Thursday 9 August 2012

Oscar and August by Keren David

Oscar Pistorius has been one of the stars of the Olympics -  a double amputee who battled to win the right to compete against able-bodied athletes, using the prosthetic legs that have won him the nickname ‘blade runner’. Who can fail to be impressed by his determination and ambition?

In the opening ceremony of the Olympics, young disabled performers were featured from start to finish. When 11-year-old Humphrey Keeper sang Jerusalem so beautifully, who noticed that he had been born without a hand on his left arm?  Many of the children in the Kaos choir who sang and signed God Save the Queen have physical and learning disabilities. One girl suffered four seizures just days before the ceremony, but she was determined to get out of hospital in order to be able to take part.

Soon we will be hearing more stories of men and women who refused to allow disability to define their goals. They will compete at the Paralympic games, win and lose, showing the world just a part of their many abilities.

Sadly, along with the positive and inspiring stories that come from the Olympics and Paralympics, we also hear far too often about disabled people  being  bullied and abused, sometimes, horrifically, even killed by their tormentors. Political and media rhetoric can paint the disabled as malingerers, sponging off the state.  Children need to learn early in life to identify with people whose bodies, minds and emotions work differently from the supposed norm.

I think it’s a good time to be thinking about how we present disability in children’s books. Recently I read a book in which the (best-selling and very popular) author had -  shockingly, in my opinion -  used physical and mental disability to signify the sinister. It was like coming across a crude racial stereotype in a modern setting.

One book doing much to challenge prejudice is Wonder, R J Palacio’s debut novel which has deservedly won much attention and praise in her native America and beyond.  Wonder tells the story of August Pullman, a boy with extreme facial deformities, moving from home-schooling to the classroom for the first time. R J Palacio is extremely good at the small and large unkindnesses of schoolchildren, faced with someone different -  and the real wonder of this book is Summer, the girl who defies convention to be kind, and then moves beyond kindness to make a real friendship with August.

The book isn’t perfect – I’d have liked to hear more about August’s sister’s feelings about her own face, and I didn’t like the approval given to his strategy of joking about his face to make others feel better. The ending is just a little too sentimental for my taste (but Hollywood will love it). Still, I want to force it into every 11-year-old’s hands.

I have a paralympic athlete character in my book, When I was Joe. I wanted Ellie to be determined, ambitious, brisk and unsentimental. I wanted her struggle to be there alongside those of the other characters - not taking over the book, but important, nonetheless.  I also wanted to show the effect that a super-determined, highly talented special needs member can have on an ordinary family.

 Growing up, as I did, with a disabled brother whose ambition and determination bulldozed any obstacles in his way, I rarely read books about families like ours. Today we need them more than ever.


Anne Cassidy said...

This is such a good post Keren. It's always difficult to know how to deal with this issue. I mean whether to people one's books with disabled characters as part of the fabric of the society that one is writing about, in other words not to make them or their disability the main focus of the book. Or is this just the same kind of tokenism that having black/gay characters there for no reason other than to say we've done it. I thought Ellie, in your story, was a real character and I was glad that she was in the background of the story. I'm reminded of the woman in the wheelchair in The Office and how her being there showed the unease and downright ignorance of other characters.I suppose, in the end, we need someone like Oscar to write a book for young adults. But in return I'm certainly not going to run any kind of race!

Sue Purkiss said...

I dislike banging the drum about my books, especially on someone else's post - but it does seem relevant here, so I'll mention that The Willow Man, by me, centres around a child who becomes suddenly disabled, and the way she and those around her react. She's not actually the central character of the story - her brother and his friend are - but it's what happens to her that precipitates it.

JO said...

I agree completely. If we can tackle issues of prejudice and stereotyping with children, then there's a chance that they will grow to set a better example than some adults.

Keren David said...

@Anne That's it exactly - the focus doesn't always have to be on the disability and a disabled character doesn't have to be the main focus, but we should always be asking questions about what 'normal' means.
@Sue Thanks for banging the drum! I was hoping for recommendations. The Willow Man sounds fascinating.

Tamsyn Murray said...

Great post, Keren. Oscar is a complete inspiration and I'm looking forward to seeing him in action again in the Paralympics.

I thought Ellie was a great character and liked the way that the impact of her success was shown in Claire's story.

Penny Dolan said...

Such an important post, Keren, especially at the moment.