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The Present and Future of Disability in YA Books

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This is a guest post from Kayla Whaley. Kayla is a senior editor at Disability in Kidlit, a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and an MFA candidate at the University of Tampa. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Toast, The Establishment, Michigan Quarterly Review, Uncanny Magazine, and the young adult anthology Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World. Follow her on Twitter @PunkinOnWheels.

As an editor at Disability in Kidlit, I’ve spent the past three years tracking, analyzing, and discussing both individual titles and overall trends of YA books with disabled characters. It’s been heartening to see how far publishing has come and frustrating to know how far we still have to go in terms of the quantity and quality of disability representation.

High on the “heartening” list is the increasing inclusion of disability in diversity discussions. Disability has historically been relegated to the fringes of social justice spheres—which is particularly problematic given that disabled persons make up the largest minority group in the United States—and that’s been occasionally true of the movement to diversify publishing as well. But recently, disability has been part of that broader conversation. Agents and editors are beginning to ask specifically for disabled characters; disability is being included in industry-wide analyses, like Lee and Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey; and we’re seeing a slow but steady rise in #ownvoices disability narratives, like Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified, Cindy Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, Kody Keplinger’s Run, and Adam Silvera’s upcoming History is All You Left Me.

Disability is also making its way beyond the realm of contemporary fiction into other genres. For instance, Corinne Duyvis’s On the Edge of Gone and Richard Paul Evans’s The Prisoner of Cell 25 are both #ownvoices science fiction titles with disabled main characters. Readers looking for epic fantasy can turn to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology or Duyvis’s debut Otherbound, both of which feature multiple disabled characters. Fan of the post-apocalyptic? Try Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test or Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. From graphic novels (Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki) to magical realism (Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers) and beyond, this growing variety of genres is a refreshing addition to the more traditional (but no less important) contemporary fare.

There’s still work to do, though, not least because of the prevalence of harmful narratives published and the fact that those titles consistently receive a major share of awards, sales, and recognition. We see the same damaging tropes again and again, some specific to certain disabilities, some to certain genres, and some that appear across the whole spectrum of both. Because of this, my excitement for books with disabled characters is always tempered by wariness; I know all too well how rare non-harmful representation is, let alone nuanced and resonant portrayals.

This is especially true when it comes intersectionality. Most disabled characters published in YA are white, cishet, and often male. (The authors themselves are also overwhelmingly white.) Like any other group, disabled people are not a monolith. There is no “default” disabled person, but the lack of intersectional characters suggests otherwise. Yes, all disabled people experience ableism, but not all in the same way. For instance, disabled women of color experience the compounded effects of racism and ableism and sexism, all of which interact in complicated ways. Multiply-marginalized disabled folks have long been erased from the YA world and it’s well past time that changed.

What disability in YA needs across the board is more. More intersectionality. More variety in disabilities, genres, and narratives. More disabled main characters. More disabled ensembles. More characters with multiple disabilities. More happy endings. More thoughtful and respectful subversion of tropes. More romance. More adventure. More complexity, nuance, depth, and breadth.

YA readers—especially disabled ones—deserve more and better disability representation than they currently have. The strides publishing’s made in this arena should absolutely be celebrated, but they’re not an excuse for future complacency. Given the American political landscape and the immense danger disabled people face under a Trump administration (again, especially those who are multiply marginalized), it’s more important now than ever that YA publishing makes disability a priority.

Recognize and support the great works that already exist, and keep fighting for more.