Over the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.
However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!
(As not all our contributors are public with their personal disabilities, these recommendations are posted anonymously.)
The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) – blindness
“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability—he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”
Crazy (Amy Reed) – bipolar
“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (
as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising*). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”
* Ed. correction 1/18/2016: Although the author is open about her struggles with depression and anxiety, she does not have bipolar disorder.
Wild Awake (Hilary T. Smith) – unspecified, but likely bipolar
“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”
Colin Fischer (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – autism
“Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure—Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”
Marcelo in the Real World (Francisco X. Stork) – autism
“Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability—while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”
Knowing Joseph (Judith Mammay) – autism, ADHD
“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal—from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”
The Boyfriend List (E. Lockhart) – anxiety, panic attacks
“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan) – depression
“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed—instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?
No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.”
“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”
Lovely, Dark, and Deep (Amy McNamara) – depression
“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark, and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”