When my sister and I were kids, we used to play next to (and sometimes on) the dumpsters in the parking lot while my mother cleaned offices. At the age of twenty-two, my mom was a single parent of two small children, putting herself through college while working as a waitress and cleaning lady. We were on food stamps and participated in WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). I had free lunch at school. Welfare paid for our childcare so my mom could work and take classes, and somehow, we managed to squeak by.
Eventually my mom graduated and took a job as a teacher, and things improved. They improved even more when she remarried and we became a two-income household. My lunches went from free to reduced-price. And by high school I paid top dollar for my soggy pizza and curly fries and had an allowance of three dollars a week. Which wasn’t half bad in the 1980s, all things considered.
I was a smart kid and did well at school. I got a generous financial-aid package to attend Harvard and found myself living in the Yard, taking classes from future and former US Cabinet officials when I was the age my mom had been when she was cleaning offices and struggling to put food on the table. I was surrounded by private school kids and legacy students. To say I experienced culture shock is putting it mildly.
A Caricature, Not a Compliment
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Kayla Whaley
It’s difficult to find any representations of disabled characters in any form of media. In GLAAD’s annual look at minority representation on scripted network shows, there were only eight characters with disabilities in the 2013-2014 season. That means of all the characters on network shows in primetime, a whopping 1% had a disability.
That figure measures only a very small segment of the media, but it is indicative of a larger problem: the woeful lack of representation of people with disabilities across the board. I would argue that this dearth of disabled characters makes it even more important that the ones we do get are respectful and thoughtful portrayals.
I would also argue that those characters that aren’t—those that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, clichés, and tropes—are even more dangerous than they otherwise would be given that lack.
I was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, and have used a power wheelchair since I was two. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a character that used a wheelchair. I was ten. I just want to emphasize that I didn’t see a single character like me for the first decade of my life. It didn’t even occur to me to ask for a wheelchair-using character.
But then there one was. Here was a movie where someone like me would not only be a character, but the main character. I was ecstatic. Until I actually watched it, and then I couldn’t figure out why I felt so utterly disappointed, almost betrayed. I didn’t understand that feeling then, but I understand it now.
The American Library Association lists His Dark Materials, as a series, as the eighth most banned or challenged book from 2000-2009. It is most often challenged for its “political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence.” These are not absurd claims to make against the series. Pullman wrote an incredibly complex and nuanced story under the guise of a young adult series. But it is a young adult author’s responsibility to introduce themes that the reader will soon have to address and attempt to grasp in his or her own lives.
We have come to know that there’s so many different kinds of “diversity” out there, some visible and some invisible. Religious diversity can find itself in both columns. When writing for kids and young adults, like His Dark Materials did for many, it’s important to give the reader room—room to think deeply about a tough topic, room to ask questions, and room to come to one’s own opinions.
What books have you read that changed your perspective or made you think about a subject differently? Check out some of our committee’s answers here
Cynthia Kadohata has won the 2013 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category. Kadohata, who is also a Newberry Medal winner, was recognized with this prestigious accolade for her middle-grade novel, ‘The Thing About Luck.’
Julia Kuo created the illustrations. Atheneum Books for Young Readers published the book in June 2013. The story stars a Japanese-American girl named Summer who sets out to make her own luck to save her family.