When I think back to my childhood, the passage of time is punctuated by books. Until age 11, I was home-schooled by my mother, who helped make me an uncannily voracious reader. By 10, I had read everything from Jean Little to James Michener! The experience of being a child who defied expectations has stayed with me, so the decision to write children's literature in ways that expand horizons was a natural one. Like many children in my situation, I was ready for much more than many assumed I was.
Growing up with cerebral palsy, I craved reading about lives like my own. Jean Little gave disability legitimacy by portraying disabled characters leading rich lives. I know that children feel unwelcome if there is no one like them in the fiction available, or if disability and difference is included only to signify the need for compassion and empathy. Disabled characters need to be in books because books reflect the world, and the interesting lives led by disabled people are a part of that world. Disability is much more than a sad story. For too long, disabled people's lives have been associated with under-achievement and limited hope for the future. We need to read about disabled characters leading long, valued lives, not fitting stereotypes and dying young. We internalize these prejudices, which negatively impact our assumptions and self-concept.
This does not mean that happy endings are constantly required. But portraying disabled lives as inferior perpetuates stigma that hurts all young people. It is important for all children to know that disability belongs to everyone. We all create and re-create the meanings connected to disability through the responses we have to it. By creating stories that show disability as dynamic and multi-faceted, we create opportunities for the next generation to understand it as far more than a problem or tragedy.
Building a story around a single issue isolates it from the real world. My purpose in writing Zoe's Extraordinary Holiday Adventures (Second Story Press, 2007) was to show disability, ethnic culture, and identity woven with the stories of unique characters, reflecting the complexity of society. I wanted my novel to fit into Canada's literary landscape without being misunderstood as a story written exclusively for disabled readers. I was incredibly honoured when my novel was chosen by IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) as one of two books in Canada on their 2009 list of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. That said, this distinction illustrates the widely held misunderstanding that novels featuring disability are exclusively for disabled readers and their loved ones. This feeds marginalization and perpetuates the notion that disability has nothing to do with the wider world.
Just think: Where would we be if Anne of Green Gables was only read by orphans?
See Christina and the rest our book club panel discuss "Special Books for Special Kids".