Book Review: Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (Patricia Dunn)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
A decade ago when I was beginning my doctoral research, books discussing the teaching of disability literature to high school students were virtually non-existent. Ten years later, disability studies scholarship has blossomed and much research has appeared discussing the impact of stereotypes of disability on readers and the importance of countering these views in teaching students. However, the vast majority of this work is aimed at those who teach at the college and university level; very little has as its focus readers at the high school or junior high school level. Given this setting, Patricia Dunn's Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature is a welcome event. It performs the double service of describing texts that feature characters with disability and of proposing some of the pivotal issues in representation that these works of fiction can bring to light.
The format of Disabling Characters is straightforward. There is an introduction followed by five chapters each discussing a pair or trio of books that is tied to a central concept emerging from disability studies. As would be expected, the books chosen are all inhabited by at least one character with a disability and, for the most part, they are books that have been recognized for their literary quality and appeal to young adult readers. Once past the introduction, readers looking for interesting books to consider may want to dive right into chapter two, containing the first pair of books. The two books featured there will certainly prompt disability-related discussions if read in a classroom or book discussion group, and no reader is likely to miss some of the issues raised. For teachers not familiar with disability literature, however, my suggestion would be to leap to chapter three. It is probably the chapter least useful in terms of choosing books one might use to discuss in a classroom (it isn't likely that the fifth and ninth grade audience that the books are aimed at are going to grasp the concept of narrative prosthesis), but the most instructive for understanding why some books that seem like perfectly good literature create such a fuss in the disability studies community.
The two stories discussed in chapter three are "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst and The Cay by Theodore Taylor. Dunn has chosen these two pieces because of the way that they respond to the theme of "awakening," each one illustrating a danger that this concept falls prey to in stories that have disabled characters. In both cases, they represent traditional organizational structures that reify negative views of disability. In the "The Scarlett Ibis" the main character (who is non-disabled) is embarrassed by his physically limited brother and it is only when his brother dies that he has an epiphany, realizing that his brother, too, was a human being. The problem, of course, is that the character with the disability becomes a literary devise that facilitates the growth of the story's main character, rather than as a character worthy of a story in himself, thus contradicting the very message that it purports to deliver. In The Cay, the protagonist becomes blind due to a bump on the head, but at the end of the story receives an operation in which he recovers his sight. The story illustrates what disabilities scholar Lennard Davis has pointed out is the tendency of a middle class literary form to return the story to the status quo and that the team of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have argued when applied to disability becomes narrative prosthesis – a term they coin for the literary convention that any character with a disability must be cured or eliminated so that life can return to normal. What this does is to reject disability as a possible identity and reconfirm the position that a life with disability is a life that is "less than." While the psychological implications of such conceptual frameworks may be lost on children or young adults reading the book, understanding them may raise antennas for teachers when it comes to selecting disability-related fiction.
The remaining four chapters of Disabling Characters all center around disabilities-related concepts that are much easier for younger readers to grasp. Dunn's analysis of the stories is very thorough and there is no way to convey all she offers. Not only does every chapter describe and analyze the books as they function to characterize disability but at the end of the chapter she provides reference material (aka reception documents) and proposes discussion questions. Nevertheless, a few sentences about each chapter can at least provide a sense of Dunn's main themes. The focus of the two novels in chapter one, Accidents of Nature (Harriet McBride Johnson) and The Acorn People (Ron Jones), is agency. Both books take place in a venue very familiar to many children with disabilities — summer camp. Agency, as discussed in this chapter and revealed in the books, basically takes two forms. The first is illustrated by the contrast in who gets things accomplished in the stories. Both stories lead readers to see that even children with disabilities can make their own decisions but in Accidents of Nature (clearly one of Dunn's favorite books), these changes are brought about by those with disabilities themselves while in The Acorn People, the change happens because of the beneficence of the able-bodied narrator. More difficult to see is the agency involved in first recognizing and then resisting the way in which normative values are imposed upon people with disabilities in society.
Chapter two uses two books about young adults who are deaf (but not Deaf) to bring in issues of what Dunn calls respect, but which might more accurately be described as being educated away from obliviousness. Dunn's selection of two books with deaf narrators is an astute one because these books allow readers to switch into a point of view that is likely to reveal to them the ways that they themselves contribute to the creation of disability through lack of awareness. In The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Josh Burke), the narrator depends upon lip reading for communication. When someone turns away or covers their mouth, sentences become unintelligible — something Burke allows readers to feel by substituting in words like something something for those the narrator is unable to interpret. One would hope with all of the multi-media exposure of young adults in the twenty-first century it is not necessary to point out that bullying or ridicule hurts, but bringing them into the consciousness of someone else's needs as these books attempt to do is different matter.
Though the three stories discussed in chapter four come under the heading of "Carving Out An Identity," what they really address is the myth that you succeed by trying harder. In two of those stories Peeling the Onion (Wendy Orr) and Stoner and Spaz (Ron Koeterge), young adults are dealing with issues of isolation from — and not fitting into —society. They want to feel "normal," but this desire stands in reverse proportion to the willingness to take on a disability identity. In Orr's story, a young woman has been in an accident but tells herself that if she just works hard enough, she can get back to life as she knew it, and has to come to grips with the fact that no matter how hard she works, that will not happen. In Koeterge's novel, a sixteen year old with cerebral palsy faces the criticism that the reason he is not accepted by others is that he does not try hard enough. While I'd argue that there is a huge psychological difference between acquiring a disability as a teenager and having one since birth, these stories both wrestle with the issues involved.
