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Each year in January, I await the announcement of ALA Youth Media Award winners. And each year with its emphasis upon portraying the experience of people with disabilities, the Schneider Family Book Award uniquely piques my interest -- both as a woman on the autism spectrum and as a library professional who wants the collection to "mirror" the experience of a diverse readership.
I understand from the award manual that a person with a disability does not have to be the book's protagonist, but can be a secondary character.
When I first read the manual, I was researching the award of my choice for a course in school library management. I felt uneasy that this award could be given to a book in which a person with a disability was not the main character, but at the time I could not articulate the reason for my concern.
Recently, I read an essay about "common tropes" in children's fiction about characters with autism. Written by Elizabeth Bartmess and published at Disability in KidLit, it helped me identify what it was I found troubling in the scope of the award's application.
Among the tropes, Bartmess identifies the role of a autistic character "to affect other characters or to entertain the reader." In the following passage, substitute "character with a disability" for "autistic character" to understand my concern for the Schneider Family Book Award.
"In kid lit, autistic characters often exist to affect other characters, for example to show what having an autistic sibling is like, to let characters 'earn goodness points' by being kind to us, or to educate the (assumed non-autistic) reader. We are also sometimes used to provide entertainment via amusing social misunderstandings."
I ask that in books in which characters with disabilities are not the central characters, Schneider award committee members examine the characters' roles carefully. Do they exist so that a non-disabled character can earn "goodness points"?
Is there a presumption that disabled characters' lives are valid only to the extent that they can meet non-disabled expectations for normality? Do they have to depend upon the non-disabled protagonist to act as their "savior"? Please carefully consider any books in which people with disabilities are not the story's protagonists.