DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

Instructor's Statement

Valerie Struthers Walker
Michigan State University

I am a doctoral candidate in Teacher Education at Michigan State University, currently working on my dissertation, a self-study that explores how teacher and students drew on multiple discourses to construct "ability" and "disability" in the "Issues of Diversity in Children's and Adolescent Literature" course I describe below.

The "Issues of Diversity in Children's and Adolescent Literature" course brings together reader response and critical approaches to reading with the intent to "enhance [each student's] ability to read diverse texts both as literary works and as bases for discussions of social issues" (course syllabus.)

During the first semester that I taught the course, I noticed that students' responses to representations of disability focused almost exclusively on their evaluation of the medical accuracy of the representation or on the appropriateness of educational or medical treatments mentioned in the text. Although students were thoughtful in these responses, I wanted to introduce students to new ways of thinking about how disability is constructed in literature by providing them with alternative and potential critiques of dominant medical/therapeutic discourses with which they were most familiar.

For the past year, I have worked to explore how disability studies theory might be used in this course to lead students to reflect on and reconsider their initial responses. As a class we ask:

  • How do our own experiences and beliefs shape the meanings we make of representations of disability in texts?
  • How can we draw on outside resources to help us read these texts, and our readings of these texts in new ways?

The course is organized to encourage students to attend to the ways in which their understanding of literature and the world changes as they read, write and discuss their interpretations of literature. To encourage students to remain open to revising and elaborating on their initial responses, I ask students to pay attention to the moments in their reading which feel particularly satisfying, perplexing, or problematic. I then ask them to pose questions that will allow them to explore how the text positioned them to respond in those ways and how, as readers, they accepted or rejected those "invitations."

A key assignment in this process is the "Questioning the Text"1 paper, which each student writes to prepare for class discussion. Students are asked to complete three tasks within these papers: pose an authentic question about the text, direct their small groups to the text to consider the question, and draw on course readings to enhance their analyses. I encourage students to think about this writing as exploratory; their goal is to frame a discussion in which their group can "unpack" multiple interpretations of their text and consider the ethical implications of various readings of those texts.

Individually, each of the following "Questioning the Text" papers provides a unique and thoughtful analysis of representations of disability in a popular adolescent novel. As a set, the papers illustrate how students can draw on personal experience, tools of literary analysis, and scholarly writing to develop critical and complex lines of questioning to bring to class discussion. Since their work involves questioning representations within literature, as well as ideological assumptions that animate different interpretations of that literature, the papers also suggest the potential for scholarship that focuses on the creative ways in which readers accept and resist different conceptions of "disability."

Most of the students who enroll in "Issues of Diversity in Children's and Adolescent Literature" intend to become teachers. My hope is that this type of critical work will not only prepare these future teachers to select, evaluate and discuss literature with their future students, but also provide them with the habit of questioning how "ability" and "disability" are constructed in schools and in their future interactions with students.


  1. The original concept for the "Questioning the Text" paper came from Laura Apol, Associate Professor in the Teacher Education Department at Michigan State University. Suzanne Knezek, currently Assistant Professor at University of Michigan (Flint), wrote the first assignment guidelines and rubric. I have since revised the assignment to have a stronger emphasis on the use of theory in the papers and added readings from disability studies to the session for which these papers were written.
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Questioning Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Tara Mileski
Senior, Elementary Education/Language Arts
Michigan State University

The question

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a text that shows how disability can affect a family. The story is set in the 1930s on Alcatraz Island and is told from the point of view of a young boy named Moose. Almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, Moose's feelings about his sister, who we are to assume has autism, change; he begins to see Natalie as a person and less of an "embarrassment." I am particularly interested in the relationship between Moose and Natalie because I have a brother who has special needs. As I read, I compared the text to my own experience growing up with a younger brother who has Down syndrome. The question that I would like my group to discuss is:

How does the way that Moose understands Natalie's "difference" change throughout the text?

The text

To help my group explore my question, I would like us to think about how Moose and Natalie's relationship is described as the story progresses. First, I would like us to think about how Moose describes Natalie at the beginning of the story. In one scene, Moose says, "My Mom finally got her calmed down by sitting on her right in the middle of the train aisle. I don't know which was more embarrassing, Natalie's behavior or my mother's" (Choldenko 9). In another description he notes, "But the way she holds her mouth too open and her shoulders uneven and one hand clamps down the other…people know. They always know" (11). How do these types of scenes work for you as readers? Did they make you see Natalie in a negative light? Or are the scenes more of a tool to show Moose's adolescent worries about being accepted?

