How much disability representation is there in children’s and young adult literature?
By Charlotte Cooper
National Share-A-Story Month (NSSM) is an annual celebration of the power of storytelling and story sharing. Each year The Federation for Children’s Book Groups are inspired by a specific theme, with this year’s theme being ‘belonging’. This is a wonderful theme that should be at the forefront of publishers’ and authors’ minds when writing a book for a young audience, ensuring they are being as inclusive and representative as possible to the rich diversity of young individuals who belong in our society. But is this the reality? Are publishers and writers achieving this for all areas of diversity? How much disability representation is there really in children’s and young adult literature? How important is this representation for the community? These are just a few of the questions I asked myself when I saw this theme and here, in brief, is what I found…
There is poor disability representation in children’s and young adult literature
We live in an increasingly diverse world, however, there is a sweeping awareness that the cultural and creative industries do not reflect, nor do they produce content for, the diverse communities in which we live in.
From big publishers to smaller, independently run publishers, the pressure to acknowledge diversity across their various platforms and engage with diversity surveys has helped to propel the diversity agenda, which has become one of the most reported on topics in the industry. There is no denying that publishers have made important strides in their diversity representation across employment, character representation, and with the authors they publish in recent years. However, there is an apparent lack of acknowledgment, statistical reports, and representation of disability representation in publishing. This includes, for example, a lack of representation of physical disabilities, rare diseases, and neurodiversity. Frances Ryan, award-winning journalist, author, and political commentator, reflects on this absence in her article ‘Breaking out beyond the niche: “disabled literature” should inform the mainstream’, published in The Bookseller’s Diversity Issue: “Even when diversity in championed by the industry, its striking that disability is often the one minority group that fails to make the cut.”
Statistics for disabled character representation in publishing are poor. In an article published by The Guardian, ‘David Baddiel: children’s fiction needs more wheelchair whizzkids’, author, screenwriter, and television presenter David Baddiel, claims that disabled children have been “airbrushed” out of bestselling children’s fiction. According to data from Nielsen Book research in 2019, just 0.2% of 77,000 children’s fiction titles sold in twelve months had the words ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ in publishers’ book descriptions and only one title for young readers in the top 100 bestselling books prominently featured a disability.
Is representation that important?
Yes, it is so important that children and young adults have a ‘mirror to identity’ in the books they read.This means being able to relate to a character in the story, perhaps through their shared use of a disability aid or the types of healthcare professionals they see.
Identifying with characters in a book can help children and young people to feel a sense of belonging in the world, improve their mental wellbeing, and even improve their education. In fact, studies show that when young individuals see themselves in a story, it has a profound effect on their literacy and language development.
Seeing a diversity of representation in books can also help children who do not identify with the character to understand and accept peers in their classroom, in their activity clubs, or even people they see outside. This kind of visual education can prevent things like bullying and discrimination from happening.
Some storylines which include individuals with a disability can send harmful messages to the community
Elle McNicoll, a UK-based author with a diagnosis of autism published her first children’s book called A Kind of Spark, in June 2020, by independent children’s publisher Knights Of, which includes ‘two openly autistic young women.’ Soon after its publication, the book was announced as the Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Month and as The Times and The Sunday Times’ Children’s Book of the Week. McNicoll was also named the winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2021, a prize voted for solely by booksellers. McNicoll has since written a second book also with disability representation, Show Us Who You Are , which was published in March 2021, also by Knights Of.
McNicoll discusses her experience in the book publishing industry in an article ‘Publishers must change the story around neurodiversity’, published in The Bookseller. According to McNicoll, stories about disabled people are often being “penned by able-bodied and neurotypical authors”, which sometimes include storylines that send harmful messages to the disabled community. “The hero who would prefer death to being disabled. The autistic child whose diagnosis hits the family like a bomb. The magical cure that arrives just in time for a happy ending. I’ve seen them all, again and again. The messages were drummed into me as a reader,” McNicoll explains in the article.
What can we do to achieve more disability representation and combat harmful messages?
McNicoll believes that in order for negative portrayals of disability to end, the publishing industry needs to hire more inclusively in terms of disability and publish books with a disabled protagonist by disabled authors themselves. McNicoll also highlights that there are many existing authors with a disability who could fulfil this demand:
“I believe, as a writer, that people should be able to write about whatever they wish. That no subject should be off-limits. But if publishers want to capitalise on disabled stories, then disabled writers are ready and willing to provide quality content,” McNicoll explains.
The engagement and use of the own-voices hashtag—a hashtag movement which started on Twitter used to recommend books about diverse characters that have been written by authors from that same diverse group—and the discussions instigated by its emergence on social media, strongly suggest that there is an appetite for more own-voice content.
It is also my opinion that authors who identify with the physical disability, rare condition, or neurodiversity of a character that they are writing about are, arguably, the catalyst for building new narratives around disability, and changing the way a diversity of disabilities are viewed by society.
Have you read a book in which you could relate to the character because of their disability?
We would love to hear from anyone who is willing to share with us the title of a book they have read in which they could relate to the character so that we share these books with the community and ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging in the literature they enjoy.