Disability in Middle Grade Novels

Besides being classic tales, what else do Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have in common? Well, to varying degrees of success, they each portray a child with disabilities. There is Mary Ingalls, Laura’s elder sister, who becomes blind as a result of scarlet fever; there is Colin, the ill tempered and bedridden cousin in The Secret Garden; and of course who can forget the trope of the crutch-using, impoverished but uncomplaining Tiny Tim in the Dickens classic?

Disability studies, a thriving academic field, can be used as a lens to understand portrayals of children with different embodied/cognitive conditions in middle grade literature. One way is to understand the different ways that disability itself is defined. Scholars have suggested there may be at least three historical models/theories of disability:

1. The Metaphysical/Spiritual Model: This is the predominantly historical idea that disability is caused by, or represents, some sort of spiritual failing. Consider, for instance, that in The Secret Garden, the character Colin becomes able to walk once he is befriended by Mary. As soon as his emotional failings (some serious bad attitude) are overcome, so too are his physical disabilities.

2. The Medical Model: This is the notion that disabilities can be primarily understood as physical impairments, and therefore, necessarily have medical solutions. This would be the perspective that all Tiny Tim needs is a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, or a physical therapist.

3. The Social Model: This perspective suggests that we all may have differing physical, emotional, cognitive, etc. abilities, but that environmental and social obstacles – from a lack of wheelchair ramps to prejudicial attitudes – are how disabilities are socially constructed. While Little House is by no means a perfect example of portraying disability, the fact that Mary’s visual impairment is considered in the context of her family, that Laura is often written describing their visual environment to her sister, and Mary, in turn, is an active agent – correcting Laura when she exaggerates, suggests a more social understanding of Mary’s disability.

So where does that leave middle grade novels portraying disability today?

The online “disability scoop”- a source for developmental disability news – suggests that children with disabilities remain underrepresented in children’s literature. Quoting a December 2010 issue of the journal Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, the article suggests that out of 131 winners of the Newbery Medal and Honor, just 31 included a main or supporting character with a disability between 1975 and 2009. According to the article, a similar study in 2006 found that Caldecott Medal and Honor books provided inaccurate views of life with a disability and failed to accurately represent the prevalence of various disabilities.

Even when books do portray children with disabilities, a common critique is that such books sometimes adopt stereotypical ‘movie of the week’ patterns whereby the character with a disability is either overtly extraordinary (Think Rain Man) or pitiably in need of rescue. In the words of disabled poet Mark O’Brien in the documentary of his life, Breathing Lessons, “There are two stereotypes about disabled people: 1. we can do everything. 2. we can’t do anything.”

But there is help out there for writers who would like to portray children with disabilities in their work. Based on various anti-bias curricula, this list of Nine Ways to Evaluate Children’s Books that Address Disability as a Part of Diversity is a great guide for MG writers and readers alike. It asks questions about disabled characters around stereotypes, tokenism, agency and leadership. In other words, in portraying a character with a disability,

  • Are stereotypes perpetuated about disablities?
  • Is disability a metaphor or an identity? (ie. Tiny Tim’s disability can in many ways be read as a physical manifestation of Dickens’ concerns about the “innocent, suffering poor”, or alternately, Scrooge’s lack of empathy and emotional ‘crippling’.)
  • Are children with disabilities portrayed doing things or are things done to them?
  • Do they exist as characters in their own right or are they used to ‘teach lessons’ to non-disabled characters?
  • What sorts of language does the writer employ – is ‘people first’ language being used in writing disability? (ie. a child with autism instead of an autistic child)
  • Is the character with disability only portrayed vis a vis their disabililty – ie. do they have other issues in their life with which they are struggling?
  • And finally (although this is more complicated), what is the sociocultural perspective of the author vis a vis disability? While having a disability personally or in one’s family does not guarantee a perfect portrayal, many disability activists use the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ to suggest that speaking about a community from its outside may be particularly harmful without significant contributions, critique and opinions from within that community.

