Tracy Koretsky

SEEKING ENLIGHENED PORTRAYALS: JUDGING THE DOLLY GRAY AWARD
PART II: A TOUR OF THE BOOKS

In the last issue of Wordgathering, I shared some thoughts that occurred to me while serving as a panelist on The Dolly Gray Award, a competition seeking to recognize "effective, enlightened portrayals of individuals with developmental disabilities in children's books."

To "portray" a character is not the same as just including someone in a book. Portrayal is more complex than that, more multi-faceted and constructed - "effective, enlightened" portrayal, even moreso. Today I would like to introduce you to a half dozen of the more interesting contest entrants and consider how they have accomplished this task.

I will begin with the book selected by the panel: A Small White Scar by K. A. Nuzum, (Joanna Cotler Books: 2006).

There is much to admire in this sturdy example of a work for children. Nuzum has chosen to portray twins - hard to find a more obvious literary foil than that. She even dresses Denny, who, due to an early childhood accident, (which by the way, alleviates the author of having to adhere to any medical syndrome) has a developmental disability, and Will, who does not, in the same gear from Stetson hats to boots.

Essentially, this is a coming of age tale with the classic resolution of atonement with the father. Will, our protagonist, at fourteen, knows that he is ready to shoulder some of the responsibilities of a ranch hand, even if Dad doesn't see it. Or maybe Dad doesn't want to see it. After all, with Mom gone, who would take care of Denny? Certainly no would do so as well as Will has for most of his life. What's a boy to do but run off and join the rodeo?

This he makes a fair stab at - showing in several events - before Dad collects him, and they have that good talk. In the end, the kindly country doctor who delivered our twins, offers deliverance once more by employing Denny in some useful and appropriate maintenance tasks in exchange for room and board.

Setting is probably the most appealing aspect of this book: a real Colorado rodeo, sometime in the 1940's. Nuzum renders this world with authority and a wealth of detail within an excitingly-paced plot. Will and Denny encounter, in rapid succession, a rattle snake, a flash flood, and storms. Throughout, the information needed to make these dangers relevant was well-managed - an achievement for any writer.

Despite this, I confess, I was surprised by the panel's choice. A foil, at its best, is used to reveal complexity. But in A Small White Scar, Will's response to his brother is constant and without nuance.

Denny, with his slower horse, his need to be reminded, to be supervised at every supposedly useful occupation the family has assigned him, is a constant chore, not so much a character as a plot device - an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. Even reminiscing about their early childhood, Will recalls only that the two got in trouble. I felt there were several missed opportunities in this book for Denny to teach his twin something.

After all, Denny is very much a brother; he knows exactly how to emotionally manipulate his twin. He insists on following Will long after being told not to, and in doing so has several remarkable successes, principally fording a river on a horse in a flash flood (though this is accomplished more by luck than skill).

Rather than swell with pride that Denny is able to follow and follow him despite the daunting odds, Will continues only to be irritated by his twin. There is never a moment of fondness, never a thought for Denny's future.

Ultimately our protagonist does come to understand that he has learned from Denny but only when Dad, in the resolving scene, spells it out explicitly in dialogue. Although Will instigates the conversation, the "truths" are easily forthcoming, rather than fought for. The logistical issues are solved when Denny relocates at the suggestion of someone outside the family. Will does not even worry that he will miss him.

As for Denny, there is no narrative arc. The change in his circumstance (he will live in a new place) is the result of neither his personality nor his doing. To best understand Denny's role, consider if he were not there. Will would have no problem, no reason that he could not demonstrate to Dad that he is ready to take on more challenging and interesting work. So, for the sake of argument, substitute other obstacles: perhaps a sick mother, or perhaps Dad has never considered ranching a suitable occupation for his son and pushes him toward college or the church or the military. There are lots of reasons Will might want that rodeo badly enough to run for it, including simply being enamored of it. But what would these choices "do" for Will? By this test, it becomes clear that, in terms of his literary function, Denny is a sort of tool the protagonist uses to become a better, richer, person.

It is, for better or worse, with this criterion first in mind that I personally judged the entrants. Which explains my nomination for the prize: The Very Ordered Existence Of Marilee Marvelous, by Suzanne Crowley (Greenwillow Books: 2007).

This character-driven novel shapes two full narrative arcs for each of two children with developmental disabilities: Marilee, the protagonist and narrator, who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and the new boy in town, Biswick, who has fetal alcohol syndrome.

