Monday, August 26, 2013

Disabled, not Weak
Middle school students can be pretty self-absorbed, but my students have also astonished me with the depths of their compassion for others.  It can be pretty daunting for a 12-year old to start up a conversation with someone with an obvious disability, but reading fiction written in the voice of the disabled helps build understanding.  For a while, I've noticed a trend in YA and middle school fiction, main characters with a disability who are strong either in spite of their physical or mental challenges or because of the daily challenges they master.

Last year, our 8th grade reading teacher read Wonder by R.J. Palacio to all 220 of her students.  It took weeks; she only sees them every other day and she kept their D.E.A.R. time for self-selected reading.  August's wish that people would just treat him like a regular kid and the tale of his first year in public school mesmerized the teenagers, and they protested loudly if there was not time to read each day. 

Selective mutism, a disorder in which a child who is physically capable of speech is unable to talk in some situations or circumstances, has shown up in several novels I read this summer for Book Boot Camp.  In The Silence of Murder, by
Dandi Daley Mackall, 18-year old Jeremy, who has not spoken for nine years, is accused of killing the town's high school baseball coach.  Since he will not speak in his own defense, his loyal and loving sister, Hope, must find a way to prove his innocence.  Selective mutism is also seen in main characters in Listening for Lucca, by Suzanne LaFleur, and If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch.

An unusual book on this list is Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes.  It is a dystopian novel told in the voice of Clover, who is brilliant and autistic.  It is a typical apocalyptic YA novel; a virus wipes out most of the world, a vaccine is found to save the remnant who have not already succumbed to the deadly disease, and an authoritarian government/private company runs society.  The twist is that the vaccine came from exactly two years in the future, and the government keeps the homicide rate down to zero by executing anyone whose two-years-older future self commits murder.  Another twist is that the only people who can travel to the future are those who are autistic.  I don't think I've ever read a dystopian science fiction novel with an autistic main character who travels to the future.  

Our state book award nominees included The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen, one of my favorite books this year.  Jessica is a track star at her high school, and she loves to run.  When a bus accident necessitates the amputation of her leg below the knee, Jessica believes her dream is over.  Her perseverance, the kindness of a new friend, a relationship with a girl with cerebral palsy, and a very understanding prosthetic designer help her find her way back after the accident. 

In Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, fourteen-year-old Aiko Cassidy travels with her scupltor mom to Paris for a major exhibition.  Aiko has learned how to compensate for her mild cerebral palsy, but she'd just as soon be unnoticed.  She creates and prints a Manga comic, but shares it anonymously with her classmates.   Her dream is to be a Manga comic artist, and to one day meet her father, an indigo farmer in Japan.  What I loved about the novel is the romance between Aiko and a young French waiter she meets in Paris.  It was a component that is often missing in books about teens with disabilities. 

 My final book on this list is Paperboy by Vince Vawter.  The main character is a 12-year old living in Memphis in 1959.  The book opens with this attention getting line: "I'm typing about the stabbing for a good reason.  I can't talk.  Without stuttering." The boy stutters so severely that he thinks about everything before he says it.  He plans how to avoid words that are impossible for him, how to include "Gentle Air," as sort of hissing between words that makes it easier for him to speak, and sometimes he just doesn't say anything, because he knows that the words will not be there for him.   During the summer, he is covering his best friend's paper route and although he enjoys delivering the paper, he dreads the conversations that are required for collecting the subscribers' money.  Through him, we meet Mrs. Worthington, whose pretty smile frequently smells like whiskey, and Mr. Spiro, a merchant marine who collects and reads literature, and has the sensitivity and takes the time to get past the boy's disability and become a friend.  His most loyal listener is his family's housekeeper, whom he calls, Mam.   It was not until the last chapter that I learned what the paperboy's name was.  It is too hard for him to say, and he does everything he can to avoid having to pronounce it out loud.  This is a moving story, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, that made me think about those students in my school that stutter, whose words fail them when they try to make their voices heard, and whose audience frequently tries to guess what they are going to say so that the painful episode will be over.  

I put these titles and more into a poster to share with teachers and students at school.  If you are interested in more titles that fit this trend, there's a list at GoodReads: Children's Fiction with Positive Images of Disability.