Even as the book progresses, Moose often describes his sister as "crazy," especially when Natalie does things that Moose can't understand. "She is almost smiling, her face full of victory. She's not about to change. She's not that crazy" (92). Does the way that Moose describes his sister reflect the time and culture in which the story takes place, a time when people with disabilities were institutionalized or thought to be possessed? How would the story be different if it were set in a contemporary period? Does reading this book as historical fiction make you think about this type of labeling as a thing of the past? Or is it still a problem?

Towards the end of the book, Moose begins to understand his sister in a different way. In one scene Moose catches Natalie talking with the con from the prison: "She's smiling. Sometimes Nat looks concerned, or sad, or raging mad. The best she ever looks is interested. But here is my sister, Natalie Flanagan, looking happy" (148). How did his attitude toward his sister change after that scene? Why? What is this supposed to teach us, as readers, about who is capable of friendship? How does this unsettle how Moose is positioned as "normal," Natalie as "disabled," and the unnamed convict as someone who is necessarily excluded from society?

Connections to the broader conversation

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a text that is unique in that it portrays a character with a disability as an integral part of a family. Observing how Moose's feelings towards his sister changed reminded me of how my family reacted when we found out that my brother would be born with Down Syndrome.

My family, like the Flannigans, were really fearful of disability and about what it would mean to our family when my brother became a part of it. Based on what little we knew about Down Syndrome, we were afraid that we would be in for an emotional roller coaster. It wasn't until we learned about Down Syndrome and saw my brother interact with others that we realized how much he would mean to our family. Now I think of my brother as a person from whom we all learn on a constant basis. None of us would want him to be any different than he is.

I believe that my proposed question is important to ask because readers without disabilities need to think about the assumptions they make about people with special needs. Williams explains, "Reading books about characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses opens the door for children to ask questions and facilitates discussion about these types of likenesses and differences. This helps to build a foundation for acceptance of people who may look or act differently" (71). It is important to address how a text represents disabilities and to assure that the representation is a positive one for children, especially for readers who don't bring first-hand experience to the text.

Works Cited

  • Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2004.
  • Williams, Sandra, Christine Inkster, and Joan Blaska. "The Joan K. Blaska Collection of Children's Literature Featuring Characters with Disabilities or Chronic Illness." Journal of Children's Literature 31.1 (2005): 71-78.

Questioning Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

Dana Greaves
Senior, Elementary Education
Michigan State University

The question

In Becoming Naomi Leon, Naomi lives with her great-grandmother and her brother, Owen. Her life is disrupted when her previously absent mother, Skyla, seeks custody of her. Skyla rejects Owen, however, because he has a physical disability. She states, "This kid's a Blem. He's crooked and he can't talk right, and you're telling me nothing more can be done to make him right. Well, that's no bargain in my book!" (Ryan 115). In order to keep Skyla from gaining custody of Naomi, the family travels to Mexico to look for Naomi and Owen's father. Although Owen wasn't the main character in this novel, he was still a main focus for me as I read, especially because his own mother thought he wasn't worth taking with her! I would like my group to discuss the question:

In what ways did different U.S. and Mexican characters understand Owen's disability or difference? What does this suggest about cultural differences in how disability is understood?

The text

Owen is shown as happy and cheerful throughout the story. Rather than hearing his perspective directly, the reader learns about him from other characters' points of view. I would like my group to talk about the contrasts among how Naomi, Skyla, and Naomi's father's family understand and treat Owen's "difference."

Naomi was protective of her brother because he was "different." For example, he wore tape on his shirt because it made him feel good. He also had physical disabilities that Naomi described by saying, "People were usually fooled by his looks and thought he was low in school due to being born with his head tilted to one side and scrunched down next to his shoulder. It had straightened a little after the three surgeries… but he still talked with a permanent frog voice because something inside was being pinched" (4). Naomi and Gram didn't have a problem with Owen's disability; they recognized his differences, but didn't see them as flaws. How did you feel about Naomi's descriptions of her brother? What do you think about how his differences were described? How does the fact that the descriptions come from Owen's sister shape a reader's response?

