Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. This month, Jill addresses a growing trend in YA lit: books featuring physically and mentally disabled teenagers.
Earlier this month, fans of John Green's iconic young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars lined up to be the first to see its newly released movie adaptation. Green's boundary-pushing book, in which two teens with cancer fall in love, has arguably set the contemporary standard for how YA literature portrays characters with disabilities.
Recently three books about differently-abled teens caught my attention. Like The Fault in Our Stars, all three take a nuanced, sensitive approach to their characters' physical and mental disorders, emphasizing that these teens' disabilities aren't the only factors that define who they are.
Revealing the narrator's disability in She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgewick is almost-but-not-quite a spoiler: The careful reader will quickly figure out why 16-year-old Laureth needs her 7-year-old brother's help getting through a busy airport. Laureth and Benjamin are on their way to America in hopes of finding their father, who has mysteriously vanished. Laureth is blind, but she spends more time thinking about secret plots, numeric games and her father's cryptic notes than about her lack of sight. And Sedgewick's book is at least as much of a thriller and a fast-paced mystery as it is a book about a visually impaired teen.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is told from the alternating points of view of two new high school graduates, both developmentally disabled, who've been paired as roommates for their first post-high school jobs. Quincy and Biddy seem at first to have little in common with each other—let alone with their elderly landlady—but the three soon form a friendship that will help them meet ongoing challenges from the past as well as new ones in the present. Both narrators of this slim, accessible volume are fully realized characters with thoughts, fears, dreams and goals that extend far beyond the labels often used to dismiss them.
At the beginning of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, Matthew, a high school senior struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), signs up as a peer helper for fellow senior Amy, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Like their non-disabled peers, Amy and Matthew experience many of the milestones of senior year, including afterschool jobs, college acceptances and of course prom. Neither expects that Amy will help Matthew at least as much as he helps her . . . or that their friendship will gradually blossom into romance.
Say What You Will doesn't end at Amy and Matthew's graduation, though. During their first months as newly independent adults, Matthew learns more about the world of work while Amy finds that her first semester of college isn't quite what she'd hoped it would be. And an impulsive decision of Amy's is about to change the course of both their lives.
(Note: Both Girls Like Us and Say What You Will focus at least in part on characters navigating jobs, college, roommates and living on their own for the first time. Fiction about this life stage has recently taken on the publishing label "new adult." This category name is often mistakenly seen as synonymous with "lots of graphic sex scenes," but these two books provide solid counter evidence to this claim, as neither book contains any consensual sex at all between so-called "new adults.")
In some ways, YA lit has been a welcome home to stories about marginalized teens ever since S.E. Hinton penned The Outsiders in 1967. While Hinton's book compared the working-class Greasers to the high-society Socs, contemporary YA fiction's protagonists represent a wide spectrum of differences across economics, ethnicity, sexuality and many other aspects of identity, including disability. The Fault in Our Stars (in both book and movie form) may have spearheaded the contemporary conversation about disabled teen protagonists, but it's done so as part of a longstanding tradition that continues to refine, and redefine, the portrayal of difference in YA lit.