Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's this disabled character doing in this MG novel? Probably about what they were doing in 1910.

Hello. I want to share a few thoughts about the portrayal of characters with disabilities in middle grade novels. There's the good:

  • Mary in the Little House books. While there's usually little for diversity advocates to cheer about in this series, Mary's blindness is very matter-of-fact and realistic. It affects her life and her family's lives. And it doesn't ruin them.
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio. What can I say that hasn't been said already?
  • Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. A MG fantasy – yes, a fantasy!-- in which a protagonist with a disability goes on a journey of discovery without encountering a miracle cure.

And then there's the not-so-good. Below are six tropes that encompass many of the portrayals of disabled characters in MG fiction. Each of them can be found in recent work as well as older books, though I'm only going to name older books.

I've given each trope a cute name even though they're not really very cute.

1. Paging Dr. Strangelove
In these books, the disabled character is a villain. His/her mind is as twisted as his/her body, get it? In case you don't, sometimes it's spelled out. Blech. In one MG book I read, there was an attempt to soften this (I think?) by having the villain turn out to be faking his disability. The image remains.

A venerable example of disability-conflated-with-badness is The Secret Garden (1910). When Mary arrives from India, she's sickly and unlikable. As she becomes more physically able, she turns into a better person. Then she arranges the same transformation for her bedridden cousin Colin. The message is clear.

2. God Bless Us, Every One
Like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, the disabled character in some MG books is only there to gauge the protagonist's moral growth.

3. Exit Little Eva
In the 19th century, one of the primary tasks of children in books was to die, preferably after a long illness and some edifying moral reflections. Although a few of these kids' books are still in print, like The Birds' Christmas Carol (1887), this one has mostly, er, died out.

Zombie-like, though, this trope rises again in the form of the character-too-badly-injured-to-survive. He tends to show up in action, pursuit, and battle scenes. He gets one injury, and then another, and things proceed to the point where he would be disabled were he to survive. So instead he's provided with yet another injury that enables him to die heroically. Sigh. As soon as the disabling injury was delivered, you knew this character was toast.

4. It's A Miracle!
The protagonist has a disability, but it's cured by the end of the book, often as a reward for something the protagonist has accomplished. While this is essentially what happens in The Secret Garden, and appears in rather bizarre form at the end of Johnny Tremain, it's also very common in fantasy novels.

5. He's Blind, But He Sees So Much More Than We Do
In these books, the character's disability is an undisguised blessing. It gives him/her powers that the abled characters can only dream of. If the protagonist in one of these books had a brain injury, it would be more likely to result in telepathy than in seizures.

This sort of book is satirized in the play Butterflies Are Free as "Little Donny Dark". In the Little Donny Dark books written by the protagonist's mother, the blind boy has no trouble flying a plane, because his other senses are so highly developed.

6. You'll Find My Disability on Page 16
These are books in which the protagonist has a disability which does not affect his/her life in any way. It might be a disability that, in real life, would take some serious managing (new skills to learn, trips to specialists, hospital stays, etc). The book, however, will mention the disability only once. Neither the protagonist nor the reader ever has to think about it again.
Oh dear. I hope my rant hasn't scared writers off from including disabled characters in their MG novels. Because we need more, not fewer. We need fully developed, complex characters whose disability is one aspect of their lives, one that matters but doesn't mean there's less for us to know and find out about the character. In a future post, I'll talk about some approaches for writers.


  1. PS-- I haven't listed above every MG book that handles disability well. I know there are others, including many I haven't read. From my reading, the majority of MG books, including some very popular recent ones, handle disability in one of the 6 ways I've named above, so that was sort of the focus of my rant. Sorry to be negative!

  2. I'd like to recommend THE REAL BOY be added to this list -- -- hope others add their recommendations.

    1. Thanks, Kurtis! I've heard good things about that book.

  3. I enjoyed reading this and you made me think, a good thing! One of my favorite old MG books is "The Hidden Treasure of Glaston" which has a crippled main character, Hugh, who is, by the end, miraculously healed. I think it works ok because he sees the Holy Grail. Look forward to reading about approaches to this for writers.

  4. Well, that does sound like #4! If the character with a physical disability is cured by a miracle. But I haven't read the book. :-)

  5. I did my thesis on disabilities in children's literature for my MFA and came to the same conclusions, especially in regards to classic children's literature. I actually caught myself when I made one of my bad guys have a scar and realized through my thesis research that using disability as a way of showing someone is evil is a serious no-no.I fixed that mistake quick. There are some great books out there that do it right though. Rules by Cynthia Lord is one of my favorites.

  6. That's interesting! Someone should compile a list of kids' books that get disability right. Along with the criteria for getting it right, I guess.

    I know there's good stuff but I've almost given up looking. A lot of the MG I read lately ends up getting thrown against the wall. Unless it's a library book, in which case I toss it lightly. Almost always over these issues or use of offensive language to describe people with disabilities.

  7. Try Out of my Mind, written by Sharon Draper. It is rather above cliche number five, but was an alright read. Not WONDERFUL, but alright.