As a blind woman (and formerly a blind teenager), I’ve found it very difficult – damn near impossible – to find books that accurately portray blind characters. This is why April Henry’s Girl, Stolen was such a pleasant surprise for me. The main character, Cheyenne, is a teenager who lost most of her sight a few years prior to the events of the story. One day she is in the backseat of her stepmother’s car when it is stolen by a teenage boy named Griffin, who might be in just as much danger as Cheyenne when they return to his father’s house.
Cheyenne is a well-researched, well-written example of blindness. It’s not her whole life, though it is a part of it. She’s not always bitter and angry about her disability, but she’s not constantly cheerful either. She uses what little vision she has in a way that felt very real to me. And, as a guide dog user myself, her anxiety over not having her guide dog with her during these horrifying events felt very authentic. I was so impressed that I had interview April Henry–New York Times-bestselling author of nearly 20 mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults!–about creating Cheyenne and the story of Girl, Stolen.
Take it away …
April Henry: Girl, Stolen began with a story I saw in the local news. A blind teenager was with her mom and step dad. They went out to dinner and then they wanted to go Christmas shopping. Heather decided to stay in the car. Her mom left the keys in the ignition in case Heather got cold. A man came along, saw the keys, jumped into the car, drove off – and then realized there was a girl in the back seat. She eventually talked him into letting her go. But I thought, “What if he had kept her?”
Eventually I asked myself more questions: “And what if the thief was a teenager too? And what if his dad was running a chop shop for stolen cars? And what if they thought about letting her go – until they learned she was the daughter of Nike’s president?”
Kody: Writing about blindness isn’t easy. I’ll be honest and say that nearly all the portrayals I’ve read have been woefully inaccurate – which was why GIRL, STOLEN was a pleasant surprise to me. How did you go about researching and writing such an accurate portrayal?
April: I started by reading. I read a lot of autobiographies written by people who had gone blind or were born with little sight, such as Cockeyed, Follow My Leader, Planet of the Blind, Touching the Rock, and more. If I could figure out how to contact the author, I did, and then asked questions. I also emailed and talked on the phone with a girl in high school who was blind and went to a mainstream school. For example, I asked her what might be a distinctive smell Cheyenne could recognize someone by, and she suggested a couple of things, including mint-flavored chewing tobacco.
And I interviewed two people I knew who did podcasts or radio shows about books and who happened to be blind. One woman in Austin had strong feelings about how blind people are portrayed in the media. She had her computer read it to her and caught some typos. So Girl, Stolen was actually proofread by a blind person!
Kody: One of my biggest complaints about blind characters is that, too often, they are completely blind with no vision at all while, in reality, 90% of legally blind people have some vision. Cheyenne actually does retain a bit of vision, which I found refreshing. Why did you choose to give her some vision? What difficulties did you come across in trying to write from Cheyenne’s perspective?
April: I decided I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be blind from birth, like Heather. (I’m pretty sure Heather doesn’t see, or sees only shadows). Because Cheyenne had seen once, I could have her imagine how things would look. As for how she went blind, I remembered how my daughter and had been walking on an unlit road and a car came up behind us and did something cool with our shadows (as the car got closer, it looked like our shadows were walking backward). I decided to use that scene, only to have a car careen out of control, killing Cheyenne’s mom and throwing Cheyenne into a sign. I interviewed an ophthalmologist about what would happen to her and why head injuries cause blindness. He’s the one who told me about how many people in that situation still retain a little sliver of vision, but it’s out of focus. I then spent several hours wandering around my house with my hands almost all the way over my eyes. I also bought a cane and learned how to (sort of) use it.
And I guess I just used my imagination. Without glasses or contacts, I am legally blind. My “best” eye is 20/275. I can see that people have a flesh-colored smudge for a face, but I can’t see expressions.
Kody: While Cheyenne’s guide dog isn’t around to be much help in the story, we do get a lot of insight into her life with a guide dog. As a guide dog owner, I found these little tidbits to be really, really true and honest – at least to my experience. Did you do any specific research on this, despite Cheyenne being without her dog for most of the story?
April: The more I researched, the more I learned how important guide dogs are to many blind people, so I decided to give her one. I figured Cheyenne would think about him a lot even if he wasn’t there. I spent a day at Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring, Oregon. They even put a blindfold on me and brought out a dog for me to harness and walk. It’s very hard to do that if you have never seen the dog or the harness, but I finally managed. Then I tried to pat the dog on the head – and realized I had harnessed the tail end. The head trainer, Malinda Carlson, reviewed the manuscript for me, answered lots of questions, and helped me figure out whether an untrained dog might be able to briefly be a guide dog. I actually had to do a lot of research into what it’s like to own a dog, because I have never lived with one, and am somewhat afraid of them (got bitten when I was five).
Thanks so much, April!
In addition to answering a few of our questions, April was kind enough to donate a signed copy of Girl, Stolen to giveaway to one of our awesome readers! To enter, leave a comment here and/or reblog our Tumblr post. Yes, doing both increases your chances of winning. In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!