CM315WSU, To My Reader

When Representation Falls Short: Disability in Literature

I was 12 when I finally read about a character with a disability.  I immediately felt a connection with Colin Craven from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic The Secret Garden because I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a movement and muscle disorder that affects my legs.  Here was a fictional character that wore orthotics and used a wheelchair. While I felt validated at first, that sentiment began to sour with age as I began to notice how the author’s word choices and plot decisions did more to perpetuate society’s negative view of people with disabilities.

When readers first meet Colin, he is purposely closed off from the rest of the Misselthwaite residence and bed-ridden. For a majority of the novel, he is a spoiled, self-pitying child who refuses to believe that anything can be done to improve his quality of life or that he can live a fulfilling existence if he so chooses. That is until his cousin shows him how tending to a garden can act as an outlet to heal.

As the secret garden grows, Colin’s physical form gets stronger as well. He even remarks, “Now that I am a real boy—my legs and arms and all my body are so full of Magic that I can’t keep them still” (Burnett, 1911, p. 202). This line reveals an assumption that people with disabilities, visible or not, don’t have value unless they’ve been cured.

For many, however, a disability is either something they’re born with or it’s been acquired later in life. It cannot be magically “fixed”, as Burnett’s novel would suggest, and to imply that people with disabilities need to be fixed in order to live a meaningful life is extremely harmful.

According to a 2018 report from the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, people with disabilities make up approximately 13.2% of the U.S. population (Institute of Disability, University of New Hampshire, 2019, figure 1). That’s about 40 million of us!

Why don’t we see this incredibly large community reflected positively in fiction?

From my perspective, characters with disabilities are often relegated to roles such as the best friend or villain who ultimately helps motivate the main (typically able-bodied) character. They are presented as individuals who view themselves as defective or exist in a constant state of displeasure. But, perhaps the most damaging aspect of literary representation for people with disabilities lies in the endings we’re given.

I’ve come across multiple stories in which the disabled character is either killed off or commits suicide. The best-selling romance novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes received a wave of criticism after it’s main character, a man with Quadriplegia, dies by assisted suicide. In an article for The Guardian, Ryan Gilbey writes about the 2016 movie adaptation that incensed the disability community and places a spotlight on poor representation in films, too. Our cultural view of disability will not change if these horrific messages persist across all mediums.

On the bright side, with the help of social media, readers are demanding that things change. They are actively seeking out books with better representation. Taking it a step further though, we need to encourage writers to create stories and characters that more accurately represent the diverse world we live in.

If you are interested in learning more about disability representation in literature, I recommend Disability in Kidlit, which features reviews, discussions, and interviews that hope to spread awareness. 

Which books do you believe accurately portray people with disabilities in a positive light? Please let your voice be heard on this too often overlooked issue via the comments section to this blog. 

Follow me on Twitter: @ohheyblair


Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1911). The Secret Garden. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books.

Houtenville, A. and Boege, S. (2019). Annual Report on People
with Disabilities in America: 2018. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability.

Gilbey, Ryan. (2016, June 2). ‘I’m not a thing to be pitied’: the disability backlash against Me Before You. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Goodreads. The Secret Garden. [Photo]. Retrieved from

JasonTLow. (2016, January 26). Where Is The Diversity In Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Book Reviews

Book Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

30965521Published: July 7th, 2016 by Riverrun.

Format: Kindle Edition, 352 pages.

Goodreads Summary: It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes.

Thoughts: In the interest of keeping this review straight forward, I will refrain from my personal comments until the very end. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill tells the story of an 18-year-old girl named Emma who is in her last year of secondary school. O’Neill has created a story the expands beyond fiction. Emma O’Donovan is a real person. She exists somewhere in the world with a different name. O’Neill presents us with a topic that society doesn’t like to talk about and sweeps under the rug as if it never happened. Sexual assault is not something to be taken lightly. And this book takes the issue head on.

The author challenges the reader to look at every angle and side of the issue. While reading, she makes you question who is truly at fault and how you would react in a similar situation. The most difficult and arguably most clever part of this novel is the main character herself. Emma O’Donovan is terrible. She is self-centered. She is a liar, a tease, and a thief. She knows she is beautiful and flaunts it. It isn’t difficult to hate her. I did.

But despite all her unfavorable qualities and hideous behavior, she is still a victim.

Asking For It presents rape in all its ugliness. The reader is forced to tackle a subject that has the ability to quickly reveal someone’s true moral code. This is a topic that needs more attention and I urge more people to read this book. Through this book, O’Neill is starting a conversation.

