I rarely encountered anyone else with clubfoot, real or fictional, before I read Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Representation of diverse characters can definitely serve a positive purpose, and I found that in Handbook, it did.
The novel follows Princess Tilda as she navigates her life as royalty, aspiring dragon slayer, author, and teenage crusher on a prince. Handbook has a positive spin on an old trope: That, traditionally speaking, virtuous princesses and princes must simply be “pretty.” In Handbook, though, Haskell shows that the most virtuous trait is putting others’ wellbeing first, even above personal desires.
Princess Tilda is a strong girl, who we find at the crux of self-discovery. This process is challenging, scary, and can be confusing, but she continues anyway. Princess Tilda does not demonstrate the need to “overcome” her clubfoot, that word many of us in the disability community have come to loathe. To me, Tilda represents a new kind of heroine, who is strong and doesn’t need saving, but also acknowledges and shows her vulnerability and insecurities. Her self-awareness makes her that much stronger.
Tilda is everything I love in a character — rebellious, nerdy, and not afraid to try things even when her mother discourages her. One example is horse-riding, the main mode of transport in this era: Tilda is forbidden from riding because her mother — the queen — and those charged with guarding her don’t think she can due to her clubfoot. She spends a good portion of the novel desiring, and working up to riding. This element of Handbook touches on a theme that I think is important for younger readers with experiences of disability: family pressures. It was critically important for me, as a younger girl, to break out on my own, proving as much to myself as to my family and loved ones — and strangers — that I could do it. I was able. I could walk up the stairs, I could carry my books. I could move to a new city and forge my own path. This can be an important life-affirming process for many young people, particularly those who have been protected or have had lower expectations placed on them because of disability and ableism.
There is, however, a darker side to this drive to do, to prove to self and other, which is also demonstrated in Handbook. This dichotomy between the desire to improve or better oneself and the perceived need to overcompensate for the lower expectations placed on oneself because of disability was portrayed exceptionally well.
Princess Tilda acknowledges her insecurities. On the word “cripple,” she says: “That word shouldn’t matter to me. No such words should matter to me.” But in saying that, she acknowledges that words can hurt, that it is okay to sit with hurt feelings when harmful words are intentionally thrown at us.
What is striking to me is that Handbook is not a book written with a direct mission or statement about disability. Disability is simply part of the story; it is not the entire plot, nor is it the only source of hardship. In other words, disability is not simplified or reduced to a useful but inaccurate writing device. And it’s not sugarcoated. For example, it is mentioned that Tilda’s foot always aches. That acknowledgment of chronic pain is refreshing and is certainly true in my case. Sometimes we want to alleviate the pain but are too embarrassed, as Tilda was when she said she didn’t want to massage her leg in front of her crush. Even as a grown woman, reading that was validating. I imagine it would be more so for a young reader with experiences of chronic pain, for whom this might be the first representation in literature that they witness. Tilda shows that constantly dealing with pain can be a source of strength and wisdom — as opposed to weakness.
Handbook also contains a romance, and it isn’t your standard medieval teenage love story. We often see male love interests of female characters who encourage the female lead to change in some way, while girls and women in literature are often portrayed as the focus of men’s desires, or as spending their time chasing after men. Princess Tilda’s love interest, however, isn’t someone who tries to make her change. He is someone who supports her in her own interests and struggles. He encourages her to learn how to ride a horse, despite the discouragement she faces by people and pain. He acknowledges her pain and “[asks]her to meet it.” His character supports her, not asking her to look past or ignore her pain, but to learn a new skill that would help her and her friends. In this respect, this teenage romance is very refreshing!
I do feel that Handbook could have used more class analysis where Princess Tilda’s best friend and servant, Judith, is concerned. They’re best friends, but young readers should not be led to forget that Judith also receives her livelihood from this relationship, and so is not in Princess Tilda’s life entirely of her own free will. It is mentioned in passing on a few occasions, such as when Judith says “it’s not like anyone deserves it. It’s just luck, the luck of how you’re born,” but there are few noticeable moments like this. Many elements of the plot offered opportunity for young readers to think critically about disability, gender, and the roles of children in pre-determined lives, but the element of class analysis was lacking. This could be something to address by educators or parents.
That said, Handbook for Dragon Slayers is empowering. It’s real, the characters are complex, and Princess Tilda is not defined by her disability, nor forced by the narrative to “overcome” it — instead, she is someone who has clubfoot and uses a crutch who dreams of fighting dragons and writing a book. The love interest supports her and does not want to change her, and Tilda is a powerful girl with desires and goals and fears like everyone — a relatable position disabled protagonists are often deprived of. We go on a life-affirming adventure with her, being shown that maybe we aren’t so alone in our experiences of pain or disability as we may think, and that in the end, even when surrounded by supportive people, we have to face our struggles with the strength that comes from within.
“Sword in one hand, crutch under my arm, I face the dark mouth of the cave alone.”
As I lie in my warm bed reading this hardcover book, holding it up with hands that are tired, joints inflamed, shoulder feeling like popping, legs splayed, I identify with this thirteen-year-old princess. Handbook’s message of chronic pain is an important one. Those who relate to her will finally have someone to identify with, and for others, it could encourage empathy and compassion for peers with chronic conditions or disabilities. I would recommend this for any reader, particularly age eleven and up.