With all the push toward reading more diversely lately, I’ve still found it surprisingly difficult to find books that focus on characters who have a disability. It was actually a prompt that I suggested for the GoodReads Around the Year challenge when we were in the process of putting together this year’s challenge, but it didn’t get accepted there. As a backup, I suggested it to a Goodreads thread for the PopSugar challenge that opened it up to suggestions, and was pleasantly surprised when it made the list.
It struck me as a bit odd that when the challenge actually started and people started posting their book choices, everyone seemed to define disability a little differently. What I had in mind were books about characters who had physical, cognitive, or developmental disabilities since those seem to be very underrepresented. I was a little surprised to see how many people chose to use books that had mental health conditions, including PTSD, alcoholism, and mood disorders. I purposely attempted to differentiate mental illness from disability when wording the prompt suggestion, since books about characters with mental illness have come up in challenge prompts before and seem to be much more common.
Another major reason for my interest is that I work in a day program for young adults with special needs, providing vocational, recreational and academic activities for them to continue developing their skills and gaining more independence as adults. A common theme that came up in conversation with some of the young adults I support is that people in the community don’t know how to interact with them, don’t understand them, and as a result, sometimes don’t treat them very respectfully. I think more representation in books and other media would go a long way to helping people become more aware and more understanding. I do not have a disability myself, so I may not be the best person to comment about the accuracy of the representation in these books aside from what I’ve heard directly from the participants in my program.
Top 10 Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish
1) With the Light by Keiko Tobe
This is a series I’ve mentioned a few times on my blog, and one that I unfortunately still have not finished. It is a manga series about a Japanese couple who have a young son, Hikaru, who is diagnosed with autism. The series focuses primarily on Sachiko, Hikaru’s mother as she deals with her family and community’s attitudes, and learns to advocate for her son and navigate the resources available to her. I’ve only read the first few volumes, but I think this book gives an excellent window into some of the challenges faced by families of a child who has a disability. I especially like how the characters in the series portray a wide variety of attitudes from others, and some of the small things people can do to help support the child and their family.
2) Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism by Arthur Fleischmann and Carly Fleischmann
This one is about a real person, not a character. Carly Fleischmann is a remarkable young woman who has autism. For much of her childhood, Carly was non-verbal and assumed to be quite low-functioning until one day, she typed out a message that said “Help, teeth hurt.” This was the first time Carly had shown the ability to type, and marked a breakthrough in her communication with her families. This book is written by Arthur Flesichmann, Carly’s father, and includes a chapter that she wrote herself. This book describes Arthur’s experiences as a parent to a child with autism, and once Carly begins to type, his ability to finally get to know her as a person. Carly’s story is very inspiring and this is one of the few non-fiction books I enjoyed.
3) The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
I’ve read this book a couple of times, and I would highly recommend it. This book is told from the perspective of a boy named Christopher who is on the autism spectrum (although I’m not sure his diagnosis is ever named in the text). Christopher has extraordinary logical abilities, and an incredible memory for the topics he is interested in, but has difficulties with social interactions. When Christopher discovers his neighbour’s dog dead, he sets out to solve the mystery on his own. This book was a very powerful story, and it was fascinating to read it from Christopher’s perspective. I actually saw a filmed version of the live play, which was an incredible show and well-worth seeing as well.
4) House Rules by Jodi Picoult
This is one of my all-time favourite books. This book is about Jacob, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who is obsessed with forensics and crime scene investigation, which sometimes leads to him trying to “help” with police investigations. When Jacob’s social skills tutor is found dead, the police come to him — but not for help. Jacob is the prime suspect, and some of the behaviours that are a part of his diagnosis end also look like guilt to the police. I think this book is so important because of how the message it gives about how law enforcement needs to adapt their approach when dealing with someone who has ASD. It was also a compelling story with very interesting characters, and a brilliant mystery.
5) The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
This is one of the rare books where I saw the movie first, and read the book afterwards. This book begins in 1964, when Dr. David Henry delivers his own twin children during a blizzard. Immediately, he sees that his daughter has Down Syndrome and in attempt to protect his wife, he asks his nurse to take her away and lies about the child’s death to his wife. The story follows the lives of the Henry family and of Phoebe, the young daughter who was adopted by someone else. This book was a great story that showed how Dr. Henry’s choice had a ripple effect that impacted the rest of the family throughout their lives. This was a very strong book, and an even more powerful movie.
6) Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern
This was the book I chose this year for the prompt requiring a book by or about a person with a disability. The main character is a young woman named Amy who has cerebral palsy. Amy uses a voice output device to speak and a walker to walk, and her parents have hired her student aides to assist her with her senior year in high school. One of her aides, Matthew, is a fellow student who has OCD and the two quickly develop a strong bond. I really loved how this book addressed the issue of how people are afraid to be honest with someone who has a disability because of pity or fear of being mean. This book challenged this directly by having both Amy and Matthew confront each other with sometimes brutal honesty. I also loved how the author wrote Amy and let us see the fully-developed person behind the disability, an approach that I really appreciate because of the young adults I work with.
7) The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
This play is the now-famous story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The play details Annie’s attempts to teach Helen, who was blind and deaf, to communicate with others and keep her behaviour under control. Annie recognized that a lot of Helen’s outbursts came from her frustration at not being able to express herself, and with great determination and persistence, managed to reach Helen and open up the rest of the world to her. I also think this story is powerful because of the importance of the family’s approach. Before Annie came, Helen’s family had no idea how to manage her outbursts and allowed her to do whatever she wanted. This story really shows the importance of trying to connect with the person and making an effort to reach them, even when their disability seems quite severe.
8) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
This is another book where the character’s disability is never quite identified outright, but it seems pretty clear that the main character is on the autism spectrum. The Rosie Project is about a man named Don Tillman, a professor of genetics who understands his world according to rules but has a lot of difficulty managing social situations. He decides to undertake an evidence-based approach to finding a wife based on the criteria he would look for in a perfect partner. This book quickly became one of my favourites while reading it, and it’s sequel (The Rosie Effect) also gives a great look into what it might be like to live with someone who has Don’s kind of problems with social cues. The books do a great job of making Don an endearing, although sometimes frustrating, character and it is a great, entertaining story to read.
9) Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
This is another favourite of mine, although that seems to be a very unpopular opinion. This book is about a man named Will Traynor who is paralyzed after an accident, ending his previous habits of extreme sports and travel, leading him to make difficult choices about his future. Louisa Clark is a young woman employed by Will’s family to act as a caregiver and attempt to convince Will that his life is still worth living. I fully understand why a lot of people believe this book has a problematic message, but I do not necessarily agree. I think the book does a wonderful job of showing some of the day-to-day issues, such as accessibility, other people’s attitudes, and most importantly, the individual’s control over their own life. What ultimately made this book so powerful for me was this theme of choice — even if we don’t agree with Will’s choices.
10) The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard
This is a book that I read fairly recently, and yet another where the character’s diagnosis is never mentioned. It is only vaguely referred to as her “condition.” I’m beginning to wonder if there is a reason authors are so vague about what diagnosis their characters may have. The book is about a young woman named Elvira who is very literal, and lives her life by schedules and rules. When her overprotective mother has a stroke, Elvira is left to manage on her own and develops a list of seven social rules to follow to help her manage. Although this book was a little slow at times, I thought it gave an interesting look at some of the hypocrisy in how we sometimes treat people who have more difficulty with social skills. Elvira frequently pointed out cases where other people around her broke one of her rules with no problem, yet if she were to do the same, it would be viewed as rude. I also thought it was an interesting take on what it means to seen as independent by others.