‘Differences’ as Superpowers in Middle Grade Novels

I have a confession to make. I fully intended this post to be about body image in middle grade novels. I had recently written about various issues of body image in YA novels, and, remembering fantastic MG books from my own childhood like Paula Danzinger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Judy Blume’s Blubber, I wanted to explore the many current day middle grade novels tackling the tricky issues of weight, disordered eating, body difference, and self image.

But I couldn’t find them.

I begged my brilliant fellow Mixed Up Files bloggers for suggestions and found this great site on body image in picture books as well as MG and YA novels. Although some of the middle grade titles suggested look fascinating (including Susan Shreve’s Jonah the Whale and Pamela Todd’s Pig and the Shrink), the truth is, most of the books we immediately thought of, including Allen Zadoff’s Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have, Robin Brande‘s Fat Cat, Erin Dionne‘s Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies and Carolyn Mackler‘s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things were actually young adult novels.

I kept searching, growing increasingly frustrated, until I stepped back and decided to re-examine my assumptions. Certainly, there are middle grade novels out there portraying characters with disabilities. Last year, I posted here at From the Mixed Up Files on the topic, and since then, have found several other fantastic book lists of disability in children’s literature, including this one at YA highway (MG novels included here).

But it occurred to me that while there are surely some middle grade books out there dealing with body image in the same realistic way as Danzinger or Blume (please feel free to share them below!), many are choosing to take difference (both within the realm of ‘different’ able bodies and disabilities) and put it on its head, such that kids’ ‘non-normative’ bodies, abilities, or conditions aren’t problems, but assets.


Consider Rick Riordan’s choice to have his protagonist Percy Jackson’s ADHD be a sign of his demi-god status. What’s called hyperactivity in modern life is in fact the quick reflexes required for battling gorgons and monsters. And Percy’s dyslexia? Why that’s of course because his brain is wired to read ancient Greek, not English. Even secondary characters in Riordan’s series have disabilities that in fact mask their superpowers. Percy’s wheelchair bound teacher is the mythical centaur warrior Chiron (whose special chair magically hides the fact he has the the lower body of a horse), and his best friend Grover’s leg braces and crutches mask the fact that he has goat’s fur and hooves, because he is a satyr.

Or consider Michael Buckley’s N.E.R.D.S (National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society), in which braces and headgear, buck teeth, asthma and a tendency to eat paste all become secret weapons – the ability to walk on ceilings, for instance (the kid who eats paste, Agent Name: Gluestick) or fly around using an asthma inhaler and nebulizer (Agent Name: Wheezer). Similarly, Ross Venkur’s titular hero in The Autobiography of Meatball Finkelstein is an overweight, socially ostracized vegetarian who discovers that eating meatballs actually gives him superpowers.

Or what about Gitty Daneshvari‘s School of Fear books in which, four twelve-year-olds with morbid phobias – including of confined spaces, water, bugs, and death — are forced to face their worst fears in order to escape a bizarre school run by a seemingly crazy ex-beauty queen. Similar frady-cats headline Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things where wimpiness is, if not a virtue, at least a relate-able state of being. No longer the marginalized sidekick or pick-on-able freak, these wimps are the heroes of their series.

As fellow Mixed Up Files blogger Erin E. Moulton points out, many invincible characters in books are of common upbringing but are ennobled by a lofty cause like glory, truth, honor, or love. The ‘different’, potentially marginalized kids in these middle grade books are in fact ennobled and empowered by that which would otherwise be seen as their deficits.

I find this trend in middle grade fiction not only fun and appealing, allowing kids of all shapes, sizes, abilities and bodies to see themselves as protagonists and heroes, but also a sort of political gesture – to stop framing difference as solely a problem. In the groundbreaking The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois asked “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?” Since that time, marginalized communities have used this idea to critique and address the way we are represented, such that we are not problems but three dimensional people.

A similar rallying cry has been taken up by some sectors of the children’s literature community. Kidlit authors from David Levithan to Mitali Perkins have long made the point that books about LGBTQ kids and kids of color need to stop treating sexuality and ethnicity as only traumatizing, only oppressive, or only a problem – but rather celebrate the ordinary, funny, silly, and romantic lives of queer and of color kids as well. The modern middle grade books discussed above are taking a comparable step with kids of various abilities and bodies. Like activist movements organized around the concept of “pride” including gay pride, disability pride, and mad pride, these books are (consciously or unconsciously) portraying difference from a position of pride and (super)power.

Now, certainly, if kidlit were to only ‘brightside’ difference, that too would be problematic – despite recent bru-ha-has in the venerable Wall Street Journal on the subject, one important function of children’s literature is to reflect back to young people their own lives, worlds, and problems. Yet, it is clear that there is a canon of realistic (YA and MG) literature doing this quite well already.

In re-framing otherwise non-normative, marginalized bodies and abilities as ‘superpowers,’ these middle grade books are making room for difference as an asset to be celebrated rather than simply a problem to be ‘dealt with.’ (Which is a trend begun perhaps with the X-Men and other similar comics but that’s a longer blog post!) In doing so, these authors have created some fantastic stories. A kid James Bond who makes spy gadgets with braces and headgear? Sounds like a superhero any kid would like to meet; and any kid can imagine becoming.

What are your favorite MG titles celebrating ‘difference’ as a superpower? Or some modern MG titles we missed on body image?

 

If Sayantani DasGupta had a nerdy superpower, it would be a supersonic beam that blasts out of her mouth every time she laughs (because she laughs embarrassingly loudly). But, as Spidey would say, with great power comes great responsibility…

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