Thursday, January 27, 2022

Managing Missteps…Oh My!

I have a confession: I read reviews. I know I shouldn’t. I’ve been strongly advised against doing so, but at a certain point I made the decision that, for me, the thrill of a good review outweighed the sting of a bad one. 

A scale with excerpts from good reviews on one side and bad on the other showing the good outweighing the bad.
Particularly thrilling are the “good reviews” where readers with disabilities and chronic illnesses say that my book makes them feel seen and represented in ways they rarely do, thereby letting me know that my aspiration to lift up my community and tell our stories authentically is on track. 

That’s why it’s so uncomfortable when I’m made aware of a misstep. 

Since its publication, I’ve learned that my novel Cursed has a level of ableism that doesn’t sit well with some readers. There was some ableism I wasn’t even aware of. For example, I’d used the words “crazy” and “insane” throughout the book, only learning after the fact that doing so perpetuates the stigma around mental health conditions. Charlesbridge Teen offered to swap out those words in the Cursed paperback, for which I was incredibly grateful.

Conversely, I’d made a conscious decision to include a good bit of internalized ableism in the story. My main character Ricky was able-bodied for the first 13 years of her life, as was I. Thus, following her chronic illness diagnosis, she had to deal with a lot of internalized ableism. I thought it was important to show her growth through and beyond that. 

I struggled with one scene in particular where her journey comes to somewhat of a head. Ricky eventually course-corrects her ableist assumptions, but as I was editing, I wondered: Does this go too far? 

Excerpt from the novel, Cursed. Text reads: "I realize I missed a whole school while my head was spinning. A new group is taking the stage. There’s a woman and a handful of students. The last boy lags behind the others, hobbling along on crutches—not the regular, broke-your-leg kind, the ones with the cuffs that go around your forearm. His body’s bent at an odd angle, and his legs don’t seem to work fully.  My heart races and my skin bristles. I put my head down, shut my eyes.  Is that what I look like to normal people? Do I look that strange? That broken?  I don’t want to go stand next to that guy, like the two of us are some kind of crippled magnets, drawn together. I don’t want people to think I’m like him (even though I kind of am, but not really). I don’t want to be seen with him, not because he’s so awful, but because the two of us together make too big a target for the buttwipe Ronnie Drakes and Matt Bookers of the world."

I asked a disabled friend to read the scene, and he thought I was okay. In retrospect, I realized that the friend I’d asked has incredibly thick skin. Maybe I should have consulted additional readers, particularly teens? Maybe I should have taken my own discomfort with the scene as an indication that I should tone it down a tad?

But I didn’t do any of that.

And a recent GoodReads reviewer let me know that, in his eyes, I’d messed up. 

Excerpt reads: "referring to Michael as 'broken' was so *!#@$! ableist and that whole description just made my skin crawl. I get that internalized ableism is a Thing. But it just wasn't necessary in that way."
Excerpt from the GoodReads review. 

Ouch. For me—but more importantly, for him.

The review itself was generous, 4 out of 5 stars, with the reviewer noting that he has cerebral palsy and saying I’d really gotten the “living with chronic pain” experience right. 

Ultimately, I stand by the scene, while also accepting that I let this reader down—someone thrilled to see himself accurately reflected, finally...only to get what felt like a slap in the face later on in the book.

The moral of this awkward story is that—whether we’re intentionally pushing boundaries in an attempt to make a point or unknowingly using harmful stereotypes and insensitive language when we really should have known better—none of this stuff is easy.

I do my best. That’s all any of us can do.

My thanks to Lee Wind for inviting me to share some of my thoughts here on the Official SCBWI Blog this month.

Happy creating everyone!

Photo of author Karol Ruth Silverstein wearing a light purple disability pride t-shirt.
KAROL RUTH SILVERSTEIN (she/her/disabled) is a screenwriter and writer of various genres of children’s books. Originally from Philadelphia, Karol now lives in West Hollywood with her incredibly fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo.

Follow her on Twitter @KRSilverstein, 

Instagram @KRSilverstin2019 and 

Facebook AuthorKarolRuthSilverstein.

For interviews, author videos, disability-related articles, upcoming events, etc. go to


Lee Wind said...

This post is brave and honest - like your book, Karol, and you! Thanks for sharing these posts as our January 2022 guest blogger! We're cheering you on.

Linda C. said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and your perspective. I had genuinely assumed that internal thoughts were fair game for inappropriate language and opinions. I now believe my dyslexic protagonist does not need to be so explicit about his worst fears. I will seek further input from stakeholders.