It was the only book amongst the twenty-seven entered into the competition in which a character with a DD is the protagonist. It was also the only book that made me laugh out loud; count on a novel set out of West Texas to turn a phrase.

In a town full of disaffected misfits, many - if not most - of the characters without disabilities suffered limiting personality traits: meanness, regret, depression, being a "fish out of water," or victims of terrible parenting. Because of this, they met the children's differences in an appropriate way - the most appropriate way actually - they accepted them and moved on.

As a result, Merilee and Biswick are part of the community and essential to it. Besides picking up litter and rescuing cats, Merilee is the town's secret keeper and companion to her lonely uncle. As for Biswick, he gives everyone he's ever met a touching Christmas present.

This setting also answers for Crowley one of the most difficult aspects of children's literature: self-determination. In this credibly safe environment in which children are not shuttled from music lessons to soccer practice, Merilee and Biswick can make decisions about how and with whom they'll spend their time. As a result, they both create and resolve their own problems, allowing the children to grow and change due to their own decisions and natural maturation.

The two are portrayed very much as individuals. They struggle with a wide range of emotions in their reciprocal relationship. At one point they disagree about the beauty of a sculpture that Marilee's uncle is working on. Here they voice opinions that have nothing to do with gullibility and relative intelligence. I also like the way Biswick stands up for himself. He is not manipulative; rather he is a font of repressed injustices. This works well dramatically and gives him more backbone. Throughout, the pair truly drive the plot; they act rather than being acted upon.

Their foiling is used admirably, contrasting aspects of their situations as opposed to reflecting glow upon one or the other. Merilee is mainstreamed with other local kids, though scarcely tolerated by her teachers. Biswick, on the other hand, is bussed to a special school. Merilee resides in a happy, loving home. For example, her sister, Bug -more so than any other book in the competition - is not assigned unusually burdensome duties because she has a sister with a DD. Whereas Biswick, as the only child of a deeply alcoholic single father, has fallen through cracks and requires repeated rescuing, providing the book with a crisis and climax.

So, you may ask, why didn't this book win? The truth is, I can't say. I was merely a consultant who contributed reports, not one of the final judges. However, I have a few suspicions.

Most obviously is that, compared to Nuzem's plot-driven A Small White Scar, the pacing of Crowley's character-driven book is slow by children's literature standards. It required the emotional investment of the reader.

Other character-driven novels in this competition have managed to raise the stakes higher. Here, Crowley's credibly safe environment may have backfired. These characters always have a clearly visible safety net.

Furthermore, there was a definite sag in action at about the halfway point, after the setting and characters were well established. It was as if the author didn't know what to do with the cast of characters she had created. One plot point turned out to be a red herring, while others tended toward repetition.

There may be another reason. Although it is not my area of expertise, my suspicion is that this book did not realistically portray its character's cognitive issues.

Biswick, who had "accidents" sometimes, as if he were a boy of about five, as often seemed seven or eight or older, amorphously shifting scene by scene to suit the needs of his author. Merilee's characterization was even more problematic.

The difficulty for the writer is that the first-person voice generally operates through heightened empathy to compensate for the loss of the expository freedom that a third-person treatment offers. Alas, a character on the autism spectrum is, by definition, less capable of heightened empathy than other possible narrators.

Because she chose to privilege the storytelling over the authentic depiction of her character's disability, Crowley may have given Merilee more insight into the feelings of others and more ability to attach than could be expected for a person with Asperger's syndrome. While I applaud the impulse and ambition of Crowley's project, the result diminishes her protagonist's innate loneliness and frustration in her inability to truly connect. Therefore, while I can attach to Merilee as a reader, I cannot empathize with her as a person with Asperger's syndrome.

In Running On Dreams (Autism Asperger Publishing Company: 2007) - the contest's only other example of a narrator with a DD - author Herb Heiman takes up the same challenge, in many ways to more success.

What Heiman has done is alternate a first person narration by Jason - a recently mainstreamed teenager with Asperger's syndrome, with a third-person account of our protagonist, Brad - an all-around good-guy of the same age and many of the same interests.

This is a meaty book. It manages to sustain several themes (responsibility to self/others, the meaning of friendship) - a feat not often attempted even in books intended for adults. In addition, there are multiple sub-pots within the intricate web of relationships. Our protagonist not only forms a friendship with the boy he is assigned to aid, but has a much older sister at home with a DD - a triangulating foil, if you will. More than that, both boys have full, complicated worlds, with sisters, girlfriends, old friends, parents, teachers, teammates. Both boys have all of these and each relationship pulls freight - that is, contributes to the whole stew of the novel by affecting other plots or enriching characters. As an adult, I enjoyed this book. As a kid, I might have been challenged. But as a young adult, I think I may have been fascinated.

