Besides being classic tales, what else do Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have in common? Well, to varying degrees of success, they each portray a child with disabilities. There is Mary Ingalls, Laura’s elder sister, who becomes blind as a result of scarlet fever; there is Colin, the ill tempered and bedridden cousin in The Secret Garden; and of course who can forget the trope of the crutch-using, impoverished but uncomplaining Tiny Tim in the Dickens classic?
Disability studies, a thriving academic field, can be used as a lens to understand portrayals of children with different embodied/cognitive conditions in middle grade literature. One way is to understand the different ways that disability itself is defined. Scholars have suggested there may be at least three historical models/theories of disability:
1. The Metaphysical/Spiritual Model: This is the predominantly historical idea that disability is caused by, or represents, some sort of spiritual failing. Consider, for instance, that in The Secret Garden, the character Colin becomes able to walk once he is befriended by Mary. As soon as his emotional failings (some serious bad attitude) are overcome, so too are his physical disabilities.
2. The Medical Model: This is the notion that disabilities can be primarily understood as physical impairments, and therefore, necessarily have medical solutions. This would be the perspective that all Tiny Tim needs is a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, or a physical therapist.
3. The Social Model: This perspective suggests that we all may have differing physical, emotional, cognitive, etc. abilities, but that environmental and social obstacles – from a lack of wheelchair ramps to prejudicial attitudes – are how disabilities are socially constructed. While Little House is by no means a perfect example of portraying disability, the fact that Mary’s visual impairment is considered in the context of her family, that Laura is often written describing their visual environment to her sister, and Mary, in turn, is an active agent – correcting Laura when she exaggerates, suggests a more social understanding of Mary’s disability.
So where does that leave middle grade novels portraying disability today?
The online “disability scoop”- a source for developmental disability news – suggests that children with disabilities remain underrepresented in children’s literature. Quoting a December 2010 issue of the journal Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, the article suggests that out of 131 winners of the Newbery Medal and Honor, just 31 included a main or supporting character with a disability between 1975 and 2009. According to the article, a similar study in 2006 found that Caldecott Medal and Honor books provided inaccurate views of life with a disability and failed to accurately represent the prevalence of various disabilities.
Even when books do portray children with disabilities, a common critique is that such books sometimes adopt stereotypical ‘movie of the week’ patterns whereby the character with a disability is either overtly extraordinary (Think Rain Man) or pitiably in need of rescue. In the words of disabled poet Mark O’Brien in the documentary of his life, Breathing Lessons, “There are two stereotypes about disabled people: 1. we can do everything. 2. we can’t do anything.”
But there is help out there for writers who would like to portray children with disabilities in their work. Based on various anti-bias curricula, this list of Nine Ways to Evaluate Children’s Books that Address Disability as a Part of Diversity is a great guide for MG writers and readers alike. It asks questions about disabled characters around stereotypes, tokenism, agency and leadership. In other words, in portraying a character with a disability,
- Are stereotypes perpetuated about disablities?
- Is disability a metaphor or an identity? (ie. Tiny Tim’s disability can in many ways be read as a physical manifestation of Dickens’ concerns about the “innocent, suffering poor”, or alternately, Scrooge’s lack of empathy and emotional ‘crippling’.)
- Are children with disabilities portrayed doing things or are things done to them?
- Do they exist as characters in their own right or are they used to ‘teach lessons’ to non-disabled characters?
- What sorts of language does the writer employ – is ‘people first’ language being used in writing disability? (ie. a child with autism instead of an autistic child)
- Is the character with disability only portrayed vis a vis their disabililty – ie. do they have other issues in their life with which they are struggling?
- And finally (although this is more complicated), what is the sociocultural perspective of the author vis a vis disability? While having a disability personally or in one’s family does not guarantee a perfect portrayal, many disability activists use the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ to suggest that speaking about a community from its outside may be particularly harmful without significant contributions, critique and opinions from within that community.
Some recent award winning MG novels portraying characters with disabilities include:
2. Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After: 2011 Middle School winner of the Schneider Family Book Award (an award that honors an author or illustrator of a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for a child or adolescent audience), is the story of eighth grader Jeffrey, a leukemia ‘survivor’ who suffers brain and nerve damage after a childhood of intense radiation and chemotherapy.
3. Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal: The protagonist of this 2009 Schneider Book Award winner is 12 yo Addie, who is dyslexic, and must confront her new family life after her stepfather’s abandonment.
What are some of your favorite books, or resources for discovering children’s books about disability?
When she’s not writing middle grade novels, Sayantani DasGupta teaches courses on illness and disability narratives at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.