When Skyla saw Owen for the first time since she had abandoned him, she tried to take the piece of tape off his shirt and she asked Gram, "Woman, what have you done to this boy?" (20). She couldn't understand the comfort Owen got from the tape being on his shirt. Later, when talking to his doctors, Skyla said, "What can you do about Owen?" (113). She goes on to say, "'An FLK. A Funny Looking Kid?... As if I don't have enough problems! This is… is… embarrassing!'" (113). How is Skyla's response different than Naomi's? What does this suggest about what the two characters value or their relationship to Owen? How do they understand "difference" or "disability"?

Once the family arrives in Mexico, they meet Santiago, Naomi and Owen's father. Santiago never mentions Owen's differences. In fact, none of their Mexican family members looked at Owen with sympathy; instead they treated him just like his cousins. We see Owen playing with Ruben throughout this part of the story, and we are not constantly being reminded that Owen has a disability. When Owen and Ruben first meet: "[Ruben] pulled a small rubber ball out of his pocket and held it up. Owen nodded and they ran over to the side yard and began tossing the ball back and forth" (147). What was your reaction to the way that Owen was accepted in Mexico? The way the characters in the two different cultures look at Owen is an interesting contrast. While they were in the United States, Naomi and Skyla comment on his differences quite a bit (although in very different ways). While in Mexico, his "differences" aren't even noticed. Is Ryan using the move from the United States to Mexico to represent a move from a place where Owen's differences matter to a place in which they aren't even noticed? Or are there cultural differences in how people are perceived and labeled?

Connections to the larger conversation

I believe this question is important to look at because of the emotional impact of reading about a boy whose mother rejects him. Tal warns that common stereotypes include "portraying the disabled character as weak or pathetic, a burden to others, or incapable of participating fully in everyday life" (164). Although most of the characters in the story do not view Owen in these stereotypical ways, his mother does. On the other hand, through Naomi and her father's positive view of Owen, Ryan may be counterbalancing the stereotypes expressed by Skyla. Why would Ryan have included such a range of responses to Owen? How does she persuade you as a reader to accept some people's perspectives and reject others? At the same time, we don't hear Owen's perspective and other people are always acting on his behalf. How might the book have been different if Owen's perspective had been included? Based on what we can infer from his character, how might he describe himself?

Works Cited

  • Ryan, Pam Munoz. Becoming Naomi Leon. New York: Scholastic Press, 2004.
  • Tal, Eve. "Swimming in the Mainstream: A Discussion of Criteria for Evaluating Children's Literature for Children." Bookbird 39.1 (2001): 30-32.

Questioning From Charlie's Point of View, by Richard Scrimger

Lisa Patterson
Senior, Elementary Education
Michigan State University

The question

In Richard Scrimger's From Charlie's Point of View, Charlie is a typical teenager starting at a new school with his best friend, Bernadette. Right as this change in his life is happening, his father is accused of robbing a bank. It is up to Charlie and his friends to solve the case and clear his father's name. Charlie is blind in the book, but this isn't a book that is simply saying, "Here's Charlie's seeing eye dog; now you know what it is means to be blind." This book is a mystery. The purpose of the text isn't, at first read, to teach the reader about blindness.

Yet, the first time I read the book, I noticed that Charlie was sometimes described as a "normal" adolescent and other times described as a "special" 7th grade student. Whether from the perspective of neighbors, the principal, classmates, or Charlie himself, the question of to what extent Charlie is "just like everyone else" is present in the text. I would like my group to discuss the question:

Scrimger includes scenes throughout the book in which Charlie is compared to (or, in some cases, contrasted with) "everyone else." How does this position readers to think about blindness and disability?

The text

I would like my group to discuss several points in the story in which Charlie is either compared with or contrasted to sighted characters. One of the first references to Charlie as "normal" or "different" comes when we meet some of Charlie and Bernadette's neighbors on the building's elevator. When discussing Charlie's many merits (i.e.: "He's polite. He's handsome."), one of the neighbors adds, "You'd never suspect anything was wrong with him. If it weren't for the white cane and the sunglasses, you'd swear he was just like everyone else" (21). At this point in the novel we are just beginning to know Charlie. How might the perspectives of these casual acquaintances shape our perception of Charlie? What does this exchange say about what Charlie puts up with on a daily basis? Do we see ourselves in any of these characters?

