I was really hoping to like I Funny, which follows Jamie Grimm in his quest to be crowned The Planet’s Funniest Kid Comic. It could have been a fun, lighthearted book about a wheelchair-using protagonist, where many hijinks ensue and he ultimately wins the day.
The book wants to be all those things. It also very much wants to be a Disability Book with Good Messages. That’s not necessarily a bad goal to have, but the messages it sends are anything but good; some are merely misguided, but others are downright dangerous.
There’s a lot to cover here, so I’m going to split the review into sections.
Boundaries, abuse, and violence
Before moving to Long Island, Jamie was in an accident that orphaned and paralyzed him. He now lives with his aunt’s family, and much of the book revolves around his adjustment to his new home. It’s not an easy task, given his neglectful adoptive parents and outright abusive cousin-turned-stepbrother Stevie.
When we first meet Stevie, he’s holding one of Jamie’s classmates upside down, shaking money out of the kid’s pockets. Jamie distracts him by telling jokes, and Stevie turns his attention to Jamie.
This is so awesome!
Kosgrov decks me. I mean, he socks me so hard I end up flat on my back like a tipped-over turtle (minus the kicking legs). … Lying on the ground, staring up at the sky with parking-lot gravel in my hair, I feel that I have finally arrived.
Stevie Kosgrov punched me just like I was a regular, normal kid.
This section made me pause, but I do remember wanting to be treated the same as my peers; the difficulty in determining what was genuine and what was pity; the skin-tingling strangeness of being Other. I can understand how Jamie might see being bullied as “progress,” how it would make him “feel normal” and why “normal feels absolutely amazing.” It’s an overly simplistic portrayal of bullying, but it’s not necessarily unbelievable.
Of course, this line of thinking only works if Jamie’s definition of normal treatment is abusive, so I was expecting to see it critiqued in the text later on. It never is. In fact, the narrative doubles down. Time and time again we see Stevie physically and verbally abuse Jamie in increasingly cruel and dangerous ways. He calls him all manner of ableist slurs like “crip” and “gimp.” He locks Jamie out of the only accessible entrance to the house for hours on a cold night. And in a particularly upsetting scene, Stevie tips Jamie’s chair over (again), before he and his friends pick Jamie out of his chair and throw him over the boardwalk railing.
They heave me up and over the railing. I sail about ten yards and hit the sand with a hard thud … Then he and his buddies—all of them laughing hysterically—take off down the boardwalk, pushing my wheelchair.
Admittedly, Jamie isn’t happy about it this time. He knows it’s wrong, thinking, “This is really bad. Even for Stevie, this is over the top.” He’s cold and hurt and scared, all of which rings true. As does this:
… there’s no way I am yelling for help. How embarrassing would that be? “Um, excuse me, I seem to have lost my wheelchair. Would you mind dragging me off this beach before an army of sand crabs invades my undershorts?” No way am I doing that.
Again, this is an absolutely plausible reaction to ableist abuse. I’ve never been attacked this way, but I recognize the shame and embarrassment for being a nuisance or a hassle or somebody else’s problem. Add to that the complicated feelings of violation and betrayal, and his decision not to call for help makes sense. It’s terrible to read (and a little too blasé in how it’s written), but it makes sense.
My issue comes later, after Jamie’s carried back home, after Stevie claims the wheelchair was dumped behind the house. While the grownups confer amongst themselves, Stevie threatens Jamie yet again: “You tell anybody anything, you’re dead meat. And I’ll torture you before I kill you!” We know it’s not an empty threat. We’ve seen multiple times by this point that Stevie is violent. So it’s no surprise that, when asked what happened, Jamie says, “I had an accident.” What is surprising is that this whole ordeal is never mentioned again. In fact, none of Stevie’s abuse is ever addressed. The adults are all either willfully ignorant or completely oblivious, and Stevie never faces even the lightest of reprimands.
Most galling, the book ends with a chapter called “And Now a Word from our Tormentor,” wherein Stevie approaches Jamie after he performs a routine:
I scrunch up my face and tighten my stomach muscles so I’m ready to take a good punch.
But Stevie totally surprises me.
Instead of slugging me, he puts out his hand. A little nervous, I take it.
“We’re not friends, though,” he says as we shake.
“Definitely not,” I say. “We’re mortal enemies.”
“To the death, bro. Sooner or later, you’re going down.”
“Maybe. But you know what, Stevie?”
“Sooner or later, I’ll get right back up again, too.”
