Review: OCDaniel

image is a blue book cover with numbers written all over it, some crossed out... The title "OCDaniel" is in black text over a q-tip with yellow hair and a hand-drawn face.

Genre: middle grades contemporary

Release date: April 12, 2016; this book is probably at your local library!

Synopsis: Daniel is a young teen who is struggling to find his place in the world — to find his friendships, to find his place in class and on his football team, to navigate early romance… Add to all the typical teen self-discovery, he also struggles with high levels of anxiety and needing to complete intricate routines to stave off those fears. And then Daniel meets Sara, who needs his help to solve the mystery of where her father is. Sara, who is honest about her own journey with mental illness.

Disabilities represented: primarily focused on obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also discusses depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses

Note: The author has obsessive-compulsive disorder and writes about the autobiographical components of this story in his author’s note at the end of the novel. I’ve included a major spoiler at the end of this review, with a warning if you would like to avoid it.

Overall: 5/5 stars.

Review:

“Then there is only dread—the kind that sits on your back and claws at your head and doesn’t let you see happiness or hope or anything.”

I loved this book. Loved. King captures the internal feelings that come with compulsions so well that you may feel them in your own stomach. He captures the desperation, the feeling different, the confusion when they first begin. The way they cannot, cannot be ignored. He captures it all — but he does so without adding to the shame and stigma that our world so often perpetuates. If anything, over the course of the novel, he slowly peels back that shame that readers may feel as he peels it back from Daniel.

My favorite, though, is Sara… Sara lists her labels with nonchalance, as if they are just part of who she is. Sara, who talks about medication and therapy and how helpful it can be to know who you are. Sara, who shows that you can have mental illness and be brilliant and loving and brilliant. Sara, who shows that true friendship is. Sara takes the novel from a 4 star to a 5 star for me.

The one element that didn’t really hit home for me was Daniel’s short story excerpts. Periodically throughout the novel, we read Daniel’s own writing about a boy who feels alone. I understand the intention behind these pieces, but they really interrupted my reading flow. Others may find that they add to the emotional nuance.

Be sure to read the author’s note at the end. I appreciated King contrasting true OCD with the colloquial “I’m so OCD” that everyone throws around. It’s not the same.

MAJOR spoiler ahead:

One warning — Sara’s dad disappeared because he committed suicide due to depression. It is not idealized or made pretty in the way that a book like Thirteen Reasons Why does. And I don’t think the book should be avoided. I do think parents may want to use that as a conversation starter with their children. While this is especially true if you, like me, parent a child with mental illness, it is something that we can all discuss more with our children. They need to know the early signs of depression, where to go for help, and what to do if they feel like that. Teenage suicide is on the increase, at the highest number it has been in 20 years. We need to be proactive in giving our children the skills and supports that will help decrease their risk.

Review: It’s My Life

cover image of It's My Life -- teal background with profile image of teen wearing pink baseball cap, hair covering her face.

Genre: young adult contemporary

Release date: January 1, 2020

Synopsis: It’s My Life follows Jenna, as she struggles with growing up, figuring out who she is, and how her disability plays into that. She navigates family, friendship, and finding her voice, both at school and as the director of her own care. The author writes that this book is primarily not about her disability, but about a girl who “believes something about herself that is not true”. However, Jenna’s negative feelings around her disability drive the bulk of the plot points and are central to the story.

Disabilities represented: cerebral palsy, depression

Disclosure: I received digital access to the ARC in exchange for my review, which was shared on Edelweiss.

Review contains spoilers.

I found It’s My Life choppy and disorganized. First person perspective can be challenging for authors. In this case Jenna’s thoughts come through as pressured, fast-paced, and highly disorganized. The plot contained significant jump points with weak transitions. I often found myself wondering, “How did we get here?” or “Would this really happen?” I mean, would someone’s uncle really randomly help them complete lal the paperwork for medical emancipation out of nowhere? The text message conversations between Jenna and her crush are especially choppy, as was the whole “cat-fishing” scheme. Jenna spends so much of the novel as her alter-ego that I honestly forgot her name several times.

I wanted to love this book. I did. I think there is a real dearth of coming of age novels for teens with disabilities. They face the same struggles as any teen, but with the added stress of a society that doesn’t often accommodate them. I think that following Jenna’s struggle for medical autonomy, the constant decision-making, the risk/benefit analysis of “is this treatment worth it? are these side effects worth it? for what purpose?” would have yielded a whole depth of emotions and plot to explore. I would have loved for that to be at the forefront. Instead, I struggled to understand whether this book was about Jenna’s understanding of her disability (which was very, very negative), about her struggle to have a “normal” life, about her depression, about her friendships… I just don’t even know.

