The #WeNeedDiverseBooks era of publishing ushered in conversations that weren’t taking place earlier in my career. One facet to this discourse has been about disability representation across all categories of children’s literature. And as a disabled author, I think a lot (maybe a bit too much) about who can and should tell these stories. The answer isn’t rigid, of course, but there are some best practices to consider in the creative process.
If you’ve considered penning — or are currently drafting, querying, or self-publishing — a picture book, middle grade, or young adult novel with disability representation, here’s a few questions to reflect on.
Let’s establish authority. Why are you the best person to tell this story?
You don’t owe your identity to anyone at the end of the day, but it is a good question to ask yourself before you even have a first draft. Are you speaking from lived experience? Are you writing from the perspective of a loved one or caregiver? Are you “just” looking to write an inclusive story? Young, disabled readers deserve to see themselves in books, but the content needs to be authentic, free of stigma, and brimming with dimension. What do you bring to the table that another writer might not?
Let’s talk about message vs. representation. Is disability a part of the plot or do disabled characters simply exist in the cast?
All books, regardless of genre, that intentionally feature disability representation can go one of two ways: they can carry a message about the disabled experience (this means that a character’s health, appearance, or experiences are the main plot device or theme); or they simply feature disabled characters as people — not teaching vessels — experiencing joy, experiencing loss, experiencing laughter just like anyone else. There is validity to both categories, but if your “why” is solely to teach non-disabled people about disability, are you telling the story from lived experience or curiosity?
Let’s talk about your audience. Who is left “feeling good” at the end of the book?
One thing that’s really important to think about is: How would a disabled person feel if they read your book? Would it make them feel seen, validated, and heard? Or would it make them feel objectified? Like all marginalizations, not every book with disability representation needs to be or should be about identity. It’s imperative that you aren’t creating “inspiration porn” when all is said and done. (Not familiar with that term? Here’s a TED Talk by Australian comedian Stella Young that I’ll recommend until the internet no longer exists. It’s eight-ish minutes very well spent, and a must-watch for anyone including disabled characters or themes in their books.)
So, what should I do now?
At the end of the day, I’m not here to be the judge and jury of your words. Write the story you’re passionate about, identity aside. But be sure to handle those characters with care, with softness. Disabled kids (and adults!) are waiting and watching — and we can’t wait to read what you come up with.
Kat Harrison is a chronic illness and disability advocate, as well as the award-winning picture book author of SURGERY ON SUNDAY and MIGRAINE AND MIA. Her writing has also appeared in various print and digital outlets such as The Mighty and Real Simple magazine. She lives with chronic migraine, bilateral vestibular loss, chronic ear disease, and a rare headache condition called SUNCT syndrome. Kat is also the co-host of the Health & (un)Wellness podcast. Learn more about her work here