Book Review: Favorite Disabled Characters

cover images of the books listed below
Middle Grades

Song for a Whale – Iris is a deaf tween and tech-genius, who feels isolated and unheard as the only deaf person at her school. After learning of a whale who also cannot hear, which isolates him from other whales, she decides to create a song that he can hear. Iris is fiercely determined to find a way to get her song to Blue 55. Throughout her journey, the novel explores the power of deaf community, sign language, and being heard.

"She talks to me the way people talk to you. Not too loud and too slow, the way they talk to me. She talks like I am a person." -Nicole Panteleakos, Planet Earth Is Blue

Planet Earth Is Blue – Nova is a nonspeaking young girl growing up in the 80s, interested in space, the stars, and the Challenger space mission. I love Nova’s insights into the people around her, as well as the way she holds fast to her own value — even when everyone around her needs a serious wake-up call. This book beautifully explores Nova’s talents and strengths, while highlighting the ways that systems meant to support, such as foster care special education, can dehumanize. Content warning: Nova’s teacher does engage in discrete trial teaching, forced eye contact and physical prompting. I wish the book had more strongly highlighted how wrong these are, but the author does show how painful these things can be from Nova’s perspective.

"It's funny to be a prisoner of yourself. Like you're being bullied by your own mind and you're afraid of it, but it's also you and it's extremely confusing." - Wesley King, OCDaniel

OCDaniel – I love both Daniel — who has OCD — and Sara — who is bipolar — in this book. Sara owns her mental illness and way of being in the world in a way that is rare to read. I wish more time was spent on their friendship, rather than on Daniel’s crush on Raya. The author based the novel on his own experiences, so Daniel’s feelings, obsessions, and rituals all feel true. With the way that “I’m so OCD” is thrown around so casually in our language, it is powerful to read a fictional story that features a true representation of OCD and anxiety. It also closes with Daniel realizing that he will need professional support and to tell his parents what’s happening with him, which is not something that happens commonly in middle grades or YA novels.

Rain Reign – Rose is autistic, intensely fascinated by homonyms, and best friends with her dog, Rain. She’s also the daughter of an absent, alcoholic father — which allows for the exploration of the ways that trauma impacts our lives. Ann M. Martin does a fairly good job of presenting Rose as a character with depth and determination, rather than as a caricature of autism — a rare find in a non-autistic author.

Out Of My Mind – I debated putting this book on here, but I love Melody’s personality so much. Melody is a nonspeaking elementary school student who gets her first communication device — also a story that is not frequently told. It explores the journey to be heard and seen by her classmates and teachers. However, the “locked-in” character with a genius level IQ and photograph memory can unintentionally play into ableism about intellectual disability. Her teachers begin to respect her and classmates become her friends only once they realize she is “smart”, rather than because she is a human being with inherent value.

Young Adult

A Curse So Dark & Lonely – Seriously, this is one of my favorite books ever. I stayed up until 3am finishing it on a school night — that’s real love and dedication. The protagonist, Harper, has cerebral palsy — but the book isn’t about her cerebral palsy. It’s about adventure, friendship, and discovering your strengths. She’s smart, brave, fiercely loyal, and also makes mistakes. It’s rare to read a work of fiction that features a disabled character without the entire theme of the book being about their disability.

Throne of Glass series – Later in the novels, Sarah J. Maas introduces Elide Lochan, a main character — including times when the story focuses solely on her and her story — who has a physical disability. Like Harper in ACSDAL, she doesn’t have to eliminate or “overcome” her disability in order to be fierce, clever, and brave. At times, they do use magic to support her (similar to crutches or a cane) or relieve her pain. But they never cure her, and she is perfect as she is.

Adult

The Kiss Quotient / Bride Test Series, Helena Hoang – These books feature autistic main characters in two well-written romance novels. Helena Huang is autistic, which means her characters have the richness and depth of real autistic people — rather than being stereotypes or caricatures. When I read Bride Test, I felt like I was finally reading a book where the lead and I had SO much in common. Note that both books contain detailed descriptions of sex and intimacy.

Note: I am increasingly reading protagonists and supporting characters who are autistic, deaf, or physically disabled. I’m also seeing an increase in characters with chronic illness. But I still rarely see 1 – main characters with disabilities in books that would otherwise not be about disability (fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, etc), or 2 – main characters with intellectual disabilities. If you read books that fit either of these holes, please let me know about them!

Review: It’s My Life

side view of a young girl with dark hair and a pink baseball cap with "It's My Life" in white text on over it.Genre: young adult contemporary

Release date: January 1, 2020

Synopsis: It’s My Life follows Jenna, as she struggles with growing up, figuring out who she is, and how her disability plays into that. She navigates family, friendship, and finding her voice, both at school and as the director of her own care. The author writes that this book is primarily not about her disability, but about a girl who “believes something about herself that is not true”. However, Jenna’s negative feelings around her disability drive the bulk of the plot points and are central to the story.

Disabilities represented: cerebral palsy, depression

Disclosure: I received digital access to the ARC in exchange for my review, which was shared on Edelweiss.

Review contains spoilers.

I found It’s My Life choppy and disorganized. First person perspective can be challenging for authors. In this case Jenna’s thoughts come through as pressured, fast-paced, and highly disorganized. The plot contained significant jump points with weak transitions. I often found myself wondering, “How did we get here?” or “Would this really happen?” I mean, would someone’s uncle really randomly help them complete lal the paperwork for medical emancipation out of nowhere? The text message conversations between Jenna and her crush are especially choppy, as was the whole “cat-fishing” scheme. Jenna spends so much of the novel as her alter-ego that I honestly forgot her name several times.

I wanted to love this book. I did. I think there is a real dearth of coming of age novels for teens with disabilities. They face the same struggles as any teen, but with the added stress of a society that doesn’t often accommodate them. I think that following Jenna’s struggle for medical autonomy, the constant decision-making, the risk/benefit analysis of “is this treatment worth it? are these side effects worth it? for what purpose?” would have yielded a whole depth of emotions and plot to explore. I would have loved for that to be at the forefront. Instead, I struggled to understand whether this book was about Jenna’s understanding of her disability (which was very, very negative), about her struggle to have a “normal” life, about her depression, about her friendships… I just don’t even know.

I will say that I very much thing that Ramey wanted to portray to the world that Jenna is capable and brilliant and perfect, as she is. I do not think that Ramey herself has a negative view of cerebral palsy. She especially portrayed Jenna’s family beautifully. There’s a moment between Jenna and Jenna’s dad, towards the end of the book. Jenna asks if he ever had to grieve the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. He talks about how, from the beginning, he saw what a fighter she was and how beautiful and perfect she was, as herself, completely. It was a heart cracking moment — and an unconditional love that I wish more people had the privilege to experience.

So, no, I don’t think that Ramey is intentionally ableist. I don’t think she believes the world would be better without Jenna, or that Jenna would be better without her disability. The ableism in this novel is the subtle stuff, the “I don’t like the word disability” stuff. Late in the novel, when Jenna meets another person with a disability, the other person says she runs a club at her college for students with disabilities. The other person, though, talks about how she prefers the term “differently abled” or something (and I rolled my eyes). Similarly, of course the happy ending for this novel is that Jenna gets a baclofen pump, the baclofen pump works beautifully, and Jenna’s whole life is changed! She is less physically impacted! Hurray! (Sense the sarcasm.)

I do think this is a risk when well-meaning professionals write from the perspective of a disability. We have to really spend a lot of time analyzing what we are writing to see if we are unintentionally reflecting the ableist culture we live in, or if we are using our writing to subvert that oppression. I think that It’s My Life could have done with a lot more subversion.