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Disabling Characters

Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature


Patricia A. Dunn

Disabling Characters provides detailed analyses of selected young adult (YA) novels and short stories. It looks at the relative agency of the disabled character, the behavior of the other characters, the environment in which the character must live, the assumptions that seem to be underlying certain scenes, and the extent to which the book challenges or perpetuates an unsatisfactory status quo. Class discussions about disability-themed literature, however well intentioned, have the potential to reinforce harmful myths or stereotypes about disability. In contrast, discussions informed by a critical disability studies perspective can help readers develop more sophisticated views of disability and contribute to a more just and inclusive society. The book examines discussion questions, lesson plans, study guides, and other supplemental materials aimed at students studying these texts, and it suggests more critical questions to pose about these texts and the positive and/or negative work they do, perhaps subliminally, in our culture. This book is a much-needed addition to college classes in YA literature, literary analysis, methods of teaching literature, disability studies, cultural studies, contemporary criticism, special education, and adolescent literacy.
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Chapter 4. Carving Out an Identity: Peeling the Onion, Stoner and Spaz, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian




It is not unusual for YA protagonists to carve out new identities throughout the course of their narratives. As Sherman Alexie puts it, “Literature is all about the search for identity, regardless of the ethnicity” (Chapel). Young protagonists often have conflicts with themselves, their parents or siblings, their friends, their teachers, their sports teams, or their communities. An added dimension to the novels discussed in this chapter is that these narrators, all of whom have a significant physical impairment, learn something else in the process: over the course of their development, they learn to question society’s apparent assumptions about disability, which they have unconsciously applied to themselves. In fact, to varying degrees, finding their new identity is directly tied to changing a number of views society has taught them to hold, about disability, and about groups unlike themselves. In this chapter, I will be examining Wendy Orr’s Peeling the Onion, juxtaposing it throughout to Ron Koertge’s Stoner and Spaz, and to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, tracing the three protagonists’ growth toward identity and simultaneous movement away from various prejudices these characters had absorbed about themselves or others.

In two cases, the narrators’ societies become more welcoming; and in one case, society’s less welcoming aspects become more visible to the narrator, ← 85 | 86 → who learns to reject some of...

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