Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Three Great Books with Disabled Characters - Emma Barnes
I have been thinking recently about how disability is portrayed in children's books. This is partly because of a fascinating project I was involved in at the Foundling Museum, where I was invited to write from the perspective of a disabled child - read more here. I also went on a course about working with hearing or vision-impaired children which was truly "eye-opening" - never more so than when I was attempting various tasks with tunnel vision spectacles. All of which made me think about how disabled characters were portrayed in the books I read as a child. That involved a certain amount of head-scratching - after all as a reader you don't tend to categorise books as "including disability" (unless perhaps you are a drawing up one of those educational lists for schools). Instead you think of "books I loved" or "books that made me laugh"or "magical books" or "adventure stories". So it was intriguing to search around on my mental bookshelf from a new perspective.
Three of them jumped out at me. All books I read over and over again growing up, and all books from very different genres.
Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff
Set in the Bronze Age, this is the story of Drem, a boy whose right arm is useless, and who therefore faces the challenge of how he can become a full member of his tribe, whose manhood initiation requires the slaying of a wolf. It is an exciting, but also very literary, densely descriptive read. The theme of "belonging" goes beyond disability to the issues of tribal identity and birthright.
What I never realised as a child was that Rosemary Sutcliff was herself severely disabled by a form of juvenile arthritis. She knew at first hand some of the struggles involved in being perceived as "different" and inevitably dependent on other people, and she writes insightfully and amusingly about some of her experiences here. Her childhood illnesses may well have contributed to the development of her rich imagination - which resulted in so many classic novels, the most famous of which, Eagle of the Ninth, is now a film.
Jill's Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson
This is the first of the "Jill" books - one of the best-loved series of girls' pony stories, narrated by the witty and independent-minded Jill Crewe. This is exactly the kind of "series fiction" that is usually looked down upon by critics, and always ignored when it comes to prizes. But the Jill books are truly wonderful, often subversive and non-stereotypical, and so it is no surprise that Jill's riding teacher should be a wheelchair user, Martin Lowell.
Jill can't afford riding lessons so it is her good luck that she bumps into Martin, formerly an expert rider who has been injured in a crash. At first she does not even notice he is in a wheelchair. Martin is chafing at the loss of his independence and career, and so delighted to take on a new project - teaching Jill to ride. And when Jill's mother expresses her discomfort at how much they "owe" him, he movingly explains that it is he who owes them - because he has met them since his accident they never hark back, but allow him to be himself.
It is this kind of supporting character that is perhaps most unusual, and most needed in children's fiction - not the central character struggling with their disability, and where the disability therefore feels like the whole story, but someone who happens to be part of the wider cast of characters, within the community.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
A classic in the Little Women mould, it features one of those loveable, rebellious, trouble-prone heroines - Katy Carr. Rebellious that is, until she disobeys her aunt, falls from a swing, and injures her back so badly she may never walk again. Mentored by the saintly "Cousin Helen" - also bedridden - Katy learns to be sweetly gentle and beloved of the whole family, and is ultimately rewarded by learning to walk again.
I loved this as a child, although I think the escapades of the unreformed Katy were more fun to read than the story of her transformation in the "School of Pain". As an adult it makes me uneasy. Katy's physical problems are tied so closely to her moral state - really they are only an instrument for making her into a "better" person. I can't see why disability should lead one into being more or less angelic than anybody else. What Katy Did far predates the other two books, and the comparison makes me realise how much has changed in the way society views disability.
Nowadays there is a lot more sensitivity in the portrayal and treatment of disabled people - but there is a downside. Because authors are aware of the risk of being crass or stereotypical they can steer away from those issues and those characters altogether. It is this problem that the Foundling Project was trying to tackle.
Finally here is a link to a short film about the portrayal of disability in the visual arts - another stimulus when it came to writing this blog. Thanks to author Jane Stemp for the link.