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: 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.