I will say that I very much thing that Ramey wanted to portray to the world that Jenna is capable and brilliant and perfect, as she is. I do not think that Ramey herself has a negative view of cerebral palsy. She especially portrayed Jenna’s family beautifully. There’s a moment between Jenna and Jenna’s dad, towards the end of the book. Jenna asks if he ever had to grieve the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. He talks about how, from the beginning, he saw what a fighter she was and how beautiful and perfect she was, as herself, completely. It was a heart cracking moment — and an unconditional love that I wish more people had the privilege to experience.

So, no, I don’t think that Ramey is intentionally ableist. I don’t think she believes the world would be better without Jenna, or that Jenna would be better without her disability. The ableism in this novel is the subtle stuff, the “I don’t like the word disability” stuff. Late in the novel, when Jenna meets another person with a disability, the other person says she runs a club at her college for students with disabilities. The other person, though, talks about how she prefers the term “differently abled” or something (and I rolled my eyes). Similarly, of course the happy ending for this novel is that Jenna gets a baclofen pump, the baclofen pump works beautifully, and Jenna’s whole life is changed! She is less physically impacted! Hurray! (Sense the sarcasm.)

I do think this is a risk when well-meaning professionals write from the perspective of a disability. We have to really spend a lot of time analyzing what we are writing to see if we are unintentionally reflecting the ableist culture we live in, or if we are using our writing to subvert that oppression. I think that It’s My Life could have done with a lot more subversion.

Review: Red

cover image of "Red": the top half illustrates a crayon that is labeled red, but has colored the entire page blue.

Genre: Picture Books

Release date: February 3, 2015

Synopsis: The blue crayon is mistakenly labeled as red, and suffers an identity crisis from trying — harder and harder — to be what he is “supposed to be”. Eventually, Red discovers the best way to be true to themselves is to let go of the rules… and be blue!

Disabilities represented: This book has been used to celebrate neurodiversity, gender non-conformity, and pride. It could be used to talk about disability and difference in other ways too, always coming back to the essential message: be you.

Review: This is a favorite in our household. My 12 year old still picks this up to read, as evidenced by our missing book jacket and torn corners. The beautiful and bold illustrations bring the “be you” message to life, as children literally see in front of them that there is no other way to be. But this story doesn’t just benefit children. It reminds all of the adults in our lives that happiness & joy come from allowing the people in our loves to just be. We don’t have to force neurotypical movements onto their bodies. We don’t have to force gender-normed clothing or activities. We don’t have to assume “can’t” and defiance and incapable.

There’s this scene where the teacher crayon tells the student crayon to draw strawberries. All of crayon’s strawberries are blue, because, he’s… blue. I think about all the times that children are asked to do something, especially our neurodiversity children. To identify a letter. To find a group of numbers. To draw a specific picture. I think about the assumptions professionals in their lives make: they can’t, they don’t know, they’re not listening, “they’re not ready”, “they need prerequisite skills”.

Or… maybe… just maybe… they’re blue.

Truly: a classic that I wish every child had in their class, school, and home libraries. Highly recommend.

Grab It Now: $1.99 on Kindle / Free on Kindle Free Time

The books I once used – but now I don’t…

We are not raised to understand the social model of disability, or at least most of us aren’t. We are taught that disability is a deficit, to be remedied, to be helped, especially by the neurotypical or able-bodied. This is what’s reinforced as we grow up. We are taught to be “helpers” to the peers in our classrooms. We read books that “explain” disability through the lens of the neurotypical sibling, classmate, or author.

And I used to recommend these books all the time. I read them to the general education students in my life. I bought them for families. I filled my own library.

Some of those previous titles included:

  • All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • My Brother Charlie
  • Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book

I have made a deliberate choice not to link to these books, as I would not currently recommend any of them to a classroom library. Many of these books only further the deficit model, while othering children with disabilities. Their plots feature a child with a disability, “off in their own world”. Their cast of characters feature “helpers” instead of mutual relationships. They see disability as something “odd” to be “remedied”, instead of a beautiful and important part of the diversity of our world. Usually the intent is kind — to explain, to clarify — but the impact is to other, to estrange, to create a gap.

This doesn’t mean that all of these authors are terrible, or that we should start fires in our libraries. This isn’t a “burn it all down” post, though sometimes it can be tempting (or even need to happen!). It’s a call to reflect. It’s a call to be willing to read something again. You’ll even find this happen with new books that we review here on the blog. I’ll write something about it. I’ll talk about it with Taylor. I’ll read a new perspective from a friend. I’ll see the way a certain phrase leads to a deeper understanding in a student. Suddenly, my own view on the novel and the way it fits into the world becomes more nuanced. There’s more to discuss.

That’s what’s so POWERFUL about literature. It invites a continued cycle of learning.

Part of establishing strong, representative libraries means using clear eyes on our actions in the past. It means re-evaluating once beloved books to see how our understanding of them has changed over time. It means making better choices in the future. It’s not about shame, blame, or guilt for past choices. It’s about improving. It’s building libraries that do reflect the world we want for ourselves and our children. And it’s so, so, so much about the conversations that we have — with each other, with our children, with our fellow readers.

