27 February, 2011

Arnie and the New Kid

I have so much affection for Arnie and the New Kid by Nancy Carlson, who wrote a ton of books for kids about anthropomorphic animals. I wrote about this on tumblr but I just want to write about it again because it ties into what I've written about disabled queerness. Also, it's incredibly cute.

Arnie is a non-disabled cat who is quick to make fun of Phillip, a dog who uses a wheelchair. (I loved writing this sentence.) One day, Arnie is shambling around pretending to be Phillip, holding his arms up to his chest or whatever in an attempt to look disabled, and instead of getting an Oscar or an Academy Award like if he was a human, he falls down the stairs and injures his leg, wrist, and tail. Cut to Arnie wearing an adorable brace on his tail, using crutches, and needing much more help with things than Phillip ever did.

Like Harry Potter, Phillip has the social grace of a saint and befriends Arnie even though Arnie was a dick to him. Arnie and Phillip start spending all their time together doing the things Phillip likes to do--like playing video games, trading baseball cards, and birdwatching. (I especially love the page that shows them in a theater, watching a horror movie through their paws.) Of course, Arnie recovers from his injuries and goes to play baseball, which was one of the things he originally bullied Phillip for not being able to do. Phillip is worried that their friendship is over, but then Arnie says that Phillip will come along and be the coach.

I've read a review criticizing this book for exactly the reason I like it: Phillip is a loser who needs Arnie's help to be included socially. Well, Phillip is not a loser in my estimation, but he isn't so incredibly cool that he can overcome the stigma of disability, especially when Arnie is constantly drawing attention to everything Phillip can't do. What accounts for this failure of character? PHILLIP IS AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KID. Not every kid can go into a new school and have everyone be staring at them and bullying them, and deal with that competently and make a lot of friends.

Phillip is just an ordinary, nerdy kid--and by Arnie's standards, he really is a loser. He takes longer to eat, can't race, and can't play baseball. Basically, Phillip is slow, which dooms him not to be taken seriously by many of the kids.

But then, when Arnie is injured, we learn that Phillip has all these other interests and abilities that don't relate to whether he can walk or perform complex tasks with his hands. Arnie has a great time when he's temporarily disabled, and this, I think, is what keeps Arnie and the New Kid from being a book about charity or pity. Arnie doesn't think, "Wow, being disabled is awful, I should be nicer to Phillip." He learns that Phillip is actually a fun person and a good friend. He learns that his conception of what makes someone a loser was wrong.

When Arnie asks Phillip to be his coach, yes, he is making an effort to include him and maybe Arnie's actions will be the key to Phillip's social success. But Arnie makes the effort because he's grateful to Phillip and likes spending time with him, not because it's the nice thing to do. Arnie's decision is ultimately not about his own good qualities, but Phillip's.

I actually feel really frustrated by the idea that it's offensive to portray a disabled character needing help or being socially isolated. Phillip is not portrayed as weak or unpleasant at all; he's just up against a lot of ableism which, being a child, he can't handle all by himself. If Phillip was some kind of amazing superdog who could play baseball in his wheelchair and advocate for himself to be included in the games and be such an all-around badass that no one even noticed he was disabled, that would be an incredibly unfair image to show to kids. Most disabled kids cannot be that and shouldn't be made to feel that that is what they have to be in order to succeed. Non-disabled kids shouldn't be told that instead of adjusting their ideas of what you can do with a friend, or what qualities make someone cool, they can just wait for a supercrip who forces his way into their world and adjusts to their standards. Because they will be waiting a long time and, while they wait, some of them will be bullying ordinary disabled kids.

I'm thinking of making a series of posts about disability-related children's books, which would hopefully involve a lot of DISCUSSION! I'm wondering if anyone else read this book and what they thought of it. Obviously I am not a wheelchair user so I may have missed something really egregious. (One problem I have with the book is that Phillip obviously needs an aide and doesn't have one, so the nicer kids are always doing stuff for him. Really, really not a good message to send.)

Image description: cover of the book Arnie and the New Kid. On the left side of the picture, Phillip, a yellow dog wearing a t-shirt and jeans, sits in a wheelchair. On the right side, Arnie, a gray cat wearing glasses, black pants, and a shirt with mice on it, is standing and holding some books. Arnie is practically looming over Phillip with a mean look on his face, and Phillip looks scared.


  1. This was often my story as well. I needed help from my friends sometimes, because on my own, I was not able to include myself in the neighborhood I grew up in. My teachers also played a huge role in my inclusion, especially the ones that all the students respected. A few times, my history teacher drew a little positive attention on me without bashing the other students for misunderstanding me. Then all of the students looked forward to seeing me in class every day, feeling sad if I was out sick.

  2. Once Eva at the Deal with Disability was writing about how when she was in high school, during the class when her aide was on her lunch break, different students would be Eva's aide. It was really good because all the students got to know her and see that she was a good writer instead of thinking she was weird because she couldn't talk. I don't know why you reminded me of that just now, but I thought it was interesting. Obviously other students shouldn't ALWAYS be helping someone who's disabled, but it's not necessarily a bad thing if it happens sometimes.