If, that is, the book had gotten to me. With its back flap full of clinical testimonials, it will immediately and completely turn off its target audience; how things look is very important at that age. The presentation of this book, with its large font, its block paragraphing and alternating seraph and sans-seraph sections, looks odd, substandard, and is off-putting. Frankly, it looks as if it was created for young people who may have trouble reading - whom I believe its press works hard to serve - instead of for young readers like myself, good readers, receptive to the profound empathic experience this book offers.

I was interested and went to Heinman's website; it didn't surprise me that he's an actor. The process of this book was clearly empathy. He did a fine job of inhabiting Jason, I felt; I had the sense that he'd listened a lot. Perhaps Jason is, at points, a bit too self-aware, but over-all, Heiman captured a certain flattened affect. Unlike "Merilee" though, the effect was completely consistent - the disability was always there.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened to Running On Dreams had it, like the two previously discussed books, been published by a division of Harper-Collins (Joanna Cotler, and Greenwillow, respectively).

Heiman's book is overlong and would have been edited throughout. There are some scenes, for example, in which salutation dialogue is repeated throughout several character interactions. Some episodes are gratuitous, others, "repeat beats," serving essentially the same function.

The beginning would have been reconsidered: starting in the first-person voice of a person with Asperger's is risky (though not without benefits.) In either event, it's a slow-starter - which youngsters won't forgive. Perhaps opening at a track meet or a dance would have been more inviting.

And then it would be packaged and distributed much the same way as A Small White Sca r, and "Merilee Marvelous." And a rich stew of a psychological novel for young adults would enter the larger culture.

Which is just what Rules, by Cynthia Lord, (Scholastic: 2006), because of its Newberry Honor and its Schneider Family Book Award, will do.

The foil here is between twelve-year old Catherine's brother, David, whose autism pretty much sets the family agenda, and Jason, a young man whom she meets while killing time in the waiting room of David's therapy.

Jason uses word cards to communicate. Shockingly, this is the first character that I've ever encountered in literature for people of any age who does so, thus, I believe, accounting for the Newberry Honor.

Lord did a fine job with Jason. He frequently expressed anger, even despair, rather than being softened into a sunny, affable fellow. Surprisingly, he delights Catherine by playing one of his beautiful and spare compositions on his electric piano.

The Dolly Gray Award however, is given for portrayals of characters with DDs. Brother David remains static throughout the book: pretty much an endless sink of attention that contributes little. In other words, the character with a DD was, as in the majority of these books, only an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.

Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I felt that his character moved in and out of self/other awareness as the plot required. His relationship with his sister is largely unexplored except in triangulation with their parents. The exception is that they have a sort of "twin speak" centered around the book, Frog And Toad.

Rules is a simple book, its plot, entirely predictable. Besides the "twin-speak" device, Lord created other devices - a list of rules she draws for David, word cards for Jason - and hammered upon them so unrelentingly that there is scarcely a page where one of these two ploys is not used.

Catherine is a traditional hero in that she brings about the resolution by confronting her father. Though her father hints towards growth in this scene, it is not dramatized, leaving Catherine as the only character in the book who truly develops. Furthermore, the book over all suffers from the same fault as A Small White Scar: the emotional payload comes in one on-the-nose conversation.

Which is only to say, Rules, moreso than any of the books I have discussed to this point, is a children's book: short, simple, active, with device substituting for articulated emotions, and plot points as freighted as who to bring to a dance.

Accidents Of Nature, by Harriet McBryde Johnson, on the other hand, is not. What I found personally troubling was that the book was even eligible for submission.

I do not mean this just because the character with the DD is secondary. Rather that, though this extremely thought-provoking and beautifully-written book set at a summer camp for people with disabilities absolutely fulfilled one of the primary functions of literature, that is to broaden the reader's horizons and deepen his or her empathy, simply, it was neither children's nor young adult literature.

Several sophisticated elements of style lead me to this conclusion: 1) it uses leitmotif (the Carolina pines) to extend the theme expressed in metaphor through a full arc; 2) there are literary allusions including Marx and biblical text; and 3) numerous flashbacks (children's literature generally uses very few).

The narrative revolves around Jean, a young woman with cerebral palsy and her close friends, older campers with considerable physical challenges and engaging minds. In fact, I truly believe I will always remember the characters I met in it.