Review: Roll With It

Genre: Middle Grades Contemporary

Release date: October 1, 2019

Synopsis: Ellie is a young girl with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair to navigate through life. She and her mom move to her grandparents’ small town to help her grandmother care for her grandfather, who has dementia. Ellie also has to navigate new school, new town, and new friends while on the quest to bake the most perfect pie.

Disabilities represented: Ellie has cerebral palsy, and one of her friends is autistic. Her grandfather has dementia.

Warning: some bullying of Bert by classmates, but no graphic descriptions

Disclosure: I received the paperback of Roll With It as a free ARC when I attended BookCon 2019. I also received digital access to the ARC in exchange for my review, which was also shared on both NetGalley and Edelweiss.

Review:

I had a lot of conflicted feelings when reading Roll With It, which is why it’s taken me a week to post this review. I’ll start with what I love: Ellie is a whole person. It seems like something that shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. Too many books featuring characters with disabilities use those characters as props to make friends & family feel good. Ellie is not one of those characters. She is her own person. She has her own dreams and desires. She makes mistakes. She and her friends get in fights. She is a tween girl, living in a complicated situation.

On the flip side, Ellie has a lot of moments where she basically thinks or says “my disability sucks” or when she daydreams of not needing a wheelchair. Those feelings are real. I get that. I remember being a teenager who was different. I didn’t use a wheelchair, but I had my own invisible disabilities that were hard enough. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in. I know this part of the story is very, very real. But I worry that often THIS part of the story is the only part that is portrayed in our media. I worry about where that leaves kids reading about cerebral palsy, possibly for the first time, and how it can lead to pity and ableism.

However, I find that Ellie’s baking and her friendships come together with this piece of the story to balance the narrative. There is “this sucks”, but there is also “I’m Ellie, I have CP, and I am going to live my best life.” There are plenty of moments that make clear that a HUGE part of “this sucks” is other people sucking. Other people not providing accommodations. Other people making assumptions. Other people being jerks. And that’s important, because people need to know that they can do better to build a world inclusive of all. All those feelings of internal conflict, that processing — that’s the most real part of the story for me.

At times, the pieces of the story can feel disjointed, yet all of them are important. They all contribute to that feeling of fullness — to the knowledge that Ellie is… well, Ellie. She is a girl who is struggling with a grandparent who may not be safe at home. She is a girl who is struggling to find her autonomy from her mom, as many tweens and teens do. She is a girl who loves to bake. She is herself, and that’s what makes this book work for me.

One last thought — I understand that people make judgments about people with disabilities based off what they see. They shouldn’t do that. I do think that authors, in general, can do a better job of making this point without the, “But I don’t have an intellectual disability!” line. This pops up in several books about physical disabilities, and really deserves its own post. Because I worry that we accidentally dehumanize people with intellectual disabilities, that we accidentally are saying “but if I did have an intellectual disability”… The reality is that we shouldn’t speak like that or think like that about anyone. Regardless.

Overall: I would recommend for a read-aloud in an elementary school class or for adding to your school library. I think there are really powerful elements that are worth discussing, especially in the friendships that are formed (and the way classmates treat both Ellie & Bert, who is autistic).

I am planning to send this book to my friend, Taylor, and I’ll be sure to post her review or a conversation between us about it once I do! Books are better when shared and discussed.

Why We Write

Did you know that over 12% of Americans live with disability?

That 5-9% of the population has a learning disability?

That the prevalence of autism is 1 in 59?

That 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and 1 in 25 experiences serious mental illness?

I’m not surprised if you didn’t know. Look around: we don’t see these numbers reflected in our television shows, our books… We don’t even see them reflected in our classrooms, our schools, or our communities — because we still so often separate those with disabilities.

When we do read about people with disabilities, it is often tokenized or a plot device. The characters often fall into specific roles: those that “inspire”, those that help showcase someone else’s gifts (never their own), and often even books that further reinforce harmful stereotypes or prejudices.

We read these books, and we are never challenged to think about our world differently. We never question segregation. We never question the things we’ve said or the ways we’ve interacted. We never question a world where ableism is so pervasive that some families literally use bleach in an attempt to “eliminate” autism.

Think about what books could do, instead.

Books can show another way — another world.

Imagine growing up immersed in literature that reflects the world around you. Imagine a classroom library that highlighted the humanity in us all – the messy, the mistakes, the beautiful, the talented, all of it — rather than dehumanizing and stripping agency from those with disabilities.

How would we see the segregation in our schools and communities differently? How would we see the potential in the employment field? How would we better understand the importance of sign language, of ramps, of universal design? How much richer would our relationships become? How many less stares would be given when in public? How many less ridiculous questions, less patronizing head pats, less ignorant assumptions?

It is also unbelievably powerful to see yourself reflected on the page. I remember the first time I read a series of essays where the authors’ experiences so closely dovetailed with my own. It was like coming home. It is knowing that you’re not alone. It is seeing a future for yourself that you may never have been shown before. It is everything.