On a personal note, this book was difficult to read. However, It never sugar-coated the important events regardless of being categorized as a Young Adult novel, which I was grateful for. There were times when I was so frustrated that I wanted to throw the book across the room or stop reading, but I made myself finish this one. Through reading, I questioned my views on gender, consent, and personal assumptions. As for O’Neill’s writing itself, I thought it captured the perspective of teenagers really well. There were times in the beginning that I felt I was being bombarded with character introductions. It took me a while to figure out who was who. I also wish that she would have mentioned that sexual assault can happen to anyone, man or woman. In the end, Louise O’Neill cares about this topic and that is very apparent when reading this novel.

This is a heartbreaking and realistic book that more people should read. The national conversation about sexual assault is slowly growing, but there is still a lot of work to do. If you have a continued interest in this topic I suggest reading more about cases and watching documentaries such as The Hunting Ground and Audrie and Daisy. Both are worth a watch. Rape isn’t something that we should ignore.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Published: June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.

Format: Hardcover, 475 pages.

Goodreads Summary: No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

Thoughts: And I Darken follows two siblings who find themselves prisoners of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s. It is most notably described as a gender bend of Vlad the Impaler, a brutal ruler of what is now known as Romania. As soon as I heard about this novel I couldn’t click ‘read’ fast enough. It’s refreshing to see YA branching out and covering a topic of history that not many people know about. Kiersten White has done her research, for the book stays consistent in historical accuracy throughout. While reading, I felt like I learned more regardless of my prior knowledge of this time in history. It’s fascinating! The author has mentioned that she will take more creative liberties in the next two books to make her story work.

Our two main characters captured my attention instantly. Ladislav is an unattractive young woman fighting to be a warrior in a man’s world. She demands respect and breaks every rule of the Ottoman court as she attempts to return to her homeland. On the other side of the coin, her brother Radu must find strength in a different way. Although he has the benefit of being a handsome male, Radu is punished for his kindness which many around him perceive as a weakness. Unlike his sister, he finds a place in the Ottoman Empire despite other misfortunes. Lada and Radu both find themselves at the mercy of their emotions and this acts a catalyst for much of the novel. They will work with and against each other to secure their place in this society. Both characters are complex and illustrate important gender themes highlighted within the novel.

“As the baby latched on with surprising fierceness, the nurse offered her own prayer.
Let her be strong.
Let her be sly.
And let her be ugly.”

And I Darken transports readers into a vivid world of castles surrounded by mountains and ornate buildings containing harems. The writing was dense, but this seemed fitting for the story. When I was reading I was completely enveloped by the setting and found it difficult to pull myself out of it. I will admit that the plot is slow and meticulous. Therefore, it requires your utmost attention as every sentence reveals pieces of the story. Knowing this, And I Darken may not be for everyone. The first book covers a large amount of time in the span of roughly 500 pages. The Conquerors Saga will consist of three books, the next one releasing in Summer of 2017. For readers who enjoy Historical Fiction, Fantasy, or YA this is a novel you don’t want to miss. This brutal novel will gut you.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifePublished: March 10th, 2015 by Doubleday.

Format: Hardcover, 720 pages.

Goodreads Summary: When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

Thoughts: I didn’t know what to do with myself after finishing this novel. My heart is still heavy with a sorrow so profound that it has enveloped me. It took me six months to complete this story, and I have no regrets.

Although this novel follows the lives of four friends fresh out of college, you will learn quickly that the story centers mostly around Jude. He is the most secretive of the bunch and must carry memories full of terror and devastation that latch onto him like a parasite. I hadn’t discovered this novel until about a year after it was published and realized that it had made its way onto the best-sellers list for 2015. Unlike many others, I went into this book completely blind after hearing such high praise from reviewers and readers alike. Everything about this story is devastating. The story, characters, and prose have been permanently seared into my mind. Fair warning: This book is not easy to digest. It contains references to self-harm, physical and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and other triggering subjects.

With all that said, the darkness presented by this story doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Hanya Yanagihara has written a book about life in it’s most raw and unsettling form. This is story about the importance of friendship and how much power it does and doesn’t have. The friendships layered within are steadfast, broken, envious, and above all, honest. I suggest that you read this book slowly because it’s woven together so intricately. It’s a work of art, really. I have heard some readers complain about the sheer size of this book, but I believe that every word has a role, and it all works together to create a story that is utterly poetic. From the first page it’s easy to become enthralled in the story of Jude, Willam, Malcolm, and JB, with the people they meet along the way.