We’re meant to read this as a peace accord of sorts. A hopeful ending where jokes cure the bully of his ways and establish the beginnings of a better relationship. But everything about this scene makes my skin crawl.
Jamie’s first instinct—understandably—is to brace himself for an attack, but then Stevie extends his hand. This is meant to be the olive branch, except Stevie doesn’t apologize. He says, “We’re not friends, though.” And then he follows it up with, “To the death, bro. Sooner or later, you’re going down.” This isn’t a happy ending. This isn’t good-natured joshing. Not when there’s a history of abuse. Not when Stevie has threatened death before.
Again, Stevie faces zero consequences. He’s never held accountable, and Jamie never gets a chance to process his trauma at his stepbrother’s hands. He never tells, never asks for help, never defies Stevie’s command to keep quiet. The closest he comes is including a joke in his routine about how Stevie is such a bully he once punched a goldfish, which the narrative wants us to see as a lesson about the power of comedy to unite.
Of course, Jamie’s last line is problematic as well: “Sooner or later, I’ll get right back up again, too.” Jamie’s putting the onus on himself to be strong, to save himself against Stevie’s future violence (even if they are just “joking” at this point). Specifically, he’s using metaphorical language where the referent is a physical act Jamie isn’t capable of. It’s an intentional juxtaposition, one that’s subtle but uncomfortable, especially given some of Jamie’s discussions of his disability (which we’ll discuss later).
This scene is especially galling when you think back to Jamie’s initial reaction to Stevie’s abuse. When you remember that Jamie claimed to enjoy being tipped over onto the pavement and left there. When you remember that it made him “feel normal, and normal feels absolutely amazing.”
Throughout the book—even outside Jamie’s relationship with Stevie—being treated like garbage is presented as the only alternative to being pitied and given “special treatment.”
First, let’s look at Cool Girl, whose actual name is Suzie—a name Jamie chooses to ignore in favor of reinforcing the idealized identity he’s constructed for her. Nearly every time Jamie and Cool Girl interact, she dumps her books on Jamie’s lap and expects him to carry them. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind, and he offered to help when they first meet, but the manner in which she simply uses him as a carrying cart is off-putting to me. And the fact that she assumes his consent every time after their first meeting is a clear violation of boundaries. But Jamie finds her behavior “cool” over and over again, even as he says, “I’m just the local bookmobile.”
Her disregard for boundaries extends beyond book-carrying, though. In a scene I find both wildly upsetting and emblematic of the book’s Message, Cool Girl asks Jamie if he is physically able to pee. The question comes completely out of the blue and understandably takes Jamie aback. At first, he’s embarrassed, but:
…once my face goes from code purple to somewhere closer to my normal skin tone, and my ears stop burning, I realize: That’s exactly why I like Cool Girl so much.
She says whatever is on her mind whenever it happens to be there.
With her, there are no soft or squishy words. No special treatment for the kid in the chair.
Of course, they’re both kids and it’s a question I expect plenty of kids might ask their disabled friends (it’s certainly one I was asked). But the fact that the narrative endorses this sort of invasive questioning as ideal, even going so far as to have Jamie dismiss his own discomfort of the situation, is unacceptable.
Having said that, there are some genuinely touching moments between the two characters. She encourages him when people say he only won the first round of the competition because of his disability and again when he’s considering quitting after his routine bombs at home. And I very much appreciate that Jamie gets a romantic subplot (spoiler: he and Cool Girl kiss—albeit in another unsettling scene that we’ll discuss later), but their overall relationship is yet another vehicle demonstrating Jamie’s warped view of normality.
Let’s look at one other example: Jamie’s solo trip to New York City. From the moment he arrives, he asserts “there’s very little pity on the streets of the big city,” but the interactions we’re supposed to accept as the opposite of pity—as the epitome of normal treatment—are all antagonistic at best and violent at worst. His trip ends with this:
A guy mugs me, armed only with a finger pistol under his hoodie. I give him my last two bucks. He hops off at the next stop. I just smile and wave as he runs away.
“Go with God,” I say.
Because he robbed me just like he’d rob anybody else!”
Again, violence is shown as the purest way to tell you aren’t being pitied or given special treatment because of your disability. Over and over we see Jamie being grateful for his abuse. This is dangerous. It tells disabled kids that they should long for physical and/or verbal abuse, and that anything short of that is pity. It tells disabled and abled kids alike that abuse is the standard way to interact with others. That it’s expected. That it’s normal.
