Friday, January 13, 2012

'Differences' as Superpowers in Middle Grade Novels

I have a confession to make. I fully intended this post to be about body image in middle grade novels. I had recently written about various issues of body image in YA novels, and, remembering fantastic MG books from my own childhood like Paula Danzinger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Judy Blume’s Blubber, I wanted to explore the many current day middle grade novels tackling the tricky issues of weight, disordered eating, body difference, and self image.
But I couldn’t find them.

I begged my brilliant fellow Mixed Up Files bloggers for suggestions and found this great site on body image in picture books as well as MG and YA novels. Although some of the middle grade titles suggested look fascinating (including Susan Shreve’s Jonah the Whale and Pamela Todd’s Pig and the Shrink), the truth is, most of the books we immediately thought of, including Allen Zadoff’s Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have, Robin Brande‘s Fat Cat, Erin Dionne‘s Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies and Carolyn Mackler‘s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things were actually young adult novels.

I kept searching, growing increasingly frustrated, until I stepped back and decided to re-examine my assumptions. Certainly, there are middle grade novels out there portraying characters with disabilities. Last year, I posted here at From the Mixed Up Files on the topic, and since then, have found several other fantastic book lists of disability in children’s literature, including this one at YA highway (MG novels included here).

But it occurred to me that while there are surely some middle grade books out there dealing with body image in the same realistic way as Danzinger or Blume (please feel free to share them below!), many are choosing to take difference (both within the realm of ‘different’ able bodies and disabilities) and put it on its head, such that kids’ ‘non-normative’ bodies, abilities, or conditions aren’t problems, but assets.

Consider Rick Riordan’s choice to have his protagonist Percy Jackson’s ADHD be a sign of his demi-god status. What’s called hyperactivity in modern life is in fact the quick reflexes required for battling gorgons and monsters. And Percy’s dyslexia? Why that’s of course because his brain is wired to read ancient Greek, not English. Even secondary characters in Riordan’s series have disabilities that in fact mask their superpowers. Percy’s wheelchair bound teacher is the mythical centaur warrior Chiron (whose special chair magically hides the fact he has the the lower body of a horse), and his best friend Grover’s leg braces and crutches mask the fact that he has goat’s fur and hooves, because he is a satyr.

Or consider Michael Buckley’s N.E.R.D.S (National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society), in which braces and headgear, buck teeth, asthma and a tendency to eat paste all become secret weapons – the ability to walk on ceilings, for instance (the kid who eats paste, Agent Name: Gluestick) or fly around using an asthma inhaler and nebulizer (Agent Name: Wheezer). Similarly, Ross Venkur’s titular hero in The Autobiography of Meatball Finkelstein is an overweight, socially ostracized vegetarian who discovers that eating meatballs actually gives him superpowers.

To read the rest of this post, please go to From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

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