Introduction by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Thank you for reading the third in the We Need Diverse Books roundtable series! This roundtable features seven authors of middle grade and young adult fiction who have disabilities. I am honored to be joined by Corinne Duyvis, Sarah Jae-Jones, Tara Kelly, Kody Keplinger, Cindy L. Rodriguez, and Francisco X. Stork, who talk about writing (and not writing) about their own disabilities, the intersectionality of disability and other diverse identities, challenging tropes and stereotypes that have become part of the canon, and how we can help authors with disabilities get their authentic stories published and read. We have a lot to say, but it’s worth the read!
How do you address disability in your writing? Have you avoided writing about disability, or written about disability experiences besides your own? Explain.
Corinne Duyvis: [I address disability] in the most blunt possible way. Every book I’ve written since, gosh, late 2011, features a protagonist who’s disabled in some way or another. I’ve written protagonists with amputations, albinism, tongue removal, autism, spinal muscular atrophy, anxiety disorder, spina bifida, dyslexia, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, deafness … That’s actually a bigger list than I expected! Most of these are not (yet) published, though.
Very few of these stories are about disability, but I do try to have the conditions affect the character—and sometimes the plot—in realistic ways. I don’t think that the best way to write about disability is to mention it once or twice and ignore it the rest of the time. Sometimes I feel people are very focused on not letting the disability “define the character,” and that’s commendable—but that doesn’t mean disabled people aren’t influenced and informed by disability. It’s just one aspect of a rounded, three-dimensional human being. Sweeping disability under the rug almost treats it like something shameful. It’s not.
I do have some ideas for books that feature non-disabled protagonists, for the record. These past few books just kind of developed that way.
I think I wrote my first disabled character in 2009 or 2010. Before that, it wasn’t so much that I avoided writing about disability as that it didn’t occur to me. That’s probably very sad when you think about it: when I thought of a protagonist, it did not occur to me to make them like me. Even when it did start occurring to me—which is linked to around the time I started getting more interested in social justice and representation—I wrote other disabilities long before I wrote my own. I’m not even sure why that is. I always figured I would, at some point, write an autistic character, and I definitely talked about autistic representation on a regular basis at the time … but it just didn’t happen.
I didn’t write an autistic protagonist until late 2013, when I drafted On the Edge of Gone, and that one isn’t even in stores until March 8. I don’t think she was autistic in the very first spark of idea, but it came very soon after. It fit perfectly with the character’s arc and plot. “Huh,” I thought when that occurred to me. “I guess this could be my autistic character.”
That’s how I’d conceptualized it. “My autistic character,” the one I would some-day-but-not-now-obviously write.
Looking back at, that was such a strange way of thinking about it. I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea now, and I have several other books in mind with autistic (and ADD for that matter) protagonists. But I definitely want to keep writing about other conditions, too.
Sarah Jae-Jones (JJ): I do not address disability in my writing. Disability certain informs my writing; I can no more escape being a bipolar writer than I can escape being a female writer; mental illness informs and colors how I see and respond to the world. In that regard, I suppose you could say that disability infuses my writing, but I choose not to address it directly.
Tara Kelly: I’m an author living with a disability who has close family members and friends also living with disabilities. We might have the same psychiatric labels, but we are all unique individuals who respond differently to the world and all the challenges that come with being alive. In my writing, I focus on the character first and the disability second. Living with a disability may shape their perspective and add challenges others don’t have—but it doesn’t define who they are or who they will become. We all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. Nobody can be summed up by a list of symptoms and I’ve yet to meet anyone with a disability who didn’t—at times—contradict the behavior the DSM-5 says they are supposed to display.
In my debut novel, Harmonic Feedback, the main character is on the autistic spectrum. However, I aimed to make the point that she does not represent others on the spectrum—she can only speak for herself and her own experiences.
So, in short, I write about disability as a fact of life and it’s important to address the challenges that come with having a disability—but I always keep in mind that I’m only telling the story of one character, one perspective.
Kody Keplinger: For years, I avoided writing about my own disability. Heck, I hid it. I was so afraid of being pigeonholed by it. Afraid people would only see me as a disabled author rather than an author capable of telling many stories. Afraid people would only see me as “inspirational” rather than looking at my work. I’ve gotten over that fear over the past few years. I’ve been more honest and public about my disability. Though I’ve set boundaries for where and when and how I discuss it. And that honesty led me to finally writing about a blind character in my next book, Run. I feel confident about it, more comfortable with my own identity and how my identity is perceived by readers. But it took years.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann: I had never wanted to write about my experiences growing up with not-yet-diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome because I didn’t want to revisit that time in my life. I also didn’t think I could create a likable protagonist based on myself because I didn’t have any friends in middle school and felt that people didn’t like me. Still, my sense of being an outsider looking in, of feeling there wasn’t a place for me, informed my portrayal of Daniel’s father in Gringolanda, who has a traumatic brain injury and PTSD as a result of being tortured in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. An underground journalist before his arrest, he fears that he can no longer write because of his injury and if he can’t write, he’s worthless.
I was diagnosed around the time I sold Gringolandia to a small press, and decided to turn my painful experience into something that could help others going through the same thing. It meant a lot to me then to read other writers on the autism spectrum, such as John Elder Robison and Temple Grandin, and I’m heartened to be writing alongside such honest, talented, and courageous YA authors as Corinne and Tara. Although many of the details have been altered (for instance, I never whacked one of my tormentors in the face with a lunch tray), Rogue is very much my story growing up. I don’t want to generalize—it’s said that if you see one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism—but Kiara in Rogue is me, knowing I was different from the other kids but not yet knowing why and wondering how other kids made friends so easily while I seemed to get it all wrong.
Cindy L. Rodriguez: Mental illness, depression specifically, is the central problem in When Reason Breaks. One of my goals was to portray characters with the same disease who present differently. Not all depressed people behave the same way, which can make it difficult for even family and friends to realize the extent to which the person is suffering. Emily Delgado, one of the main characters, works hard to convince everyone around her that she is fine, but during the novel, she slowly withdraws from everyone and falls into a deep depression. Elizabeth Davis is less withdrawn and more aggressive. She exhibits anger and has explosive outbursts in response to their inability to process her pain. Even some of the secondary characters have depressive symptoms in different degrees. Emily’s mom, Elizabeth’s mom, and Ms, Diaz are each dealing with their own personal issues, and while writing them, I deliberately tried to portray people who might be living with a milder, lower-level depression, which allow them to function daily—like going to work—but prevents them from being entirely happy.
If nothing else, I hope readers will see this—that while there are common symptoms for depression, the disease ranges from mild to severe. Also, people with depression do not all look the same or present their symptoms similarly. Some people talk about it openly, while others work hard to hide it.
Francisco X. Stork: The Memory of Light was the first time I wrote about a disability as something that needed to be overcome. In my other book about a disability, Marcelo in the Real World, I saw Marcelo’s Asperger’s Syndrome as part of who he is, what makes him unique. In fact, I admired (and envied a little) the way Marcelo sees and interprets the world. I understood and tried to convey how his “disability” causes him pain and separation from others—but I still admired him. And even now, I often wish I could think and feel and see like Marcelo.
It was different with Vicky’s disability in The Memory of Light. Depression is an ugly, dangerous, hurtful illness and there was no way that I would ever come close to “romanticizing” the condition as it is sometimes done. You know, stories with all those suffering depressives who are more sensitive, deeper, more artistic than the rest of humankind. My own lifetime experience with the illness kept me from glorifying depression in even the slightest way.
