Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice… So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, ‘why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class?’ (as YA author James Dawson put it recently in the Guardian).
Make no mistake: there is a diversity problem across literature as a whole. Roxane Gay discovered in 2012 that, ‘nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers’. The VIDA count has repeatedly confirmed that male authors are reviewed more often than female authors, and male reviewers outnumber female reviewers in all major US literary publications (and Australia has the exact same problem). But the focus on reparative action for this lack of diversity usually occurs within youth literature. Heck, there’s even a Tumblr campaign addressing the problem! Perhaps the youth literature community is just more self-aware (partly thanks to institutions like Centre for Youth Literature and Young Adult Library Services Association being able to offer introspection), or maybe they’re just held to a higher standard because they’re ‘shaping young minds’.
Whatever the reason, it is the youth literature community who are most vocal and active in diversifying literature. And one such online youth literature community that is deserving of wide recognition is Disability in KidLit.
Its blog features daily posts by readers, writers and bloggers discussing disability in the context of children’s and young adult literature. The blog is headed by three committed contributors, all of whom identify as disabled themselves: Kody Keplinger, Corinne Duyvis, and Kayla Whaley. I recently spoke to Whaley about ableism, negative portrayals of characters with disability, and the importance of providing teens with realistic representations of their lives and experiences.
Danielle: Do you think it’s important for young readers with disabilities to read stories they can relate to, featuring varied and positive forms of disability?
Kayla: Unequivocally, YES. It shows young disabled readers that their stories are worth telling. It shows them that they aren’t alone.
I’m particularly pleased that you asked about ‘varied’ portrayals and not only ‘positive’ ones. I think that’s a point that doesn’t get made often. There are innumerable disabled experiences, not one single authoritative experience. It’s critical that we have varied portrayals, that we show young readers that their experience of disability is valid, no matter what that experience looks like. We can’t and won’t be satisfied with a handful of books, because that paltry amount simply cannot contain the stories that need to be told.
We see this a lot with any form of diversity in literature, the idea that if a publisher has one book with a [insert marginalized identity] protagonist, that’s it. Roster’s full. Which is patently ridiculous, not to mention harmful, because it reaffirms that those characters are ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘the exception’, when in our lives we are the default. We must challenge what society sees as the default, and having many, many stories with disabled characters is one way to do that.
How do you think young readers with a disability react when they can’t find themselves represented in most youth literature?
Everyone will have unique experiences, but my reaction was to hate myself in a fundamental way. I was broken. I knew it the way I knew my name: instinctively, because I couldn’t remember learning it. It was always true.
When you are erased from every story, you learn that you don’t matter. When you are included and are shown as pitiful, always either cured or killed, you learn that you are broken. That it’s your fault you don’t matter. And that pretty quickly leads to hate, or at least it did for me.
I hated my body; I hated my disability; I hated myself. I distanced myself from other disabled people, because I couldn’t bear the thought that I was like them. I thought maybe if I could be smart enough, funny enough, kind enough, (abled) people would overlook my disability even if they couldn’t forget it. It took me two decades to get past those beliefs, and it’s a battle I still have to fight sometimes.
That’s part of how I reacted to a lack of representation, but it’s not the only possible reaction. Those reactions are as unique as the people reacting. But let’s put it this way: nothing good comes from being erased. Nothing.
What can readers who are not disabled gain from reading about characters who are?
What can any of us get from reading about characters who aren’t exactly like us? Empathy. The ability to understand people with different experiences from us as equally human.
Not to mention that everyone has the potential to become disabled, so those characters might become more intimately relatable at some point. But even if a reader never experiences disability first-hand, they will encounter and interact with disabled people. They will be part of our ableist culture, and building empathy is a crucial step in demolishing ableism.
N.K. Jemisin says that empathy is a skill you must develop like any other. It requires practice. I believe that, and I believe reading about characters unlike you, immersing yourself in their lives, is one of the best ways to do so.
For an abled person to read about a character with disability, should not be any more foreign or scary or sad an experience than for a blonde to read about a redhead.
Is there an issue with authors writing disability as a ‘negative‘?
Ableism is absolutely going to be a part of daily life for disabled characters, and it’s important to show that. But you’re right that disability is often shown as a ‘negative’, and part of the disconnect is that abled authors writing about disabled characters tend not to depict ableism as negative, rather than disability as negative. And that’s the difference.
Disability is probably going to come with challenges, just as any life comes with challenges. And it’s important to show those challenges, to be true to all aspects of disabled life, especially since disabled characters are so rarely allowed to express any ‘negative’ emotion: anger, fear, sadness, etc. without being labeled ‘bitter’ or ‘the bad cripple’. We experience those emotions as much as anyone else, but it’s important not to take that fact and turn it into ‘disability is bad and makes life terrible’.
It’s also important to note that we experience all other emotions, too: happiness, joy, optimism. But abled writers do not have the right take that fact and turn it into ‘look at this poor person overcoming their disability, being happy in spite of it’. We are not saints or inspirations for existing.
I suppose you could say there’s a fine line, but it’s not really about striking a balance between two opposing truths; it’s about realizing that disabled people are fully human, and their experience of life is as complex as everyone else’s.
For more information about disability in children’s and young adult literature, visit Disability in KidLit.