperate need of someone to help them reach out to the world, Amy and Matthew are more alike than either ever realized.

When Amy decides to hire student aides to help her in her senior year at Coral Hills High School, these two teens are thrust into each other’s lives. As they begin to spend time with each other, what started as a blossoming friendship eventually grows into something neither expected.

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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!

Natalie Monroe reviews THE COLLECTOR

Natalie MonroeNatalie Monroe is currently studying for a B.A in English for the oldest reason in the book: she loves to read. When not fangirling over various books, she can be found watching cartoons, bugging cats who want to be left alone and spreading sarcasm. She also writes YA with fantastical elements because she believes we all need a touch of magic in our lives.

You can find her on Twitter and Goodreads.

The CollectorThe Collector is sort of a hit-or-miss book. You’re either going to love it and worship Victoria Scott to the high heavens or you’re going to hate it and burn the pieces. I am proud to say that I belong to the former and am now officially Team Dante Walker Victoria.

It has a fantastic protagonist (I’ll talk more about Dante later), plenty of snark and best of all, a disabled heroine.

A lot of readers ask for more diversity in YA, such as PoC or queer characters and I completely agree with that. But I hardly ever see people complaining about handicapped characters, or the lack thereof, in YA. And I’m not talking your issue-driven contemporaries where the whole plot is focused on his or her disability. I’m talking facing down fey armies, battling evil wizards or saving the world — and I want them to do it from a wheelchair or with another disability.

I am disabled. I suffer from a nifty little thing called Myopathy and I limped (and tripped) around for three years until my doctors suggested I use a wheelchair to prevent a self-induced concussion.

I get that it’s hard for authors because there are a lot of limitations if your characters are disabled. You can’t have them charge screaming down the steps to battle vampires. You have to build them a ramp or have them shuffle slowly downstairs, preferably with someone else holding onto that heavy sword. They might even refuse to show up for battle altogether because they’re uncomfortable around large groups of people or because their broccoli touched their carrots again.

So when I saw that a paranormal romance (or urban fantasy) featured a disabled heroine, I flipped out. I was excited, proud, yet terrified that Victoria Scott would butcher Charlie and her limp.

And my verdict?

Give yourself a hand, Victoria, because you did a fantastic job. Charlie is never defined by her disability and is instead, portrayed as an adorkable and good-hearted person. She does charity work, hangs out with her friends and makes out with Dante. Her limp is completely overshadowed by day-to-day normalcy (as normal as it can get anyway, with Dante under your roof), but there are subtle hints throughout the book reminding us. In short, Charlie Cooper is your average, down-to-earth girl—who happens to be disabled.

But occasionally, this normalcy backfires. Like this scene for instance:

[Charlie] keeps walking, pumping her short little legs to outpace mine. Seriously? I’ve got half a foot on this girl.

Um…yeah, that’s not really possible. A person with a limp cannot walk that fast. Seriously, I limp and I have friends who limp. We move like shuffling zombies with an iron ball attached to our ankles. There is no way Charlie can walk faster than Dante. And there’s this scene where Charlie jumps on the bed with Dante, which is really cute and all, but illogical too. Charlie has a bad hip. She can maybe bounce up and down a few times if she’s lucky, but then her leg’s going to give out and if this were a manga/anime…yeah, we all know what’s going to go down.

Another thing that irked me was how Charlie’s limp was used as a plot point. She fulfills the soul contract by wishing away her limp. My bone wasn’t with how her limp ‘magically disappears’ (Marieke Nijkamp has a marvelous post on this issue). It was with the sad truth that the author hadn’t set out to create a disability for the heroine just for the heck of it, but as a means to advance the plot. It’s like the issue-driven thing all over again. I don’t want a reason for a disability, I just want it to be.

But those are minor things and Charlie is a super sweet and competent heroine, so I’ll let it go.

Plus, we all know who the star of the show is—one Dante Walker.