When Charlie gets to Schuyler Colfax Middle School, the school's principal Mrs. Vox ends the public morning announcements by saying "treat [Charlie] as you would treat a normal- I mean any other student" (54). (Several minutes later the scene is replayed, thanks to Gideon, and Mrs. Vox skips this part of the announcement.) How does this "singling out" affect our understanding of Charlie? Did it garner any kind of sympathy from you as a reader? Does it set him apart as "abnormal"? Or does it impact how you thought about Mrs. Vox and Charlie's school life?

Charlie's classmate Lewis provides us with the first instance of a peer comparing him to his idea of what counts as normal. After Charlie and Bernadette's heroic attempt at saving Lewis from a ferocious dog, Lewis is surprised to learn that Charlie is blind. He explains, "I hardly noticed it because you move so natural, so, you know, like anyone else" (41). Unlike previous characters, Lewis is meeting Charlie for the first time. What does this communicate to the reader about snap judgments? What is implied about where Lewis' expectations come from? What was your response to this passage?

In contrast to these other characters who don't know Charlie very well, Bernadette has "known Charlie almost all her life." She depends on Charlie as much as he depends on her. She knows that "He hates to be called special, but he is. Not special to be pitied — special because he really does seem to be in touch with something that she can't always recognize" (31). She still sees him as "different," but his difference is framed as positive. What do people think about the way that Bernadette thinks of Charlie? How do Bernadette's claims shape how we understand "special"? Is it ok to deem him "different" if the difference is viewed in a positive light?

We also learn how Charlie feels about his "handicap" (there is a passage on page 34 that indicates this as the term Charlie prefers to use). Right before the aforementioned announcement by Mrs. Vox, Charlie is standing to say the pledge of allegiance, thinking "of all the students up and down the country doing exactly — exactly — what he is doing… At this moment he is just like them." (53). Later in the book, one of his classmates offers him oatmeal cookies, asking if he is able to eat them. Charlie questions why he would not be able to eat these cookies, saying "I'm blind, that's all. I can eat oatmeal cookies. I can play football. I can fold a napkin into the shape of a boat. I'm really a lot like you." (182). How does Charlie's point of view differ from that of the other characters? How does he think about himself as "normal" or "different"? How does he respond in interactions with people like the elevator ladies, Mrs. Vox, Lewis, and Bernadette? Does he seem to accept their ways of understanding him? In the end, how do we think of Charlie? In what ways is he "normal"? "Different"? Who gets to decide?

Connections to the broader conversation

Reading the first two chapters of Linton's Claiming Disability changed how I thought about the significance of characterizations of Charlie in the book. Linton writes that the purpose of disability studies is to consider, "not simply the variations that exist in human behavior, appearance, functioning, sensory acuity, and cognitive processing but, more crucially, the meaning we make of those variations" (2). Why does it matter whether Charlie is framed as "normal" or "different"? How is this a different question than whether he is blind or sighted?

I likened many of the reactions of people who initially meet Charlie (i.e.: his neighbors on the elevator, his principal, and his classmates) to Linton's description of disabled people "confound[ing] expectations...and emerg[ing] as forthright and resourceful" (3). Certain characters had specific expectations for Charlie, and it was these expectations that may have led to surprise that he appeared so "normal" and a lot "like everybody else." When discussing this, we must re-examine Linton's discussion of the ideas of normalcy, which she explains "centers and privileges certain types of behavior, function, and appearance" (6). Who is privileged when we label someone "normal"? How is the text structured to raise this type of question?

Works Cited

  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Scrimger, Richard. From Charlie's Point of View. New York: Dutton's Children's Books, 2005.


Tara Mileski graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education, with a specialization in Language Arts. She has recently returned home from a study abroad program in England in which she studied educational technology.

Dana Greaves graduated from Michigan State University in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts degree with a Major in Education and minor in Language Arts. She plans to become an upper elementary school teacher.

Lisa Patterson recently graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Language Arts. She is currently an intern in a third grade classroom where she hopes to incorporate quality diverse literature into the curriculum.

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