Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Disabilities in YA

Being a teenager was awkward for me. It really wasn’t any fun and I hated just about every minute of it. I was a pretty pukey teen, though. Maybe it was more entertaining for other people, but I felt like an outsider. I had almost no friends. I had a hard time relating to anyone or feeling like I fit in. That’s probably why I have so actively avoided reading any young adult books. I want to avoid anything that makes me remember my horrible, hormone filled, confused years.

However, every year I challenge myself to read another area of the speculative fiction genre that I typically avoid, and this year I picked young adult books. This year I’ve read about ten young adult books, which is about ten more young adult books than I’ve read any other year. I am not an expert in all things young adult, and if I’m being honest with you, I should have had someone who reads more young adult than I do write this post, but I didn’t.

My foray into young adult speculative fiction has left me far more surprised than I ever expected to be. These books aren’t only (or always) filled with angsty love triangles, and teenagers who fall in soulmate love almost instantly. Most of the time, these books feel a lot more mature than I expected. These books are filled with young people dealing with very adult problems and situations. However, what has truly surprised me was just how much disability I’ve seen in young adult books.

It seems like beautiful and broken characters find their ways into young adult books far more often than I would have expected. From The Hunger Games and the characters dealing with physical injuries and the mental scars that manifest in the form of PTSD, to Angelfall by Susan Ee with important characters dealing with paralysis and madness, to Earth Girl, where the entire book is based on a protagonist who is disabled and cannot travel anywhere outside of her limited Earthly home. Divergent, a run away hit, is filled with mental and physical injuries. Stolen Songbird, a book that is set to publish on April 1st by Strange Chemistry, is filled with physically disabled characters. There are reasons for these disabilities, but that doesn’t mean the characters are any less disabled.

These are just a smattering of the young adult books I have read recently, and beyond the obvious limitations many of the characters in these books face, each book has something else in common. Most of the characters in these books feel isolated, different, separated from the norm, and face issues coping with their lives and their realities due to that. That is probably why young adult books aren’t just for the young adult. There are times in all of our lives where we feel a little off kilter, a little different from normal. We have a hard time wrapping our mind around how different we are from everyone else. We all have times of depression, of debilitating worry, of all the things that these young characters face. This might not be considered a disability for many of us, but it can certainly be debilitating.

Young adult books can be so empowering, as they show young characters dealing with very adult situations, and these characters continue living despite it all. That’s a lesson we can all learn, whether we are young, or just young at heart. Life happens, and these teenaged or new adult characters show us how to keep living despite all the things working against us. Penryn in Angelfall is a teenage girl in a post apocalyptic world, who is forced into the adult role of caretaker for her paralyzed sister, and her rather insane mother. Katniss in The Hunger Games has some issues with PTSD, but she keeps fighting. In Earth Girl, Jarra never lets her limitations keep her from dreaming of traveling to other worlds, or working toward that dream.

Yes, these might be young adult books, but the lessons are meant for all of us, at any age. Disabilities and limitations do not only happen to people after they hit a certain age, and the authors who realize that, and infuse their young adult books with these beautiful, dynamic, memorable, broken characters need to be applauded. There are far more disabilities in young adult speculative fiction than I had ever imagined there would be. The trails these young characters face in spite of what could easily hold them back, are both humbling and relatable.

I look forward to exploring more young adult speculative fiction throughout the year, but I am even more excited to discover more of the beautiful disabled characters in young adult speculative fiction. Why don’t you help me out by recommending some books for me to read in the comments?

4 thoughts on “Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Disabilities in YA”

  1. I’d recommend Apollo’s Outcasts, by Allen Steele, as an excellent example of YA hard sf with a special needs protagonist.

  2. You may be interested in the Queen of the Dead trilogy by Michelle Sagara from DAW Books. The first two having been released, the initial volume is “Silence”.

    The series includes an autistic teen, and as Sagara’s younger boy does have autism, she has real experience with the issue. She wanted a more positive experience though, to reflect what she and her son have actually experienced, and so the novels feature a dedicated group of friends, who are supportive despite their differences.

    For a little more insight, Sagara does a great job of explaining why she wanted something more supportive than is often seen here:

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/18/the-big-idea-michelle-sagara/

  3. In Blake Charlton’s Spellwright the main character has Dyslexia that severly affects his spell-casting and all magic he comes into contact with (cacography, in-world).
    Blake grew up with severe dyslexia and he’s managed to put into words some thoughts and feelings I never thought possible to express about the frustrations around working with words that change as you read them, /because/ you read them.
    As a someone with it myself I realised that I could finally let out a breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding for years.

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