31 July, 2010


When I was a kid I remember encountering fantasy books that took place in societies where people with blond hair and pale skin were considered to be unattractive. Early on, before the character development, the blond main character would be beating him- or herself up for being so "ugly" and "freakish." I enjoyed those books at the time, but in retrospect it strikes me as cheating because the reader gets to enjoy the angst of having the main character think that they're ugly, but doesn't actually have to identify with a character who has dark skin or dark hair, the traits that are considered undesirable in real life.

I just finished reading Tangerine by Edward Bloor, a young adult book that does the same thing with disability. The main character, Paul, is said to be "legally blind" but the implication is that this either hasn't been true since he was a kid, or that it doesn't really affect him that much. People react negatively to Paul's label of disability, and his glasses (which are apparently unusual-looking), but there are no instances in the whole book of Paul not being able to do something, or needing help, because of his vision. He describes things he sees which are quite far away (for example, birds flying and fields that he sees out the car window). His disability seems to exist in name only.

I've had this book since I was 14, because I bought it and never read it. I finally decided to take it to camp so it would stop crowding up my bookcase, and when I opened it to a random page I was surprised to see the word "IEP." It turns out that Paul's IEP is an important plot point--which is interesting, right? When I had an IEP I didn't know I had one, so I don't know whether IEPs are portrayed accurately in the book. They are portrayed as something that sucks.

The implication is that Paul has never had an IEP when he moves to Florida at the beginning of the book. (He's about thirteen or fourteen years old and has been visually impaired since he was five.) His mom mentions to his new principal that Paul is legally blind, and is told to fill out an IEP. Then Paul is given a guide at school, who he blows off saying "I can see fine," and is prevented from playing soccer because it would be bad for the insurance to have a legally blind kid on the team. Paul loves soccer and is really good at it, so he flips out and takes extreme action so that he can transfer to a different school and intentionally keep them from realizing he's disabled. The rest of the plot comes out of Paul's experiences playing soccer at at his new school where most of the students are poor and nonwhite (Paul is rich and white).

Throughout the book, the implication that Paul is impaired in any way is portrayed as laughable. In the narration, Paul keeps commenting that he hopes no authority figures from his old school see him and exclaim, "That kid's handicapped! He needs an IEP!" (Handicapped is the word the soccer coach used when explaining Paul couldn't be on the team; Paul never calls himself handicapped, disabled, blind, etc., but instead refers to "my glasses" as the thing that sets him apart.)

Paul's label of disability is used against him by his family as well as the school. It is obvious from the beginning of the book that Paul's brother has problems with violence and crime, but that their parents play favorites and ignore those problems. When Paul points out things that would reveal what's going on with his brother, his parents remind him that he can't see very well and probably misunderstood. I feel like this would be cool if Paul actually was impaired in any real way--I just read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I think Larssen does a fantastic job portraying Lisbeth as someone who is unfairly labeled and discriminated against due to her disability, without implying that her disability isn't real. But in Tangerine, disability is just an idea that you use to hurt someone, there's no real disability.

(I also feel like when you spend a lot of time saying "but I'm not really disabled! That's hilarious that you would say I'm disabled!" you start feeding the specter of those Really Disabled People who exist somewhere, who it would be so terrible/outlandish to be associated with.)

There are a few instances in the book that seem to imply a more positive identification with disability--or some kind of identification, anyway. Paul thinks of himself as a circus freak because his brother tells people that Paul became blind from looking at an eclipse straight on. (No prizes for guessing how Paul actually became blind.) Paul says that he doesn't mind being a racial minority at his new school because "my glasses" make him feel like a minority anyway--which is obviously problematic but does imply that disabled people are a minority group.

The most striking instance is when one of Paul's new friends is talking about his (the friend's) brother, Luis. Paul's friend talks about the knee injury Luis got as a kid, his ambitions, and the fact that he played soccer in middle and high school. When Paul asks what position Luis played, the friend replies, "He played goalie [Paul's favorite position], because he was handicapped."

Paul has a strong reaction and imagines that his friend might be making fun of him by using the word "handicapped," but realizes that he isn't and marvels that his friend neutrally used the word. Luis is a heroic character whom Paul admires and learns from, and I don't know exactly why Bloor decided to make him disabled and a goalie. The commonality between Luis and Paul is never discussed again.