Finally, in the fifth chapter, Dunn gives the reader three mystery stories that lend themselves to exploring the Supercrip. Even within the disabilities community, this can be a contentious concept and readers with and without disabilities may ask, "What's wrong with a person with a disability being a hero?" It is a complex issue that even Dunn's discussion is not going to shine a great deal of light on for those new to it, but some of it comes down to asking, "Why does a person with a disability have to be a super hero to considered a full member of society. Why can't they just be themselves?" Dunn does introduce her own variation of the Supercrip into the conversation; one she calls the "Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer Effect" because the protagonist's disability allows those without disabilities to succeed. Two of the sleuth books, like Mark Haddon's The Curious Case of The Dog in the Night and Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, have narrators with autism —Siobahn Dowd's The London Eye Mystery and Francisco X, Stork's Marcelo in the Real World.
Gathering and discussion of the books above is only part of the service that Disabling Characters performs. For teachers, she also provides an "Introduction" and information about material that she calls reception documents, much of it posted on the Internet, that have already been created to help discuss the material.
While I appreciated the housekeeping aspects of the "Introduction" that laid out the book's structure, what I found most engaging was the reminder in its "What Literary Texts Can Do" subsection that the way we view the purposes of literature today in the United States are not sacrosanct but merely our most recent perspectives and that for most of our countries history the primary purpose of reading texts in schools was moral development. I mention this because Disabling Characters at times feels as though it's author still wishes that were the case. One gets the sense that what Dunn would like to do is just sit everyone down and tell us how we ought to behave towards people with disability but, caught in the current context of a multi-perspective democracy, postmodernist pooh-poohing of universals and reader response theories in teacher education, she simply cannot find a firm ground on which to do so. It is an understandable dilemma. Whether or not one likes bifurcations, the choice between trying to convince people that they should share certain core values about the social construction of disability and allowing people to make choices and reach their own conclusions is a tough one — particularly for teachers. It is this ambiguity, this toggling between values that at once makes Dunn's book both interesting and, at times, frustrating to read because of the many disclaimers she feels compelled to make. It also raises the question of who the book is written for. While it certainly could be incorporated into a college disability studies course, my sense is that where it would be most valuable is in teacher education. That brings me to another concern.
It is hard to argue with Simi Linton's mantra, "Nothing About Us Without Us." There is no denying that authors with lived disability are going to bring a greater authenticity, and probably insight, into the characters with disability that they create than those who have not. As writer Jill Khoury says in an interview in this issue of Wrodgathering, "If you are appropriating someone else's story, it must be done with enormous compassion and skill." For those who are likely to be using Dunn's book, however, the fact is that even if people with disabilities comprise the largest minority in the United States, most readers likely to be reading these books and most teachers teaching them probably do not have a disability. (Dunn herself "is not currently disabled" and in an instance of "methinks she doth protest too much" constantly apologizes for the fact.) I think this situation has important implications in applying many of Dunn's observations to teaching.
In her analysis of stories Dunn clearly favors those heroines whose attitudes towards disability are transgressive like Sara in Accidents of Nature and Piper from Five Flavors of Dumb who call themselves crip or gimp and take an in-your-face stance towards their disability. From a disability rights point of view, there is certainly much to admire in their character, but if there is one truth that twentieth century education has driven home, it is that successful education (as opposed to training) begins with the learner. No one needs to understand Rummelhart's theories of schemata to know that a person can get across unfamiliar concepts to a learner best by starting with what they already understand. Readers are much more likely to be accepting of a character in a book that they can identify with that one whose behavior flies in their face. In reading Accidents of Nature, students who have little experience with disability are much more like to identify with Jean who is willing to accept that many non-disabled people are well-meaning, if wrong-headed, than Sara who thinks that for the most part they are mean or stupid, and, as a result, when Jean finally decides to jettison conventional attitudes of disability and take on a disability identity, readers are much more likely to come along with her on the ride. The same may be said for characters who waffle toward their identity like Ben in Stoner and Spaz. As Dunn herself points out by quoting the work of Baskin and Harris in her introduction, "Books are among the most potent tools available for promoting attitudinal change, and to change attitudes for the better, but through subterfuge." Sometimes it really is a question of baby steps.
This leads me to a final curiosity about the book. Providing the reception documents, as Dunn does, can be a godsend to teachers, especially those with limit timed or imagination. They are a wonderful resource that could provide fodder for classroom discussion, but Dunn almost universally criticizes the material that she finds. That criticism might be justified if her critique were limited to how disability is represented, but she seems to be more bothered by the fact that most of the discussion questions she finds are literary, e.g. looking for metaphors in the text or asking what universal themes students might find. Given that very few high schools or junior highs offer courses in disability literature (I personally know of none) and that most of these books would be taught in literature or language arts classes, I'm not sure why she is either surprised at the nature of the questions or why she takes the space to lament it. It may have made more sense for her to save herself the time and simply write questions she thinks are more appropriate to her task — as in many cases she actually does.
Being the first to try anything new always sets one up for criticism by those who follow. Patricia Dunn's book is an important one and the questions raised above in this review are trivial in comparison to all the positive things that Disabling Characters provides. The book is welcome and needed. Dunn's writing style may be teacherly, but that only makes it more appropriate for those who will gain the most from what the book has to offer, namely teachers and those preparing to teach. It would not be overstating the case to say that any teacher education program in which the teaching of reading is an important component should make Dunn's book required reading.
Title: Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature