Yesterday, we featured Part One of this series by Lyn Miller-Lachmann.
How do you handle the intersectionality of disability and other aspects of identity or experiences of marginalization?
Cindy L. Rodriguez: One of the main characters [in my book], Emily Delgado, is Puerto Rican. I’ve read lots of contemporary YA novels about depression and suicide. Rarely is the main character a person of color. Even more rare is a Latin@ character with a mental illness who takes medication or participates in traditional therapy. Emily doesn’t initially embrace medication and therapy, which is a common reaction for many depressed people, but ultimately, she realizes she needs a comprehensive approach—medication, therapy, and a safety plan—to get well. This ending was important to me because mental illness is not openly discussed in the Latin@ community, often perceived as a sign of weakness.
Other characters in the novel also represent marginalized groups in a “casual diversity” sort of way, meaning they simply are who they are; the story does not revolve around their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Ms. Diaz is Latina, Tommy Bowles is half-White, half-Mexican, and Kevin Wen-Massey has two dads—one is Chinese-American. Also, Emily’s family is upper-middle class, while Elizabeth’s is lower-middle-class, portrayed through her mother who is seeking an extra job to make ends meet. The adult relationships are also diverse. I purposely wanted to show different family dynamics and varied levels of stability versus dysfunction to avoid portraying all of the adults as horrible and part of the problem. Elizabeth’s mom is divorced, while the other parents are all married. Emily’s parents clearly have problems, while Tommy’s and Kevin’s parents are happily married.
How do you respond to inaccurate or harmful tropes and stereotypes, particularly when those works are considered part of the canon?
Corinne Duyvis: I start websites like Disability in Kidlit?
No, but seriously though, that’s a big part of the reason the website exists. Not only were/are harmful disability portrayals common, they were/are also the ones most commonly praised and upheld as accurate and wonderful. Disabled people themselves don’t seem to get much say in how they’re portrayed or regarded. A site like Disability in Kidlit does several things: it gives disabled people a platform to talk about these issues; it informs readers and publishers of what might be inaccurate/harmful about those books; it informs authors of how to avoid such portrayals; and it lets people refer others to the website rather than needing to rehash the same information over and over.
It also provides a great way to channel my frustrations into something positive, productive, and helpful. Which is needed sometimes!
S. Jae-Jones (JJ): Mental illness in fiction and media is incredibly difficult to “get right”; I would go so far as to say it is impossible. Because everyone’s experience is different and unique, and what people respond to positively in one portrayal, another person might respond to negatively. Conversely, there is a lot of media that never explicitly addresses mental illness in which I find a lot of resonance, more than other media that do address it directly. Because of this, I tend to avoid media that is stamped as being “about” mental illness (what I consider “issue books”), and when I do come across harmful or stereotypical portrayals (the dreaded “manic pixie dream girl”), I immediately stop reading or watching or discussing.
Tara Kelly: I admit. Hollywood’s representation of people on the autistic spectrum has been a huge pet peeve of mine. I get riled up when a character is a walking, talking DSM-5 diagnosis instead of a real person. I’m still amazed at how many people don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be on the autistic spectrum—because they instantly think of Rain Man or some other example they saw on TV. I’ve been there to see the shocked looks people get when someone who passes as “neurotypical” reveals that they’re on the spectrum. “There’s no way you’re autistic,” they say. “You’re lying!” “You don’t seem socially awkward.”
Seem… That’s the operative word. When you’re living on the spectrum, you usually have to become super self-aware. You may not completely get social norms. In fact, a lot of them just flat out don’t make sense. But you know bad things happen when you don’t follow them. You get made fun of at school. You don’t get a job you interviewed for. So, you think hard about everything you say before you say it or you become a comic genius—whatever works best for you. It’s hard work and sometimes it’s exhausting. And, unfortunately, it’s a battle a lot of people don’t understand because they learned about autism through that one medical show or that movie where the guy rocks back and forth and does complicated math in his head.
So I respond by calmly explaining to people the meaning of “spectrum” and how people on the spectrum can be introverts or extroverts. They can have long-term relationships or play the field. Some can’t function in the real world at all. Others are doctors, actors, or your cashier. But everyone on the spectrum is their own unique person with their own set of challenges and their own set of strengths.