Some recent award winning MG novels portraying characters with disabilities include:

1. Katherine Erksine’s Mockingbird : 10 yo Caitlin, the protagonist in this National Book Award Winning Book, must deal with grief and loss in the context of her Asperger’s Disease.

2. Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After: 2011 Middle School winner of the Schneider Family Book Award (an award that honors an author or illustrator of a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for a child or adolescent audience), is the story of eighth grader Jeffrey, a leukemia ‘survivor’ who suffers brain and nerve damage after a childhood of intense radiation and chemotherapy.

3. Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal: The protagonist of this 2009 Schneider Book Award winner is 12 yo Addie, who is dyslexic, and must confront her new family life after her stepfather’s abandonment.

4. Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s Reaching for Sun: This 2008 Schneider Award winner is a novel in verse, narrated from the point of view of thirteen year old Josie, a young girl with cerebral palsy.

What are some of your favorite books, or resources for discovering children’s books about disability?


When she’s not writing middle grade novels, Sayantani DasGupta teaches courses on illness and disability narratives at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.


Understanding Autism with Author Judith Mammay


There is something that is quite close to my heart and something that I live with daily:  a child with learning disabilities. 

So when I had the opportunity to interview Judith Mammay, I was really excited. 

It kind of helps that she’s one of my crit partners and is kind of amazing. 

But the best part is that Judy really gets where I’m at, what it’s like to live with a child with disabilities and she is simply one of the most caring, understanding and supportive individuals I’ve ever met. 

Well…sort of met.  You see, we’re online crit partners…so we’ve never had a chance to actually meet in person.  But through a year of emails, through tears, frustrations, joy and excitement, Judy has been there.  I believe we know each other quite well….And I’m so excited to share this interview – with this amazing author –  with you!

ME:  So, I understand you were a teacher for 20 years, is that right? 

Judy was a presenter at this year's SCWG-FL conference.

JUDY:  Yes, I started teaching physical education, but after I had kids, I went back and received my masters in learning and language disabilities, and taught special education for seventeen years.  

ME:  So when did you start writing ? 

JUDY:  I have always enjoyed writing, and usually was the one who produced the newsletters for the various organizations I was in. Then in the nineties, during a personal crisis, I started writing poetry to help me through it, and when I came out the other side, I had learned that maybe I had some talent for writing. (You can see some of my poems on my website, ) That is when I started sharing my writing.

ME:  I think writing is a great release!  That’s why I started, too!  So what inspired you to become a writer? 

JUDY: Once I decided I could write, many things inspired me to become a writer. First, the idea of my poems helping others to cope better motivated me to write more. Then when I could not find simple enough stories for my young special ed. students to read I wrote some and they made their own books ( my story, their illustrations)…which helped motivate them to read and gave me suitable materials. Finally, as I approached retirement, I knew I would have to have a plan or go crazy. So I decided my next job, after retirement would be to write books for children.

ME:  That’s one of the things I love about writing, too – knowing that it’s helping someone else.  So I imagine your years as a special education teacher had a great influence on your writing, didn’t it?

JUDY:  My experiences as a special educator at an inner city school, where the poverty level was at 85%, and both the special needs and ESL (English as a second language) populations were at 25% each, with little overlap, showed me there was a need to address some of the problems these kids dealt with on a daily basis.  With the observations I had made, I thought that books showing that kids could survive and do well in spite of their poverty might be an inspiration to some of these kids.  I had kids coming to school and saying, ‘Mrs. Mammay, I couldn’t do my homework last night because my father tried to shoot my mother and the police came.’ The sad part was that it was true; we read about it in the local paper. So in a nutshell, I thought I could make a difference through my writing, even if it was with only a few, and that was something I wanted to do.

ME:  That’s great, Judy.  I wish there were more teachers like you!  I’ve noticed that most of your books have characters with disabilities. What did you most hope to accomplish by creating these particular types of characters? 

Although this book is an easy reader geared for younger children, it is an excellent reminder for us to celebrate every victory.