This incredibly dangerous message makes an already vulnerable population even more so, especially since it really can be difficult to tell if someone’s treating you differently because of your disability or if they’re being genuine. You start questioning every compliment, every good progress report, every letter of recommendation, every win. You wonder if you really deserved the good things. It’s hard and complicated.
But what isn’t hard or complicated is that no one deserves abuse, violence, or to have their boundaries ignored. Those aren’t markers of equality. And neither respect nor empathy are markers of “special treatment.”
Interacting with and understanding disability
I Funny doesn’t spend much time (none, really) on the logistical realities of disability, but it does seem interested in the way one interacts with and understands their own disability. This is something I’m also very much interested in as well, so it was nice to see it tackled somewhat head-on. Unfortunately, once again, good intentions can’t surmount poor execution.
Jamie has a complicated relationship with his body and disability, as many disabled kids do. This is probably compounded by the fact that he’s recently disabled (as opposed to someone like me who was born so), although the narrative doesn’t spend too much time comparing Then and Now. I can’t speak to the realism of that part of Jamie’s perspective, but I can on others.
When we first learn of Jamie’s disability, he asks if we (the reader) can handle it and admits “sometimes even [he]can’t deal with it (like just about every morning, when [he]wake[s]up and look[s]at [him]self in the mirror).” This discomfort with your body is something I very much related to, as was his belief no girls would ever be interested in him. Body image can be incredibly difficult to navigate when the world tells you that your body is broken, different, wrong. It’s hard to believe you’re worthy of love and even harder to believe you’re worthy of attraction, so I appreciated these being mentioned.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Jamie gets a romantic moment with Cool Girl, but the context of that scene is somewhat troubling. Jamie mentions there’s an operation he could get that could cure him. (Well, the text phrases it as he could “walk again,” but I think it’s fair to assume that’s meant as equaling a cure.) Cool Girl is excited until he mentions it could “make things even worse” and “paralyze more junk.” After he explains insurance wouldn’t cover it anyway, Cool Girl asks, “Would it paralyze your lips? … Would it make your lips go all limp and floppy?” Jamie is once again confused. Until Cool Girl says she doesn’t “want to risk it” and leans in to kiss him.
As far as I’m aware, there’s no such surgery, experimental or otherwise, that can de-paralyze someone. It seems to have been included solely to lead into the kiss since it’s never mentioned again. This is supposed to be a sweet scene, but it comes across as creepy and more than a little dehumanizing. Cool Girl reduces Jamie to his body parts (specifically, his lips) and whether or not they would be affected. Her phrasing of “all limp and floppy” is especially upsetting as that kind of body movement is often the focus of bullies and even well-meaning folks. (As a brief example, a friend’s mother once told my mom she shouldn’t let me dance because it made me look “r*****ed.”)
This set-up also implies that if Jamie were further paralyzed, he would no longer be attractive and/or Cool Girl wouldn’t be interested in him anymore. Thus a potentially empowering, encouraging scene where the disabled protagonist gets to have a romantic moment is twisted into something arguably harmful instead.
When you have a complicated and/or negative relationship with your own body and disability, you might pay particular attention to how you present your disability in public. You might be hyperaware of both how others view you and how you can affect this.
In Jamie’s case, he uses comedy. Many of his jokes (particularly the ones aimed toward the reader) are about his disability.
You look at me, and I know what you’re thinking: “Zac Efron without the hot legs.”
“You stood up for this other kid?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly stand.”
“I’m Jamie Grimm. Maybe you saw my picture on the men’s room door?”
This sort of self-deprecating, point-out-the-obvious humor felt very familiar to me. It was one of my defense mechanisms too, though not to the extent it is for Jamie. His comedy starts with his disability but it doesn’t end there. He’s constantly looking for the funniest angle in every part of his life, which I really enjoyed seeing. I also liked that his humor-as-shield was discussed head-on a few times. While I think the disability jokes became a little much at times, the way humor was used and presented as a coping mechanism was one of the most successful parts of the book for me.
One of the other few decent elements was the illustrations throughout. We see Jamie in his chair at least every few pages. It’s refreshing to see visual proof of a character’s disability included, especially given the lack of representative covers. Unfortunately, these rare positives can’t outweigh the extremely dangerous negatives.
Before reading, I figured I would recommend the book even if it lacked nuance or had some inaccuracies, because we have so few stories—especially lighthearted ones—with wheelchair-using characters. I Funny had the potential to fill a giant gap and to provide sorely needed representation. Not only did it fail to meet those goals, but it’s a dangerous narrative wrapped up and presented as “good messages.”