Kody Keplinger: This is something I still struggle with. I see it so often with blindness (obviously I’m most sensitive to this). Recently Daredevil took hold because of the Netflix series, and I found myself constantly filled with rage. I’m sure the show is good and entertaining, but as a blind person, the character of Daredevil is so grating. He’s a walking trope, and he’s probably the most famous blind character, so many people only have him as their exposure to my disability. And it’s hard because I want to correct those stereotypes and the misconceptions they lead to, but I also don’t have the energy or ability to correct them for everyone. And I can’t speak for my whole community. The only logical and reasonable way I can address it is through my writing, by creating characters who experience disability in the way I do, who don’t fall back on tropes. All I can hope for is that more accurate representations will lead to better understanding.
Cindy: I can’t say that I’ve read portrayals of depression that were entirely inaccurate because I accept that the disease affects people differently. Because of this, as a reader, I accept that while I may not have reacted in certain ways as a depressed person, someone else may see themselves in that particular portrayal. For example, I have spent entire days in bed, yet I have always been gainfully employed and do my job well. I never cut myself or wanted to kill myself, but I did plan other ways to slow life down or disappear. I once seriously considered joining the Peace Corps, partly because I wanted to help people, but largely because I wanted to disappear by getting as far away from my life as humanly possible. I also fantasized about getting into a car accident that wouldn’t kill me, but would be serious enough to put me in the hospital for a few days. Again, I wanted to interrupt my life, and, deep down, I hoped that if I landed in a hospital, a doctor would see what was really wrong. I eventually admitted it to myself and got help, but it took me a very long time to get to that point. These were some of my experiences, but someone else might experience depression very differently, so I’m open to this when I read.
One issue that comes up a lot in novels about mental illness is treatment, specifically medication. I resisted admitting that I needed medical help, but once I did, I immediately started taking medication. Over the years, I have tried different medications, and for a period of time was even off medication (per doctor’s orders), but I never refused it or believed it made me feel worse or numb. Medication always made me feel better. Again, this is my experience, but it’s not everyone’s. Amanda McGregor from Teen Librarian Toolbox and Kelly Jensen from Book Riot have written about how YA characters often abandon or demonize medication. In When Reason Breaks, Emily is resistant, as I was, but ultimately accepts full treatment, as I did. I think this kind of push and pull—I’m fine/I’m not fine, I don’t need meds/I will probably need meds for the rest of my life—is typical for people with mental illness. I agree with McGregor and Jensen, though, that I’d like to see more characters, especially characters of color with mental illness, ultimately accept treatment in the form of therapy and/or medication. This is why I am so excited to read Francisco X. Stork’s The Memory of Light—because it focuses on the recovery of a Latina with depression who attempts suicide.
What challenges have you faced in working with publishers and promoting your work? How can WNDB help you address these challenges?
Tara: Harmonic Feedback came out during the peak of the supernatural/paranormal craze. People wanted to read about swoony vampires and epic battles between species of Fae. A story about an awkward music-obsessed girl on the spectrum—in the real world—just didn’t speak very loudly. But to this day I still get emails from teenagers, especially teenagers on the spectrum, who are so glad they got to read Drea’s story. I wish I could’ve released it now because so much has changed in the last five years, and I think Drea’s story would’ve reached more people. So, my plan is to continue writing about characters with disabilities and hope that maybe the next book will reach even more teenagers who feel alone or like nobody out there understands their struggles.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann: When it comes to the kind of self-promotion that authors have to do, I feel overmatched because of my issues with social communication. I end up working “twice as hard but half as smart” and getting into all sorts of scrapes and missteps because I don’t understand or have trouble following the rules. I’ve never worked successfully in a corporate environment and have felt more comfortable publishing with small presses with their personal attention and straightforward organizational structure; in fact, two of my three novels and all of my translations are with smaller publishers. I’d like to see librarians, educators, booksellers, and my fellow authors pay more attention to books from small presses and consider them on an equal footing when it comes to reviews, recommendations, and awards.
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.