And yet for many of us depression is as much a part of our lives as Asperger’s Syndrome is for others. Many of us have been fortunate enough to find (through years of struggle) the tools needed to function and even to be useful despite the illness. Tools like medication, therapy, exercise, diet, meditation, the incredible hard practice of observing our thoughts and correcting them, all of these have allowed us to continue living and even to find joy. Depression, however, is there, in us, sometimes sleeping quietly and sometimes shouting for attention. Depression is in us and will be in us until our last breath. That being the case, it is not helpful to hate the illness and be in a constant state of warfare because hatred and inner-warfare only make it worse—self-hatred already being one of the worst symptoms of the illness.
So even though depression was a disability that Vicky needed to be overcome, I had to expand the concept of “overcome” and “cure” to include the ability to live with the illness. What Vicky needs to learn, what the sufferers of depression most need to learn, is the attitude of mind that simultaneously includes both fight and acceptance. Fight with all your might against the symptoms, especially those that urge self-harm, but accept that you have an illness called depression. Vicky needs first to recognize depression for the illness that it is, something separate from her, and then she needs to learn to see depression not as a mortal enemy but as a hurting part of her that must be lovingly opposed.
One of the temptations that come with depression, and perhaps with any disability, is for a kind of twisted self-pity that makes us feel superior because we are disabled. It is the sense that our pain and suffering make us see and feel what others don’t feel or see (all true), but then we take it one step further and confuse being special (which everyone is in their own way) with being better. The truth is that depression does teach us much about life and life’s purpose, things which many in our busy, goal-oriented world miss or take for granted. But this knowledge should lead us not toward a further separation from others but toward an appreciation of our shared humanity and of how, given our gifts, we can enhance it.
Vicky’s journey toward healing (which includes an ability to live with depression) takes her toward a place where she sees herself as part of a community of people who suffer and who understand her suffering as she understands theirs. Gradually she is able to recognize the hidden suffering of even those who see themselves as healthy. Healing begins when she finds a way to use her gifts, even those given to her by her disability, for the good of others.
This Roundtable will continue tomorrow with Part Two.
About the Authors:
A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days geeking out and writing speculative YA and MG novels. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It’s received four starred reviews—Kirkus called it “a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.” Her next book, an apocalyptic YA novel called On the Edge of Gone, is out on March 8, 2016; Book Riot said it’s “a rare gem of a book.” Find Corinne at her Twitter or Tumblr. She is a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit.
S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the author of Wintersong (Thomas Dunne, September 2016). Before moving to grits country, she was a YA fiction editor in New York City. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina, and many other places on the internet, including Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and her blog.
Tara Kelly adores variety in her life. She’s an author, one-girl-band, graphic designer, videographer/editor, and photographer. She lives in Sin City with her beloved guitars, sound design master husband, and a fluffy cat named Maestro.
Kody Keplinger is the author of several books for kids and teens, including The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), which was adapted to film in 2015. She is a co-founder of Disability In Kidlit, and her next novel, Run, will be released in June 2016.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Gringolandia (2009), Rogue (2013), and Surviving Santiago (2015) and the translator, from Portuguese, of picture books The World in a Second (2015), Who Changed the Signs? (2016), 3 Balls of Wool (2016), and Little Wave (2017). She reviews children’s and YA books on social justice themes at The Pirate Tree and blogs about diversity, social justice, writing, and life in Portugal on her own website. She divides her time between New York City and Lisbon, Portugal.
Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She was born in Chicago; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from Brazil. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She lives with her daughter and rescue mutt in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
Francisco X. Stork was born in Monterrey, Mexico. When he was six years old, Charles Stork, a retired American citizen of Dutch descent, married Ruth Arguelles, a single mother, adopted Francisco and moved the three-member family to El Paso, Texas. Francisco currently resides outside of Boston with his wife. In April 2015 he retired from the practice of law, where most recently he worked as an attorney for a Massachusetts State Agency that develops affordable housing. He is the author of six novels, including Marcelo in the Real World, which received the 2010 Schneider Award, and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which was the recipient of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award and the International Latino Book Award. The Memory of Light (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016) has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal.