Two weekends ago I attended my first Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) tradeshow. I had absolutely the best time, met some really incredible people (doing incredible things!), and learned more than I thought possible. It was also a physical challenge I posed to myself. See, I’m a high-function disabled woman. I was born with lipomeningomyelocele, a rare spinal birth defect. Probably Googling it will be faster than me explaining it here. The outcome of said birth defect has made a lot of things in my life challenging, including travel. And finding books where characters like me are present, and not just because of their disability.
But then, swooping from amazing, bookish heights: PNBA panels to the rescue! I attended one such panel titled “Beyond the Bookstore Walls: Multicultural Outreach.” It was led by Anne Broyles, Rosanne Parry, Kim Hooyboer, and Coi Vu, and I loved every minute of it. Diversity is an important subject in all media, but seeing as I’m a bookseller I love being able to represent all different kinds of people through the books I stock.
At the end of the panel a Q&A was held. And I couldn’t help myself. The discussion had covered people of color, varying religions, citizen status, and LGBTQ+. But no books with disabled characters were talked about. I wanted to start that conversation. I’m such a proponent for all kinds of diversity, but it’s a challenge to find my particular brand of high-functioning disabled character within literature. Growing up, I became an avid reader because I was in bed recovering from different surgical procedures. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the books I was reading! But I never saw myself in them. No way is someone going to write a fantasy novel about a wobbly girl who has trouble navigating the supermarket, let alone mountains and caves.
Except, apparently now authors are! I was so floored when several people approached me after the panel to discuss disabled diversity in books. The list of books I came away with wasn’t the longest list ever. But every minority group has to start somewhere. The lists of books for people of color is immense! Same with LGBTQ+ and different religious representation. They could be longer, most definitely. But they’re filling out as more people from those minorities share their stories, both true and fictional.
I’m hopeful that in another year, five years, ten years, I’ll be able to stock more than just a shelf of fiction with disabled characters in my store. But that’s what I’m starting with. After the weekend with PNBA and many booksellers and authors, I decided to make some improvements to my bookshop. Chief among them is a shelf specifically for disabled fiction. It will span genres and age ranges. The list for it is short right now, but I’m excited to include titles in addition to Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Those will be on the shelf, they are fantastic books after all! But the shelf will also feature Clockbreakers by Kate Ristau, The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, Borderline by Mishell Baker, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Which serves the dual purpose of having a disabled main character who is also part Native American, part Caucasian.
Tiny ripples are how bigger waves start. After the tradeshow, I hope maybe one person came away thinking more about disabled diversity in books. Another pebble is Uncanny Magazine creating a “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” issue that comes out next year. I cried when I heard the news a month ago. These little ripples are forming and soon the book industry will have a lot more to offer readers like me. Who knows, maybe they’ll publish my story – dragons and spaceships and all.
Annie Carl is the owner of The Neverending Bookshop in downtown Bothell, WA. In addition to rocking the boat for more disabled books, she likes to ride horses, knit, and watch bad action movies. Her favorite books usually come from the Science Fiction and Fantasy section.
Interested in characters with chronic illnesses or conditions? Amanda MacNaughton wrote us a post called “Finding Characters Like Me.”