November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Q&A: YA Author with Autism Talks to SLJ About “Autism on the Page” Event

corinneduyvis3-crop-web (2)

Photo by Maija Haavisto

Corinne Duyvis writes about diverse characters in her young adult fiction, and in her first book, Otherbound (Amulet, 2014) a YA fantasy, both of the book’s protagonists are disabled people of color, and one of them is bisexual. The heroine of her next title, On the Edge of Gone (Amulet Books), due in Spring 2016, is an autistic girl who must survive a disastrous comet impact set in near-future Amsterdam.

For Duyvis, diversity is a reflection of who she is, not your typical author of young adult books—nor typical anything. As a Dutch citizen who has lived in Amsterdam her entire life—English is her second language—she dropped out of high school at the age of 14, was later diagnosed with autism, then Asperger’s, and at 23 was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Hers is a challenge and journey she’s written about in The Guardian.

She and YA author Kody Keplinger cofounded Disability in Kidlit, a website dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature through “articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions, examining this topic from various angles,” according to the website. All of the content is written by disabled contributors.

This July will be Disability in Kidlit’s second anniversary, and Duyvis’s latest personal project is a month-long event called Autism on the Page, which will kick off April 1 in recognition of National Autism Awareness Month.

Duyvis talks to SLJ about Autism on the Page, Disability in Kidlit, and some of the common pitfalls related to writing about (and reviewing) disabled characters in books.

DisabilityinKidLit

Disability in Kidlit website

Tell me more about Disability in Kidlit. Why did you and Kody start it?

The discussion of diversity in children’s books is probably at an all-time high, which is a wonderful development. Unfortunately, disability is often neglected in these discussions. Although there are many wonderful allies who include and champion disability, we were missing two core elements: one, self-advocacy/expertise—people who knew the tropes and realities inside and out—and two, focus—a single place where disability is not a side note in the broader diversity discussion but is front and center. Thus, in 2013, author Kody Keplinger and I started Disability in Kidlit. We wanted to focus on three main topics:

  • Reviews of books featuring disabled characters, done by someone who shares that disability. This allows reviews to focus on both framing (“How is the disabled character handled in the text? What kind of tropes and stereotypes were invoked?”) and technical accuracy (“Actually, hearing aids don’t work that way…”).
  • Articles about people’s personal experiences, to showcase the realities of disability, which are often very different from popular portrayals.
  • Articles about tropes and stereotypes: giving examples in fiction and dissecting why they may be problematic or incorrect.

We also occasionally do roundtable discussions and interview authors who have written disabled characters. Aside from some of those interviews, every word on our website is by someone who identifies as disabled.

Tell us more about the Autism on the Page event that your website is hosting for Autism Awareness month.

Even before Disability in Kidlit was started, I wanted to do an event focusing on autism portrayals, which are often either lacking or badly misrepresented. Between my being autistic, Disability in Kidlit having numerous autistic contributors, and autism being one of the more commonly represented disabilities out there, autism seemed the logical choice to focus on for our first “special event.” [Kody’s and my blog] was the perfect platform to host this event.

For Autism on the Page—and all of April—we’re posting daily reviews, articles, and interviews, ranging from reviews of kidlit classics like Rules (Scholastic, 2007) to in-depth articles dissecting the way an autistic character’s “happy ending” is often handled in books.

Autism representation is intriguing, because it receives a fair amount of attention in popular media. There are still not enough portrayals, but proportionally speaking, more so than many other disabilities. Yet, much of this attention is misguided or skewed. It will take the form of inaccurate scaremongering, such as in many supposedly helpful “autism awareness” ads, and is often portrayed as a complete tragedy. In fiction, autistic characters are often either props or objects or fascination. With very few exceptions—I can think of only three mainstream middle grade/young adult novels with autistic protagonists written by openly autistic authors, and the third one is mine—those characters are written by non-autistic authors, who may get much of their information from the same misguided mainstream media portrayals. No wonder stereotypes and inaccuracies are so common!