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

This is not a book you can just pick up and read. It requires your utmost attention and will fold your insides in on themselves until everything aches. My tears were relentless in their flow and there were moments so relatable that I thought the author had gotten into the deepest parts of my mind somehow. I have never cried so hard in my life. It was constant. I can’t stop thinking about this novel and it has jumped to my number one spot for favorite books. Although A Little Life is difficult to read and full of strong emotion that forces you to confront all that is ugly in this world, it is exquisite. This character-driven novel keeps you invested until the very last word. If you get a chance to read this one, I highly recommend it for those who are ready. Hanya Yanagihara has written a novel so raw and poignant. One that tries hard to discover the good things in life. This novel will stick with me for the rest of my own little life and makes me want to be a better person. Isn’t that all we can hope for?

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

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To My Reader

Rating System

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5 leaves: The highest rating that can be given. The novel was spectacular for reasons to be explained. A book I highly recommend and can see myself rereading sometime.

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4 leaves: The novel was good. It was extremely well written, and the characters and world were impressive. This rating means that although the story wasn’t perfect I will still look for more written by this author.

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3 leaves: Liked the story for the most part, but it was nothing special. This rating is given to novels that could have added more in terms of characters, world building, or plot. The book is promising. More detail regarding rating will be given in review.

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2 leaves: A rating given to novels that aren’t that interesting or special. It probably isn’t recommended unless you can find it somewhere for free.

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1 leaf: The lowest rating that can be given. I didn’t enjoy the book at all and wouldn’t recommend it.


Book Reviews

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

29044Published: April 13th 1992 by Vintage.

Format: Paperback, 628 pg.

Goodreads Summary: Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

Thoughts: This is one of those books that when you began, it grabs ahold of your imagination and doesn’t let you go, not even after you finish reading. Donna Tartt is an impeccable writer. The Secret History is by all means a contemporary story about six college students, but beneath it all there is a sense of mystery and magic. I still can’t wrap my head around it. The book has this 19th century feel that will captive readers. And even though I thought the story was long, I wanted to absorb every word.

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

While reading I couldn’t help but think that our main character Richard Papen was too ordinary to be the story’s narrator. He was bland in the presence of others around him. His fellow students, extraordinary professor, and even the secondary characters were more interesting to read about at times. Why wasn’t the main character so much more? The more I think about it the more I understand. The was the entire point. Donna Tartt wanted readers to see just how different everyone else carried themselves. How much more dynamic the other students were. Think of it this way. Richard Papen is to The Secret History what Nick Carraway was to The Great Gatsby. He’s just the story teller.

The Secret History is an incredibly dark tale that incorporates the literary influence of many of today’s classics. Get ready to want to read the Iliad by Homer after this. In the end, a close group of friends are bonded by something more than just their studies. When you think the story is going one way Donna Tartt spins everything on its head. This is a novel that is able to balance beauty and dread in equal measure. A must read.

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What do you think?


Book Reviews

Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry

AlicePublished: August 4th 2015 by Ace.

Format: Kindle Edition, 304 pages.

Goodreads Summary: A mind-bending new novel inspired by the twisted and wondrous works of Lewis Carroll…
In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

Thoughts: Forget everything you know about Lewis Carroll’s beloved childhood story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and prepare to be thrown into a much darker tale that is sure to drive anyone mad. In this retelling Christina Henry has created a new world so disturbing it’s hard to imagine the beauty of the original novel even exists. The author brings back characters we recognize, but fair warning, no one is safe anymore. This is a different story. A very bloody one.

“Alice dreamed of blood. Blood on her hands and under her feet, blood in her mouth and pouring from her eyes. The room was filled with it.”

Wonderland has disappeared under the grime of the Old City where horrors await for the next unfortunate soul. Ever since Alice returned home after going missing at sixteen, covered in scarlet and talking madness about a rabbit, her parents fear she has gone around the bend. Years later, Alice finds herself locked in an asylum with others society has deemed crazy. Her only friend goes by the name of Hatcher. He talks to her through a small mouse-hole from the cell next door and admits he knows little of his past before this place. The only thing he’s sure of is the reality of his nightmares, and the monster at the very center of them. They are presented a chance to escape when the asylum is engulfed in flames, but their suffering is far from over. Something has escaped with them.

Alice and Hatcher are forced to enter the bowels of the Old City, a place ruled by terrifying lords – the Cheshire, the Walrus, the Carpenter, and the Caterpillar. Leaders waged in a war against each other, and it’s no surprise when they take an interest in sweet little Alice. This novel is full of eerie descriptions that will make your hair stand on end. I also want to mention a trigger warning for future readers. This book features scenes of rape and although I understand why such a horrid action was spread throughout the story it can be off-putting to some readers. It is recommended that readers be 18+.

I must say that I absolutely loved Alice by Christina Henry and I can’t wait read more from her. This book was horrifying and fueled by nightmares. I read this book in one sitting! It was that good. A second part to this story called Red Queen will be released sometime next year. Grab your vorpal blade before you get pushed down the rabbit hole again.