Friday, May 3, 2013

Guest Post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann: What’s So Funny About Disability? Using Humor in Portraying Characters with Special Needs

One of the talented fellow students I met at Vermont College of Fine Arts was Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Her award-winning first young adult novel Gringolandia is a powerful story drawn right from today's headlines. Her second novel, due out this month, sounds equally compelling: Rogue is a coming-of-age story about a girl with Asperger's syndrome. I have a deep and personal fondness for books about special needs kids. I'm delighted to host Lyn on my blog this week as she addresses humor in books featuring special needs characters.

An interviewer for my local newspaper asked me how I dealt with the sadness of my protagonist’s situation—the fact that Kiara has Asperger’s syndrome and cannot keep friends, and her parents, struggling musicians, are of little help because they must travel for work. I answered that she draws comfort from her special interest in the X-Men and her belief that one day she too will discover her special power. I also said that Kiara finds humor in her situation, a quirky humor that may be difficult for some readers to understand but that nonetheless makes her real and, hopefully, likable.

An example: In the first chapter of Rogue, Kiara attempts to sit with the popular girls at lunch, and one of the girls pushes her tray to the floor. (This actually happened to me, by the way.) Enraged, Kiara picks up the tray and slams it into the girl’s face. For that act, she is suspended from school for the rest of the year. Several weeks later, she meets a slightly younger boy who has just moved to her neighborhood, but she soon learns that her reputation has preceded her:

Chad whirls around so fast that strands of hair stick to his lips. “Hey, wait. Aren’t you”—he snaps his fingers—“the psycho eighth-grader that got kicked out for throwing a lunch tray and busting someone’s nose?”

“That’s someone else. I, uh, travel with the band.” Truth is, I didn’t throw the tray. I slammed it—hands still on the tray.

People usually laugh when I read the passage, in part because of Kiara’s tendency to be very literal about everything, and in part because, despite the consequences, she’s still proud of having fought back against the girl who humiliated her. In her justifiable lack of remorse, readers and listeners laugh with her, even though they might laugh at her literalness as well.

One of my pet peeves related to outsiders who write about characters with Asperger’s syndrome is their overreliance on humor that draws on our tendency to take idiomatic expressions literally and to fail to understand when people are being sarcastic. It really hurts when other people laugh at us. Seriously. Humor can help to defuse the discomfort that people feel in the presence of disability and distress, but writers have to be careful not to create humor at the expense of the character. The character should be the one who initiates the joke.

One of the best examples of humor in a novel featuring characters with disabilities is Jordan Sonnenblick’s Schneider Award-winning After Ever After (Scholastic, 2010), which portrays a cancer survivor with lingering physical and neurological impairments and his best friend, who has also survived cancer.  Both boys have a self-deprecating sense of humor, though protagonist Jeffrey makes jokes about himself and his academic struggles and friend Tad says the things about their sometimes-clueless classmates that Jeffrey wishes he could have said. Like my protagonist, Jeffrey and Tad suffer pain, uncertainty, and feelings of isolation, and the author uses humor to leaven the story and build connections between the characters and readers who may not know what it is like to live with a disability.

There is a danger in trying to portray characters with disabilities as cheerfully accepting their fate and not wanting those around them to feel bad. Still, while it’s important to show sadness and struggle, we should also include moments of triumph and plain old fun.

You can find out more about Lyn and her excellent books at


LinWash said...

Great post! Thanks for featuring Lyn, Janet! and Lyn, I remember your wonderful grad lecture on this subject. Such great thoughts.

Janet Fox said...

Thanks, Linda! Yes, I think humor is the best way to handle adversity, myself. And Lyn hits the nail on the head when she talks about the character needing to have that humorous voice, not the narrator or author.