“I came as Awesome Sauce,” I say. “You probably wouldn’t recognize it.”

I can tell you right now if you don’t like Dante, you’re not going to like this book. The guy is cocky, selfish and an all-round jackass in the beginning. And he admits it.

But there are times when his badass exterior slips and you see he’s actually a nice guy underneath. And as the story goes on, you see more and more of these moments, like Dante helping Charlie’s grandma and that scene with him comforting a little girl on the airplane. Plus, he actually sounds like an authentic guy and comes with his own, personal brand of sarcastic, witty banter. And I love me some snark.

The part I didn’t like about Dante was him calling Charlie “baby”. I hate guys who call girls “baby”, even as an endearment. It’s like they can’t even be bothered to remember their names. At least Dante only does it twice (yes, I counted).

The world-building is wonderful and I love the whole unique spin on the Heaven/Hell dynamic. Secondary characters are also very well-done. I see so many props BFFS shunted aside once the hot guy/girl shows up and it’s nice to see characters that aren’t there just for the sake of making the heroine/hero look good. Is it wrong that I was sorta, kinda rooting for Blue to end with Charlie? I know Dante has to end up with her (hell, the whole plot would be obsolete if that didn’t happen), but come on, the guy loved her before Dante did. And she wasn’t even beautiful then!

Sadly, the plot fell a little flat for me; there weren’t any ohmygod plot twists, but it was layered enough for entertainment value. And honestly, Dante makes up for a lot of it, even if the latter-half him is a tad cheesy.

The romance is nice enough, but if you really think about, it’s a tad insta-love. Took the boy eight days to go from:

My eyes widen at the sight of her. This is the girl Boss Man is after? She looks like a porcelain doll… beat three times with an ugly stick.

to this:

I will protect this girl with everything I have, because if something happens to her, I will lose myself. I will cease to exist.
And I will take everyone with me.

But I do appreciate the point Victoria was trying to make: we’re awesome and beautiful no matter what we look like. And don’t let anyone, even a hot dude with smouldering eyes, tell you different.

All in all, The Collector is a fantastic and humorous read and I highly recommend it. And if anyone out there writes a kick-ass disabled character along the lines of Susannah from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, tell me because I would so read the crap out of it.

Haddayr Copley-Woods reviews AMONG OTHERS

Haddayr Copley-WoodsHaddayr Copley-Woods writes dark fantasy, erotica, and science fiction stories; as well as essays and radio commentaries on various topics including disability issues. Her work is published in places like Strange Horizons, Minnesota Public Radio, and Best American Erotica. You can find most of her fiction and nonfiction at haddayr.com.

Cover for AMONG OTHERSWarning: this review contains spoilers.

When Among Others by Jo Walton first came out and everyone was geeking out about it, I decided not to read it. I felt that I would be annoyed by the endless references to books she had read, and possibly put off by Mori, the main character, and her sneering at those she finds less intelligent.

But then my friend Naomi handed it to me, demanding that I read it. “It’s like someone wrote a book specifically for you,” she said. “Mori walks like you, she’s got serious mamma issues, and she sees fairies. Real, Celtic ones.”

(I feel it is necessary to mention that I don’t see fairies. I’m just obsessed with Celtic fairy lore — the real stuff, not the twee Victorian ones or [forgive me, my friends] the breathy New Age romantic ones that like to play with crystals you hang in your kitchen window.)

What she didn’t mention, and what so many people seem to have missed in their reviews, is that Mori isn’t just physically disabled in a way very similar to the way I’m disabled. She also has PTSD — a mental health issue that can be disabling enough that I’m going to call it, for the sake of argument and this essay, a hidden disability. This is another thing that Mori and I share.

