Presenting Disability in Children’s Fiction
"Books should fully reflect our diverse society."
As we approach #DisabilityHistoryMonth, we take a look at how disabilities are represented in children’s fiction alongside the BookTrust’s view that “children's books can play an important role in presenting positive images and messages for both disabled and non-disabled children”.
In The News: A Kind Of Spark
Last month, Waterstones made Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark, from indie publishers Knights Of, their children’s book of the month. A Kind of Spark tells the story of a neurodivergent 11-year-old called Addie and her courageous journey to memorialise the victims of the historic witch trials that took place in her town. At the same time, Addie is hoping to change the way that her community views her. This kind of mainstream recognition for an own voices book about disability is so refreshing to see and we hope to see even more titles acknowledged in the future.
Representing Disability in Children’s Fiction
In their advice to writers and publishers, BookTrust’s top tip is to make sure that characters with disabilities are presented as naturally as possible, minimising unnecessary stereotypes. In their view, it is important to make sure that ‘a disabled character...[is]...just like any other character – an individual with his/her own views, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and hobbies’.
Interested to know how this transfers to a published book, we spoke to Susan Brownrigg, author of Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest with regards to disability representation in children’s fiction. Gracie Fairshaw is the young protagonist in this middle-grade children’s story in which Gracie, her brother George and some of their friends set out to solve the case of their disappearing mother in 1930s Blackpool. A fearless young detective who is new to the area, Susan describes Gracie as “a 14-year-old girl solving a mystery, getting to know Blackpool and making new friends”. However, Gracie also has congenital limb-displacement.
Keen to hear Susan’s thoughts on characters with a physical disability, we asked why she chose to present Gracie with limb-displacement. Susan says:
“I wanted to explore how physical disability is just part of a person's life and that it does not define them. I knew when I first started writing Gracie Fairshaw that I wanted my main character to have a disability. My mum has a progressive spinal condition. As my mum's condition has worsened - she now needs an electric wheelchair - I noticed that some people reacted differently to her, for example directing questions at me, rather than my mum.
I initially considered Gracie's limb difference being the result of an accident. Gracie moves to Blackpool from Milltown - a fictional place based on my hometown of Wigan. I was aware of some of the awful accidents that could happen to children working in mills, but in the end, I didn't want Gracie's story to be about her adapting to a disability. Instead, I chose for her to have a congenital limb difference - her left arm ends just past her elbow. I wanted readers to see that Gracie's disability is just part of who she is.”
Insight from BookTrust supports Susan’s decision-making as they believe that “disability can be incidental - rather than being made a central plot point” and it “can be just as helpful for representation to have a character that just happens to have a disability” with no need for that character to be perceived as a hero in desperate need of a cure.
Unquestionably, disability representation in children’s fiction is still a developing area but there have been vast improvements over recent years. It is just as important for children living with disabilities as those without disabilities to be able to access books of this nature. As Susan explains:
“There are sadly not as many children's books featuring main characters with disabilities - but the number of titles is growing. It is important for children to see themselves reflected in books. It is also important for children without disabilities to appreciate the range of experiences that people with disabilities can have, and that their conditions are just a part of who they are. I am delighted that readers have reacted so positively to Gracie Fairshaw and hope that they will want to read her further adventures in 1930s Blackpool.”
Susan Brownrigg can be found on Twitter @suebmuseum and also has her own website if you want to follow Gracie’s adventures and Susan’s other projects.
We’ve put together a list of other fantastic books for you to check out...
Amazing by Steve Antony
I Am Not a Label by Cerrie Burnell
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
Team Trouble by Sophie Smiley
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Special thanks to Susan Brownrigg for providing us with the quotations included.