JUDY:  The three books I have had published are about kids with autism. When I was teaching, my students with autism were in the regular classrooms, and it was difficult to find books that would help explain the behaviors and needs of children with autism to the rest of the class.  Having those books available to classroom teachers and their students was part of my motivation for writing It’s Time and Ryan’s Victory. I believe that kids who do not understand about kids with disabilities, or even kids who are different are less likely to accept them and more likely to bully them, so helping them to understand autism through books may help them accept and even become friends to the child with autism or other disability. If nothing else, they would know that the child who has a meltdown, for example, is not being bad, but is not necessarily able to control his behavior. 

Knowing Joseph was the first of my published books, and while much of my motivation was the same, it goes beyond that. After I had learned a great deal about autism so I could better work with my students, I learned that one of my grandsons had autism. One day when he was four or five, I was at the bowling alley with him, his brother, two years older, and their mother. On the way out, my autistic grandson had a meltdown on the sidewalk because his mom had asked him to wait until we got home to have a Sprite.  As my older grandson and I walked to the car, he said, “I’m glad I don’t know that kid,” and of course he was talking about his brother. In the next breath, he said, “but I love my brother.”  I could see the inner conflict he was going through as a sibling of a child with autism, and knew that there were other siblings who were probably experiencing the same degree of conflict.  I decided to write Knowing Joseph not only to help educate a slightly older audience about autism, but also to let kids with autistic siblings know they were not alone, and hopefully to give them a story that may help them understand that it is okay to have such conflicted feelings. I have used this scene as the beginning of Knowing Joseph, and the beginning line is “I’m glad I don’t know that kid.”

This easy reader is an excellent tool in helping other's understand Autism.

ME:  I loved Knowing Joseph.  You really captured the essence of what it’s like living with someone with disabilities, especially someone with Autism.  Your first line drew me right into the story as well.  I was so impressed with it, I even read it to my children.  It’s pretty challenging to write these types of characters…so why do it? 


JUDY:  Thank you!  I write realistic fiction about such challenging characters, because LIFE is challenging for kids in one way or another, and what better way for kids to learn that they are not alone on their journeys than through books? And I have chosen to write about kids with disabilities, because that is what I know and have seen a need for.

ME:  Have you tried any other genres? 

JUDY:  Actually, I have written in another genre…I am currently working on a chapter book mystery, and have plans to write more mysteries with the same characters (one character has autism <G>). But I like realistic fiction because I think kids can identify more with it…I see my mystery book as a more fun book, where kids can see if they can beat the characters in solving the mystery.

 ME:  I loved your mystery story!  🙂  (To Mixed-Up Files readers, no it’s not published yet…but that’s one of the perks of  being her crit partner…I get to read these great stories firsthand!)  Have you seen a change in your interactions with others and their perception of learning disabled children because of your books?  And how have your stories helped others?

Judith Mammay at "Walk for Autism"

JUDY:  In some of my school visits, I have noticed that kids really want to know about kids with disabilities, including autism, and they ask good questions. I like to think the attitudes of some may change because of my books or at least help them to understand better.  I also have had many children who want to share their own experiences with their siblings or friends with autism, ADHD and a variety of other disabilities. I am sure the books have had an impact on them.

ME:  I know you have some goals, aspirations, dreams…care to share them?

JUDY:  Like any author, I would like to have more of my books published and readily available to kids. My goal is to work to make that happen. My dream is to have more teachers use these books in their classrooms to help more kids understand about children with disabilities, and to know that even with disabilities, these kids have feelings, dreams and goals just like every other kid. Ultimately, I would like to hear from children who have benefitted from reading them or otherwise gained insights from my books.

ME:  What can we expect from you next?

JUDY:  Besides my mysteries, I am working on a story about a boy with ADHD who is also from a dysfunctional home (his father ends up in jail). Aside from learning to control his behaviors and survive his abusive environment, he has to deal with the fear of one day becoming just like his father.

ME:  I love that story, too, Judy!  Can’t wait to see it through to publication 🙂  Thanks so much for joining us and all the best to you!