Mori is clearly traumatized by her abusive and possibly mentally ill mother (what I loved most about this book, besides its interesting look at disability and the faeries, was that the magical system was so incredibly subtle and based on wishes, kitchen witchery, luck, coincidence, and nightmares, that the book could have easily sold as a straight memoir or ‘realistic’ fiction as well, which is my favorite type of magical system. Her mother may be mentally ill and refusing to address it, or an evil queen witch. One or the other. Or both. A much-loved-because-it-is-so-apt metaphor or a literally evil witch queen. In the context of this book, it doesn’t really matter.), and has all the signs of PTSD: a heightened sense of danger/reactivity, nightmares (that may or may not be magical attacks), a strong emotional avoidance of the scenes that traumatized her in the first place, And a sense of profound disconnectedness from her body in many ways — including a scene that, outside of the context of PTSD, is deeply puzzling and creepy, where she idly wonders if her biological father’s drunken attempt to have sex with her was actually incest at all as they are ‘practically strangers’ and even considers allowing it, as ‘who else is going to want me, broken as I am?’ Read one way, it’s a reference to her physical disability. Read the other, it’s a reference to the feelings of self-loathing so many people with PTSD have.

She wakes from nightmares convinced her mother is magically attacking her. She fears seeing her around every corner. She has flashbacks and panic attacks, and often feels that her life has ended with the moment that killed her sister and damaged her leg.

Her escape into books is also a perfect way for children of trauma to dissociate and find a way to handle things; at one point she actually tells herself that if she has books she can handle anything.

Walton’s references to Mori’s physical disability are so incredibly on-target, as one might expect from someone who herself uses a cane to get around: although she is in pain much of the time, and dearly misses running, most of the time it’s disablism that causes Mori the most difficulty. Mori winces at the expressions of pity on people’s faces when they see her and refuses to ask for a seat — a familiar experience for many disabled people. For those of us who grew up before the Americans With Disabilities Act (or the British equivalent, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, as this is set in Wales and England), her experiences being denied basic access to PE classes (not that she wants them) and public transportation accommodations ring very true, as does her complete assumption that this is how it should be.

Other things I loved about this book’s depiction of disability: the fact that even if she thinks that she is, sexually speaking, damaged goods, she Gets the Guy — and Wim is a pretty hot ticket, too. A disabled girl, able to have sex! Imagine that! She also thinks about birth control, as well, and handles her relationship with him in a realistic teenagerish sort of way. No sexless sweet crip here, no.

Walton’s look at disablism is intersectional, as well: Mori’s status as Welsh and therefore lower-class than the other girls at the boarding school where her estranged father sends her is very clearly as much of a hindrance to her popularity and success as her disability: they see her as a “crippled barbarian.”

Her history of vicious abuse and misery also marks her as different from the other girls in their easy assumption of certain family origins and values: also ringing true for a girl with PTSD.

As a matter of fact, her sometime snobbery with the dull girls around her also seems far more bearable when you see her as someone who has survived so much and absorbed such toxic stories about exceptionality and separateness that many children from dysfunctional families have in order to survive and make themselves feel a cut above instead of a cut apart.

My main issue with this book, as far as PTSD goes, is that it is so realistic that it actually harms the drama of the book.

So many people with abusive parents find, when they finally face them, that the parent is nothing but a dysfunctional person with no particularly special powers in comparison to the person who has been fearing them for so long. In the end, Mori defeats her mother, rather handily, with book magic. It is completely realistic from the standpoint of a girl whose PTSD has inflated the reality of her mother into an unwieldy all-powerful monster: defeating the enemy is never as hard as you thought it would be. But as a plot device, it’s a rather unsatisfying, anticlimactic end.

I have read so many books for young adults in which disability is something to ‘overcome,’ or in which disability is something that completely defines the main character. I’ve even liked a few in which the person became disabled and learned to accept it and move on with their lives.

But there are precious few that are about magic, and books, and power, and faeries and language and culture and class and sex in which the main character is disabled — and it matters that she is disabled, but that is not even the beginning of the whole story.

Among Others is one of them. It’s a terrific book, even if it isn’t perfect, and I’m so glad she represented a disabled teen girl as interesting, strong, and unique.