Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them.
For this month, the Genre-istas asked me to do a special post, as part of their April focus on Writing Other-Abled Characters. I've chosen to write about my work in progress, which features a disabled teen as one of the main characters. In this post you will get some history about disabled characters, as well as information on how I went about choosing to give one of my teens a congenital disability, cerebral palsy. You will also get a look at an excerpt from the manuscript. And, if anyone is interested in learning more about the story and getting a chance to be a beta reader, feel free to leave me a comment with contact information.
Last Saturday, Kathleen Delaney blogged about her experiences becoming an amputee, and how that effected her writing. A lot of the literature featuring disabled characters involve formerly able-bodied people who, through accident or disease, become disabled.
Ever one to face a challenge head on, I chose to place a disabled person in my current YA project.
|From a presentation on disability in children's literature|
Fortunately, I teach classes to authors on the subject of writing about people outside their own group - Adding the Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing. (http://www.babinns.com/spice-class/) I decided to follow my own instructions to students. That means beginning by tossing out everything I thought I knew about the condition and start as a complete knowledge. Otherwise, "Write What You Know" could too easily result in writing how you would feel if you were in that situation. Or, worse still, it could pull up a stereotype or caricature instead of a real character. I take students through this issue in several lessons.
Practicing what I preach involved following five steps:
- Readers are number 1 – so I always keep track of who I am trying to reach. Yes, most of the readers will be able-bodied young adults. But I also strive to appeal to disabled readers, and their friends and family. I hope many of them will both sympathize with the character, and identify with both his disability and his unique strengths and abilities.
- That means taking myself, and what I think it would be like to be disabled out of the picture.
- Then I took everything I thought I knew about being disabled and cerebral palsy and tossing it in the proverbial wastebasket.
- Doing research, both secondary and then primary research from experts.
- Taking extra effort to steer clear of stereotypes such as the A-Sexual Cripple, the Always Happy Cripple, and his/her cousin, the Always Angry Cripple.
So, as I instruct my students, I symbolically burned anything and everything I thought I knew about CP, scattered the ashes, and began research. While I do have some disabled relatives and friends, I did not actually know much more than is presented in the popular media, which includes stereotypes and depictions of disability, some of which are watered down and twisted. (Take a look at some of the comments from the disabled community about the book and movie, Me Before You - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/me-before-you-disability_us_575add48e4b00f97fba81730.)
|All ages at the Disability Expo|
|My model for Alex. not 14, but too happy to ignore|
The other main character is his next door neighbor, Tash Parker, an African American teen who just moved to this rural and predominantly white section of southern Illinois. In the following excerpt from the story I call Trooper, Tash has been walking her dog and hears sounds of pain coming when she passes the house and steps in to intervene.
“Parents aren’t supposed to hurt their kids,” I say sternly. Soft voice or not, I have to tell Alex's father what I think of him.
“I wish I didn’t have to,” he answers, and now he sounds both soft and sad.
“He wasn’t hurting me,” Alex says and comes into view, standing beside his father.
Standing! “How?” I gasp. Has he been pretending at school?
He leans on a crutch held in his right hand. It’s decorated with a rainbow of different kinds and colors of tape. There is a handle for his right hand to grasp and a cuff that fits around his upper arm.
He walks closer, pushing past his father. Actually, he wobbles, even with the crutch. He wears shorts, letting me see that his left and right legs don’t work together. His left side drags in a way that looks painful.
Shango escapes my grasp, jumps to the ground and rushes at Alex, moving the way he did when still a puppy. He rears up and puts his forepaws on Alex’s thighs. Alex falls back, his right arm flailing as he loses balance. His father reaches for him, but stops when Alex grips the door frame without losing his cane and somehow stays on his feet.
Alex is closer to me now, and I smell what energized my normally sedate bulldog. “You have bacon,” I say accusingly. Nothing turns Shango on faster.
Alex pulls a piece from his pocket and tosses it to my dog. “Dad fixes bacon for me as a treat to help me survive home therapy sessions.”
His father sighs. “It’s hard on Alex. I hate being his enemy.”
“Not enemy,” Alex assures his father. “You have to do this.”
He leads the way inside the house. We settle on the sofa with Shango in his lap while his father goes to the kitchen to fix dinner.
“I owe you,” Alex tells me. “Dad ended my exercises early.”
“Is he a good cook?”
“Barely knows how to burn water.”
I can’t believe silent Alex made a joke. Maybe it’s not a joke? The odors coming from the kitchen are not spectacular. I smell stew. Onions, carrots, and beef, but my aunt would say it needs more spices. No wonder he made Alex bacon as a treat.
“Mom rolled up her sleeves and dove into things. I could moan and cry while she manipulated me. I liked that. I have to be extra careful with Dad. When I cry out his face tightens and his hands begin shaking. He hurts when I hurt. I try to remain silent, but sometimes when my muscles scream, my mouth screams too.” His right shoulder shrugs. “It’s not like school. Silent there is easy.”
“Do the exercises help you?”
Another shrug. “My muscles aren’t getting any worse.”
“What about your chair?” I ask, pointing to where it sits folded in a corner.
“I don’t use it at home. The crutch is harder and slower, but I hate the chair.”
“If you hate it, why use it at school?”
He looks at me like I’ve just asked the stupidest question ever. I feel my face grow hot as I realize he's right. He’d get creamed in the halls with those legs.
“I have moderate spastic hemiparesis,” he begins. “The muscles in my left arm and leg continually contract. That makes me stiff and…”
“Yeah, that. I was slow and shaky and kids kept knocking me down. They said it was an accident, but I was on the ground all the time. I managed kindergarten, even first grade, mostly by staying in my seat as much as possible. Then I started using the chair to survive. If kids act like they don’t see me or don’t get out of my way I’m not the one getting knocked around.”
“You didn’t knock me down today.”
He gives me a long, cool, penetrating stare. “You’ve never bullied me.”
No, but I have ignored him, just like everyone else.
Thank you for reading.
I hope you see Alex as a kid of inner strength, who doesn't bemoan his life and problems, but learns to live with him. And, by the end of the story, he even learns to dance.
If you are interested in reading more, let me know in a comment, and I will get back to you.
And if you want to talk about your efforts in writing about a differently-abled character, tell me that too.