I like reading books written for kids (although it was embarrassing when my 14-year-old camper said, "Oh yeah Tangerine, I just read that book for school") and I like the style of this book and think it has an interesting plot. But I'm sort of frustrated that Bloor brought in things like Paul's IEP and his parents undermining him because of his disability label, without making Paul actually be impaired. I feel like it could be a book that would humanize a disabled character and show how he is discriminated against, without being an "issue book" about ableism. But Bloor just makes it a book about a non-disabled kid who's inexplicably treated like he's disabled.


  1. Disabled in name only! I was thinking about that point.

    When I read Tangerine for the first time some 2-3 years ago (Papa picked it up from our library because he liked the cover) I tended to think more towards "it doesn't affect him"...

    When I re-read it, I took special note of the Freak Scene on pages 73-75, especially the whole "Children who didn't listen". And much later on, Paul tries to scare a five-year-old. I don't know whether this scene is real or a dream.

    Paul has 2 guides, and they are both girls. One at Lake W School: Lizzie, and the other at Tangerine Middle School called Teresa. I think Luis is Teresa's brother. And there are two troublesome boys and Paul gets an in-school suspension and has to go to the Catholic school after all (St Anthony's).

    Lots of sport, lots of extreme weather (Storms and Sinkholes), and lots of trees.

    With the English Premier League coming up for another season, and with the World Cup in South Africa behind us, just how important the goalie was, was underlined.

    Probably around the age of 14, people who never did have IEPs have Transition Reviews at the age of say 14 or 15. Or when they are in a certain class.

    And the Erik Fisher Football Plan.

    Love the way Paul gets into his community, especially through his science project with Theresa and the others.

    And Joey. He almost seemed to have more trouble adjusting to the school than Paul did.

    Yes, I recognise the tropes. Hawk, yes, I used the tropes. (Have been enjoying reading about Hawks, Doves and Kohlberg's son being a vegetarian at four).

    A really good paper is called Beneficial Blindness by David Bolt from New Zealand. It appears in the Leeds Disability Studies archive.

    "But in Tangerine, disability is just an idea that you use to hurt someone, there's no real disability."

    Now that I would like to explore more, with examples from the text.

    And there were lots of zones and boundaries. For example Antoine. Who is the one who scored all those yards, or threw the ball all these yards. I liked the false document of the journalist "The Imaginary Pewter Plate".

    And that sad event with Mike Costello. (The name sounds a bit familiar. I first knew a Mike Costello as sidekick to Rudy from I want to go home by Gordon Korman). And how the tree was planted. And the private funeral thing.

    A quick recommendation: Dear Mr Sprouts by Errol Broome. It's from the early 1990s and is published by Little Ark (and re-printed in 2006). It's middle grade and most probably crosses over into YA. It all starts with the planting of a tree and a red balloon and a city-country relationship which stretches over a decade through pen-pals.

  2. I've always been super-annoyed by that fantasy trope of something that's considered good/desirable/advantageous/pretty in the real world being considered bad/undesirable/disabling/ugly in the fictional one. It does strike me as a clumsy way of attempting to handle issues of privilege and discrimination without making a presumed audience of fairly privileged people uncomfortable. The whole "he's blind, except not really" thing you're describing seems like it's playing to something similar, and I think that the problem is probably that one *can't* effectively write about privilege and discrimination without making privileged people somewhat uncomfortable.

    It might also just be lazy writing, a case of the author wanting to have a visually impaired character in the story but not being willing to actually think through how the character's visual impairment would have an effect on his perceptions of the world and the logistics of his everyday life.

    ...I don't remember much about it, but I have a hazy memory of reading a YA novel in middle school in which the main character had severe cerebral palsy. He had a rich inner life, but wasn't able to communicate. He figured out that his father was planning to mercy-kill him and had to figure out a way to try and stop him...I don't think it was an extremely well-written book, and I think it turned out that the main character had psychic powers or something (?), but I remember that overall it was a much more nuanced and sympathetic exploration of disability than what I've seen in most fiction. There was also this subplot about how the father has become mildly famous as a result of writing an epic poem about having a son with CP, and that part raised some good questions about exploitation and the extent to which the families of people with disabilities have a right to speak in their stead. If I could remember the title or author, I'd recommend this book.

  3. I know the book you're talking about, it's called Stuck in Neutral. Maybe I'll read it sometime. (IIRC from skimming it, though, I think the kid isn't psychic and the book actually ends with his dad killing him or something.)