Monday, July 25, 2011

Disability in Middle Grade Novels

Besides being classic tales, what else do Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have in common? Well, to varying degrees of success, they each portray a child with disabilities. There is Mary Ingalls, Laura’s elder sister, who becomes blind as a result of scarlet fever; there is Colin, the ill tempered and bedridden cousin in The Secret Garden; and of course who can forget the trope of the crutch-using, impoverished but uncomplaining Tiny Tim in the Dickens classic?

Disability studies, a thriving academic field, can be used as a lens to understand portrayals of children with different embodied/cognitive conditions in middle grade literature. One way is to understand the different ways that disability itself is defined. Scholars have suggested there may be at least three historical models/theories of disability:

1. The Metaphysical/Spiritual Model: This is the predominantly historical idea that disability is caused by, or represents, some sort of spiritual failing. Consider, for instance, that in The Secret Garden, the character Colin becomes able to walk once he is befriended by Mary. As soon as his emotional failings (some serious bad attitude) are overcome, so too are his physical disabilities.

2. The Medical Model: This is the notion that disabilities can be primarily understood as physical impairments, and therefore, necessarily have medical solutions. This would be the perspective that all Tiny Tim needs is a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, or a physical therapist.

3. The Social Model: This perspective suggests that we all may have differing physical, emotional, cognitive, etc. abilities, but that environmental and social obstacles – from a lack of wheelchair ramps to prejudicial attitudes – are how disabilities are socially constructed. While Little House is by no means a perfect example of portraying disability, the fact that Mary’s visual impairment is considered in the context of her family, that Laura is often written describing their visual environment to her sister, and Mary, in turn, is an active agent – correcting Laura when she exaggerates, suggests a more social understanding of Mary’s disability.

So where does that leave middle grade novels portraying disability today?

To read the rest of this post please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

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