In their article, presented at the Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Neurodiversity and Disability Online Symposium, Jennifer Slagus explores how #OwnVoices children’s books and gaming graphic novels help removing stigma, nurture better representation, and support children understanding their own neurodivergent experiences.
Character creation, identity development, and expressionistic autonomy: all give gamers the power of choice to become leading heroes or mischievous warriors. Middle grade graphic novels (intended for 8 to 12-year-old readers) with gaming focuses represent a particularly important intersection. These novels create escapes for marginalized middle-school readers who, for possibly the first time, see themselves as the stars of an adventure. Because children on the neurodivergent spectrum within this age group have likely struggled in school for several years, they know all too well that finding honest portrayals of their existence can be an arduous, or even impossible, task. Children’s book publishing has seen some improvements in its diversity offerings in recent years, especially in the wake of the #OwnVoices hashtag (2015) highlighting embodied experiences, and in movements such as We Need Diverse Books (2014). In comparison with increased representation across other marginalized groups, however, disability representation still lags. Narratives by and about neurodivergent people remain underrepresented and underpromoted—only 3.4% of children’s books published in the US feature disabled protagonists (Tyner 2020)—and disability representation is even slimmer within middle grade graphic novels. Of the few disabled narratives available to young readers, many feature the “inspirational” trope where disabled people miraculously overcome their disabilities to be included by “ableds” in the end. This harmful trope is one where disabled people are “not necessarily overcoming things that are inherent to us as marginalized people,” but rather they are forced to overcome “the stigmas and barriers that people, who are privileged in comparison to us, put in our way” (Barbarin 2022). Instead, its beneficial to young diverse, divergent, and disabled readers to highlight narratives that deliberately counter the overcoming narrative.
Two such middle grade fantasy and gaming graphic novels by and about neurodivergent creators—Just Roll with It (2021) by illustrator Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie and My Video Game Ate My Homework (2020) by Dustin Hansen—meld the fantastic and realistic. They uplift exciting adventure stories in ways that include neurodivergent young people as integral to the narrative. These books stand in contrast to the publishing industry’s fraught mis- and underrepresentation of disability in which the neurodivergent character is often either a savant whose abilities are reimagined as superpowers or is the barely tolerated sibling of a neurotypical child. Agarwal and Hansen change the narrative; their neurodivergent characters maintain autonomy and control in their interactions with neurotypicals even in environments in which neurotypical-centric ways of being, “curating shared intentionality, communicating, and thinking” are still held as superior (Valorozo-Jones 2021, 154).
Agarwal, the illustrator of Just Roll with It, and the story’s protagonist, Maggie, both have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety. Hansen is a dyslexic author/illustrator, and his protagonist, Dewey, is dyslexic as well. Yet “given the stigma still attached to neurodivergence,” as Rosqvist et al. (2020) argue, “the matter of disclosure is complex and challenging” (227). Simply because someone self-identifies does not necessarily mean their book will feature good representation. Nevertheless, publishing books about their own lived experiences does mean there is a better chance that harmful stereotypes or poor word choices (of the kind likely to stigmatize their characters and their young readers) will be avoided.
Though Agarwal and Hansen recognize the possible risks of self-identification, they also recognize that by making their own status as neurodivergent creators public, they potentially have a positive impact on their young readers, especially those who are neurodivergent too. That is why they have allowed their identities to be mass marketed for promotional purposes and talked about what they were attempting to accomplish in their work. Agarwal wanted Just Roll with It to highlight the aspects of OCD beyond those typically cited, like: “counting objects, cleaning things, or turning lights on and off multiple times” (Gonzalez 2021). Though these common aspects of OCD are detailed in the story—and are experienced widely by many neurodivergent people—Agarwal knew neurodivergent existence was more complex (Gonzalez 2021). Hansen explains that he chose to position Dewey as someone who just is dyslexic. Dewey, he says, has to “fight crazy things like gigantic flaming spiders and volcanoes that come to life, but he also has to deal with his dyslexia” (Means 2020) which simply runs parallel to the story.
The Form of Gaming
Both Agarwal and Hansen recognize that gaming offers a particularly seamless way of dissolving the distance between neurotypical and neurodivergent readers. Role-playing games—such as Dungeons & Dragons, a game Maggie plays in Just Roll with It—enhance communication and storytelling skills in low-risk settings, thus allowing “players to explore and practice different identities and behaviours in a structured environment with more explicit rules than every day social interactions” (Valorozo-Jones 2021, 105). By combining the elements of relatability and skill-building, graphic novels—especially those that include gaming elements—imperceptibly draw in reluctant readers without tipping them off to the complexity of the task. Graphic novels require, of course, the capacity to navigate from panel to panel, synthesize multiple modes of communication, and make assumptions for what the panels do not provide. Both Agarwal’s and Hansen’s novels also embrace contemporary technology by featuring texting and chat-style dialogue throughout, adding an additional layer of narrative complexity.
By requiring the ability to interpret a complex interplay between body language and facial expression as well as printed text, graphic novels require a degree of literary sophistication beyond simply decoding words on a page in prose texts. In Just Roll with It, Agarwal illustrates the overwhelming nature of Maggie’s—and her own—OCD and anxiety throughout the story as a profusion of intrusive thoughts creating dizzy, textured backgrounds (Image 2) or a dark sludge that Maggie traverses. The graphic form offers what the story’s author Durfey-Lavoie explains as, “a uniqueness that is captivating across all genres—the very format itself (page layout, borders or no borders, visual stress of words, etc.) tells a story” (Gonzalez 2021). In My Video Game Ate My Homework, Hansen creates the same accessibility—to both the novel and to Dewey’s dyslexia and emotions—through intentional form and story choices. Hansen explains there are no page numbers to reduce potentially confusing elements for dyslexic readers, and that the speech bubbles utilize a typeface reminiscent of Comic Sans. Many colors have reduced contrast, and the book is all printed on off-white backgrounds with brown text to improve readability (Means 2020). Hansen illustrates Dewey’s dyslexia by having letters and numbers graphically swirl before his wide eyes, jumbling in on themselves (Image 3). In so doing he also communicates Dewey’s sense of confusion, as a kind of vertigo (Hansen 2020, 7).
Because both books feature artistic recreations of what the creators have experienced first hand, they acknowledge neurodivergent young peoples’ real feelings and needs. Hansen recognizes this in the novel and its marketing: Dewey receives a “decoder lens” powerup in the story and the publisher, DC Comics, also made “promotional bookmarks with red filters embedded in them” (Means 2020). The decoder lens and bookmark filters are “similar to the colored overlays some people with light sensitivity—including Hansen—use when reading” (Means 2020). Thus, Dewey’s lens is not only a key element in the story, but dyslexic readers were also facilitated by being able to “read the book even more clearly” (Means 2020). The decoder bookmarks demonstrate the power that neurodivergent authors and illustrators hold: simple paper and plastic marketing materials merge with Hansen’s intentional illustrations during boss battles. Hansen’s use of multicolored text on red backgrounds also engages readers as they decode messages alongside Dewey (Image 3). The bookmarks serve to normalize the need for and use of assistive technologies, thus closing the gap between neurodivergent and neurotypical readers.
Overcoming the Confines of Neuronormativity
Both Maggie’s and Dewey’s needs and worries are addressed in ways that they do not feel like they need to overcome their neurodivergence to resolve the plot. Being neurodivergent is a part of who they are, but they grow and develop new tools that normalize their lives within the ableist confines of societal expectations. Maggie tries therapy and is thankful to learn more about her OCD and anxiety without—what might be a common concern for young readers, too—the therapist immediately pushing medication on her. Dewey repurposes his decoder lens into a helmet with which he enters, and wins, his school’s science fair. Agarwal’s and Hansen’s necessary vulnerability in sharing their lived neurodivergent experiences potentially have positive impacts on their diverse, divergent, and disabled readers. Just a few months after hitting library and bookstore shelves, both books received positive, emotional feedback from readers. A reviewer, who thanked the creators, wrote about their child’s experience reading Just Roll with It and explained:
I heard about this book and thought it would be good for my 13yo to see someone like them in a graphic novel. They play DnD and are soon to start therapy for OCD. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to get their buy in. They read it in one day and insisted I read it that night, telling me “I think you’ll learn a lot about me” (Amazon Super Customer 2021)
Successes of the kind demonstrated by Agarwal and Hansen stand as proof that embodied neurodivergent experiences can be commercially viable while also enabling divergent and disabled readers to explore their own adventures. With continued support from publishers, soon more readers can be excited to recommend books to their parents and friends, and they can proudly say I think you’ll learn a lot about me too.
About the Author
Jennifer Slagus (they/she) is a queer, multiply-neurodivergent Ph.D. student at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, researching with guidance from Dr. Lissa Paul. Jennifer holds an M.A. in Library & Information Science and completed New York University’s Publishing Institute. Their research primarily focuses on neurodivergent representation in 21st century middle grade prose and graphic novels. Jennifer reads alongside her partner, three regal cats, and a vexing chowsky.
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