Judy is so generous that she’s giving away TWO copies of Knowing Joseph!  A paperback to one lucky Mixed-Up Files reader and a hardcover to be donated to that winner’s location of choice (a local library, school, Autism center, etc)!  Just leave a comment to be entered. 

This Middle-Grade reader is perfect for all children to help them better understand and respect the differences in others.

If someone you love has Autism,  please visit AUTISM SPEAKS for more information.
Amie Borst writes fairy tales with a twist with her middle-grade daughter (who just so happens to have learning disabilities). Please visit her at

Summer Camp for Writers

It’s June at last! School is finally out and like lots of families, my kids are looking forward to camp. I have a soft spot in my heart for the traditional American trees-and-dirt summer camp experience. I went often as a child. My favorite job of all time was working at a summer camp. But I confess that as I’m getting my own family ready for their summer I find myself thinking, wait a minute, when is it my turn?

The good news is, there are plenty of summer camp experiences especially for writers of middle grade fiction.

Perhaps the best known is the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua held each year for a week in mid July in a beautiful small town in southwestern New York State. This is probably the largest summer workshop geared specifically for the needs of children’s authors. Chautauqua is designed for individuals at all levels of experience, from beginning to published, who are interested in writing and illustrating for children.
The conference includes seminars, small-group workshops, and one-on-one sessions with some of the most accomplished and prominent authors, illustrators, editors, critics, and publishers in the world of children’s literature.
The faculty is large numbering 23 members this year and their depth and breadth of experience is impressive. They include award winning authors, editors, illustrators, poets and publishers. Faculty are chosen not just for the strength of their published work but for their dedication to teaching and mentoring fellow writers. Workshops cover the range from the basics of craft for beginners to advanced writing techniques and information about the book industry and the needs of the child reader.
If you are looking for a workshop focused solely on children’s books and you prefer the ambiance of small town more than the great outdoors, Chautauqua might be the perfect choice for you. You can learn more about the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua here.

On the other hand, if you love the mountains and are longing to get away from it all and immerse yourself in a community devoted to all types of writing from memoir to poetry slam, the Fishtrap Summer Workshop might be what you are looking for. Nestled in the Wallowa Valley with breathtaking views of the Eagle Cap wilderness, it is the Switzerland of Oregon and the setting for a 25 year tradition of celebrating western writing.

Each year there is a theme that all the genres revolve around. This year it’s Migrations and Passages. Thirteen faculty members will lead week long workshops in poetry, historical fiction, memoir, essay, and nature writing. I’m very honored to be among the faculty, teaching coming of age fiction. This is the only writers workshop that I know of that encourages families to attend and has workshops especially for the young writer and teens.
For people who just can’t break away from work for an entire week, the Fishtrap Workshop ends with a long weekend Gathering with special guests, extra workshops, faculty readings and discussions, and of course music and campfires! It is a magical collaboration across genres, generations and cultures. Many participants come back year after year. There is still room to register for this year’s  workshop in which begins July 10th. For more information go to the Fishtrap website.

Maybe it’s just not summer to you without a trip to the beach. In that case the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop might be just what you’re looking for. It’s a more intimate workshop focused on children’s books exclusively. Dan Greenburg, the affable and enthusiastic host of the workshop, gathers an award-winning mix of authors, agents and editors to lead a week of writing workshops in an ocean front classroom.
The hallmark of the workshop is its retreat-like atmosphere with ample opportunity for one on one consultation with faculty members, and a mix of community and independent mealtimes. It’s hard to beat the Oregon coast in July for great weather and spectacular views. And it’s hard to beat $800 for a week of writing workshops. For slightly more money graduate credit is available for this workshop. Still undecided? Check out the view!
For more information, look here

These three workshops are only the tip of the iceberg. You might also look up Kindling Words West in New Mexico, The Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City or the Book Passage Children’s Writers and Illustrators conference in San Francisco. Oh the possibilities of summer!