Self-advocacy is key with any diverse movement, and in the disability community, where many disabled people are presumed to be incapable of speaking for themselves, it’s particularly essential. So an event like this, 30 days of people speaking for themselves, about themselves, about portrayals that affect them daily—it’s incredibly important. I sincerely hope people will listen.

Is Autism on the Page targeted toward specific ages, countries, or particular demographics?

Is it corny to say [it’s for] “everyone”? Honestly, anyone with an interest in representation and diversity would do well to keep an eye on the website/event. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Within the publishing industry, we’re particularly keen on reaching those in creative positions—authors, editors—to encourage them to include disabled characters and to write them accurately and respectfully. We’ve already heard from authors who have changed their approach to disability representation as a direct result of our website, which makes us overjoyed.

Librarians, teachers, and booksellers are also vital parts of our audience. Our reviews can double as recommendations or warnings regarding the portrayals within. For example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Vintage, 2004) by Mark Haddon is a much-loathed book within the autism community, but many people outside of that community aren’t aware of this or don’t understand the reasons why. It’s one of the many books we’re covering in April, which will hopefully explain why it might not be the best book to hand to patrons interested in the condition. Conversely, a book like Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy (Walden, 2013) is one I wish all librarians would keep on their shelves, because it’s one of the very few representations of autism I can fully get behind. I hope my review will convince people in these positions to stock the book and feel comfortable recommending it.

Since we can’t review every book out there, our articles also form an important element. We hope they’ll give people the tools to determine the quality of disability portrayals for themselves. That said, we always remain open to questions (for example on our Tumblr or on Twitter) about specific books.

As far as countries, we generally focus on North America, as that’s where most of the team is located, minus myself. (I’m in the Netherlands.) However, our contributors are from all over the world, and we’re just as happy to cover English-language books published elsewhere. We’re also working on a list of “recommended books” specifically aimed at librarians and teachers, and we want to make sure it’s equally accessible within the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States, in terms of ISBNs, covers, availability, etc.

And who are the Disability in Kidlit experts pulling the information together?

The editors are Kody Keplinger, Kayla Whaley, and myself. All three of us are authors and deeply entrenched in the YA community, so we know the books, the trends, and the author’s side of publishing intimately. This helps us approach the concept of writing a disabled character from both a reader’s and writer’s perspective, which hopefully helps make our content more relevant to those audiences.

Also, all three of us are disabled: Kody is blind from birth and uses a guide dog, Kayla has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a power wheelchair, and I have autism and ADD. This means we run into assumptions and stereotypes again and again—in real life, in the fiction we consume, and in the online YA community. We know what we’re talking about, and how fictional portrayals can perpetuate real-life stereotypes that affect us directly.

What makes this resource special? 

I know I keep harping on it, but: it’s the fact that every post discussing a particular disability is written by someone who shares the same (or a very similar) disability. For many books featuring disabled characters, along every step of the process—writer, agent, editor, publisher, marketer, reviewer—the odds are slim that someone has that condition or knows about it from something other than research or talking to people with second-hand information, yet readers take their word for it that this condition is portrayed respectfully. Sometimes books come on the market that are laughably unrealistic. We’re not even talking stereotypes, tropes, or framing here, which can be very subjective. We’re talking, for example, [about] details of assistive tools, or types of treatment, that could have been corrected if the author had talked to someone with that actual condition for five minutes.

People often don’t think about those things. And that’s why it’s important that we shine a light on the matter.

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for covering this important event! I hope people check in throughout the month and gain new insights from the reviews and articles. I’m contributing one on humor as it relates to characters on the autism spectrum.

  2. DecodingMyAutism.com is our website to try and help parents and children living with Autism in their lives. We are focused on delivering you the best book we can possible create. When you think of a sunny day and your child is happy, but there is always that thing you should mention. Or that little factoid that could make the difference between an awkward moment and a delightful experience. What do I truly need to know to take care of your child for an hour or two?