- Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature by Patricia Dunn
This is a short, fascinating book in the Disability Studies in Education series. Dunn deftly integrates literary analysis and disability theory with an activist pedagogy geared not only toward understanding ableist1 or enlightened portrayals of disability in young adult literature but also toward employing that understanding through theoretically well-informed exchanges between teachers and students to create a heightened critical awareness of ableist thinking with the aim of improving the lives of the disabled—and of everyone else as well—in the real world.
Disabling Characters is broken into five chapters that read very much like distinct teaching units (I could see a course designed around this book). Each chapter is centered on an issue (agency, respect, epiphany, identity, compensation) and a set of texts. Weaving together disability studies and adolescent literature scholarship into a complementary theoretical framework, Dunn begins each chapter with an analysis of the texts; as part of this analysis, she also addresses the authors, their intention in writing the book, and their status as either disabled or nondisabled. Comparing the books, Dunn explores the range of ableist and enlightened/disabledaware elements that she finds. She does not, however, follow a binary logic and judge the ableist texts as “bad” and the disabled-aware texts as “good”; instead, she places the books up and down the ableist-enlightened range, with none occupying a position at its binary edges.
This is the point in each chapter when Dunn’s pedagogical purpose manifests itself. Once through with the textual analysis, she moves on to related “reflection documents” such as authors’ Web sites, discussion questions posted online by teachers or book clubs, and reviews posted by students or by readers on sites such as Goodreads. Dunn assesses these extratextual products as more or less reinforcing conventional ableist perspectives or more or less open to disability and, thus, critical of ableism. She then proposes questions that she believes would elicit in class discussions or Web postings a greater awareness of the nuanced, complex relationship between disability and mainstream, “norm” culture. [End Page 227]
Through her questions, Dunn can expose the suppressed details of disabled existence from fundamentally ableist texts (for example, from chapter 3 of James Hurst’s “The Scarlet Ibis” and Theodore Taylor’s The Cay). She can also consider the inaccessibility of an intensely activist book such as Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Accidents of Nature for a nondisabled readership and then propose a set of questions that invites said readership to explore ableist assumptions and understand the concerns and beliefs of the disability rights movement.
Dunn thoughtfully, seamlessly, and efficiently integrates a set of disciplines (young adult literature, literary theory, composition and rhetoric, disability studies, education) into a complex analytical system with a praxis designed to have a clear ethical impact on the wider world, disabled and nondisabled alike.
Scott Pollard is a professor of English at Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia. Most recently, he co-edited with Margarita Marinova her translation from the Russian of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dramatic adaptation of Don Quixote (MLA, 2014). With Kara Keeling, he has written various articles on food in children’s literature, most recently “Gazing Forward, Not Looking Back: Comfort Food without Nostalgia in the Novels of Polly Horvath” (Jeunesse, 2014). He also co-edited with her Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2009). He edited a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on disability in 2013.
1. Ableism is an ideology (more accurately, a form of prejudice) that produces an understanding of a body that is deemed “perfect” and the paradigm of what it is to be human. Within this view, the disabled body is a diminished, lesser version of the able body.