That said, "Accidents," had almost no plot. By "plot" I mean causative action: things that happen only because other things have happened to lead up to them. (One exception: the fact that Jean has participated in telethons returns to have consequence.) Instead, events occur chronologically; this happens, then that happens, episodically and in a row. While this imitates life and is unobtrusive (it does not detract from the essential point of the book which is a psychological journey) it fails to compel.

What Accidents Of Nature does offer is the very adult technique of ironic critique, often subtle, but always pointed, of the faux-integrated settings, the too-babyish activities, the infantalizing and placation, the make-work and the exploitation.

I enjoyed that only one person without a disability is shown "getting it" at all - though despite her epiphany, there was no subsequent growth. It was a ham-fisted move on the author's part, but I think it will impact its readers.

That is, like Running On Dreams, if it ever reaches them. Why is this book living on the young adult shelf? Why was it not published as the adult book it is?

It should be said that this is the only author discussed thus far who has a previous book, a memoir entitled Too Late To Die Young, also published by Holt. Holt, while venerable, is exclusively a children's press.

Perhaps it was self-censoring by their author who may have only offered her books to children's agents and editors; I have no way of knowing that. But perhaps only a children's press like Holt would take them. Is this because the setting for "Accidents" is a summer camp? Many novels about people this age are released by major presses, so that can't be entirely it. Besides, McBryde Johnson's memoir would seem, from its publicity, to span a life, not just a summer.

Some of it has to be that this is a camp for people with disabilities, an author with a disability, and, as I pointed out in the previous issue, almost all people with disabilities in contemporary published fiction are found in works for children. This is the market niche to which such characters are relegated, the belief by editors that fiction (remember, sibling memoirs like Hamlet's Dresser and Riding The Bus With My Sister are strong best-sellers) that portrays characters with disabilities will not, as they like to say, "succeed in a crowded market." Are they correct? We have no way of knowing that either.

But if Accidents Of Nature troubled me, Jazz Off-Key, by Dandi Dale Mackall (ZonderKid: 2007) made me just plain mad.

This is the second author on the list to have a previous book with, unfortunately, more to come. That is because "Jazz" is part of a series by the name of "Blog On". Interestingly, this series is actually part of another series (Does that make it a "network"? The publisher uses the word "library.") and that series is called "Faithgirlz."

Also interestingly, this is one of the few entrants not written in the first person. After all, it would be much harder to manipulate readers as much as this frighteningly well-achieved example of commercial children's literature does with a first-person narrator.

I do admire how quickly the plot started. Jazz, an African-American girl living in a mostly white housing development, gets an art show, raises the stakes by telling her friends about it, and has her art damaged by a sister who has Down syndrome all within fifteen pages. Bear in mind though, a series assumes previously established setting and characters.

Of course it has a causative plot tailored precisely to its young, female audience. That's why it's so engaging. It is also didactic. On one level, it a story about how to overcome an obstacle (stage an art show after the art has been damaged.) But this is just a vehicle for a tract on anger which is depicted here as a purely negative emotion that can be resolved with religious epiphany.

"The only lasting peace starts with having peace with God through Jesus," page 87 tells us, precisely four-fifths of the way through the narrative, nailing every plot point as if designed to be interrupted for word from our sponsors.

The sister with Down's is endowed with Zen-like insight. Given the choice to accept Jazz's apology, she, with deep and divine-given understanding, declines. At the book's climax though, she extends her "chubby" (read "cherubic") hand and pulls Jazz onto the church bus and "into the arms of Jesus." Redemption from God's little angel on earth: the single most cynical use of a person with a disability found in twenty-seven books.

Remember, it is never essential that an author incorporate a person with a disability - even if the author happens to have one. It is always a choice. Therefore, it is always worth asking: why is the character in the book? What if he or she weren't? And why has the author decided to give him or her a disability? Is it an obstacle or an asset? A foil or a metaphor? For whom? Who gets to speak in the narrative? Who gets to make things happen? These are the sorts of questions that drill to the core of what function a character with disability serves - because all characters serve functions. They are questions, I firmly believe, more crucial to appreciating the literature of disability, than whether or not the author has one.

 

Tracy Koretsky is the author of Ropeless, a 16-time award-winning novel that offers a fresh perspective on disability. (See the interview about Ropeless in the March 2007 issue of Wordgathering). The novel is reviewed in the January issue of New Mobility. You can also find an essay by her about poetry revision in POEM, REVISED (2008, Marion Press).