Disability in Kidlit challenges readers to think outside the box

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When YA authors Kody Keplinger and Corinne Duyvis first set out to create Disability in Kidlit they envisioned a month-long project featuring reviews, discussions and articles from many contributors, with the goal of providing much-needed discussions about respectful and realistic representations of disability. The project kicked off with daily features on everything from harmful disability tropes and stereotypes in kidlit, to the personal experiences of contributors who chimed in on a vast spectrum of disabilities often ignored or misrepresented in books, movies and TV shows.

The project quickly gained interest and they were soon joined by author and editor Kayla Whaley. By late July, the organisers announced their plans to continue the blog this Fall.

“The initial reaction was incredible. People seemed hungry for these discussions, for this content to exist. I’d been among those readers and contributors that had been so excited about the event, and I’m beyond excited about its continuation.” said Whaley.

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A selection of books reviewed at Disability in Kidlit

The blog’s success largely comes from the sheer number of guest contributors Disability in Kidlit has given voice to. All contributors to the blog identify as disabled, and each has offered their own unique perspective on the realities of their disability and how they are personally affected by ableism or harmful tropes in young adult literature and the general media.

The organisers are keen to demonstrate just how vast and varied the experiences of the disabled can be, and particularly encourage submissions from disabled people belonging to other minority groups. This collection of thoughts, criticisms and experiences from contributors across a huge spectrum of disabilities is an impressive resource for authors and readers, and Disability in Kidlit encourage their followers to treat it as such.

Whaley is nothing but enthusiastic about the success of the project.

“I think that shows very clearly that there’s a desire for more and better representations of disability. There’s been a recent push for more diversity of all kinds in kidlit, which is amazing. It’s commonly said that increased diversity is a case of chicken and egg: publishers won’t publish diverse fiction if readers don’t buy, but readers can’t buy what doesn’t exist. Our blog facilitates discussion, provides resources for authors and readers, and acts as a space for disabled voices, but I think it also demonstrate the demand is there. The reaction we’ve received shows that readers are eager for more diverse stories, specifically more stories with disabled characters, and that’s very encouraging to me,” said Whaley.

But despite the clear interest, YA fiction is hugely lacking in diversity and there are still some readers who would rather silence disabled voices altogether. Tanith Carey of the Daily Mail sparked a high-profile debate earlier this year, coining the term “sick-lit” and warning parents to keep their children away from the “raft of morbid novels” available for teens. Carey’s article – which focused on protagonists with terminal illnesses, but also more generally discussed YA lit featuring characters with disabilities, life-limiting illnesses and mental health disorders – expressed concern that these popular YA books are too exploitative and “traumatic” for children and teenagers to read.

It’s a mentality that Whaley hates.

“The term ‘sick-lit’ is extremely problematic to me. It implies that any story with a disabled protagonist is necessarily about the disability, while also equating all disability with ‘sickness’. Are there stories that exploit or are offensive to people with disabilities? Absolutely. Inspiration porn could practically be its own awful genre by this point. But that’s not what this is really about. It’s about concealing, silencing, and othering people with disabilities. To say that reading about disabled experiences is ‘traumatic’ is… unspeakably dangerous. It not-so-subtly implies that our very existence is ‘traumatic’ to the abled,”said Whaley.

This is the central aim of the team at Disability in Kidlit – to encourage better understanding and better representation of disabilities in the books children and teenagers read. The articles provide a fascinating, eye-opening analysis of the difference between good and bad representation of disabled characters, and hit back at the ableism in our society and the stories we consume.

“We NEED more disabled characters in YA/MG fiction to combat this kind of toxic thinking, so disabled children can see themselves in the stories they read; so abled children can see their peers, and can grow up with a better understanding and respect for them. We NEED more disabled characters to fight back against the ableism so present in society, in culture, in every aspect of life, and where better to fight that battle than in kidlit,” said Whaley.

Disability in Kidlit have now returned from their August hiatus and are looking to start making waves in the young adult community once more, with new content posted every Friday.

“We have some exciting features in the works, but none that we can share yet,” Whaley teased. “Call it something to look forward to!”

For more on Disability in Kidlit, visit their website. They are always looking for more contributors, so check out the guidelines on their website if you’re interested. They can also be found on Twitter and Tumblr.

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About Author

Lucy Nisbet

Lucy is an English teacher-in-training and a self-confessed book nerd. She often buys more books than she can reasonably afford or possibly have time to read. Her Hogwarts letter is now several years too late, but she’s sure it’s just gotten lost in the post.

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