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Books in a lee light

Julie Hakim Azzam’s diagnosis of ADHD for Ramona Quimby has me of two minds AT LEAST. I agree it’s good that readers with ADHD can find in Ramona a mirror, friend, or hero. But if we position the character as a child with ADHD, are we being faithful to the text, which leaves her undiagnosed? Azzam suggests that because the character was created in a time lacking a “rigorous diagnostic apparatus” for the condition, the author may simply not have had all the necessary science at her command. Or perhaps Cleary would disagree or even bridle at “pathologizing” her creation? Yeah, I would probably bet my house on that last hypothesis even as I question its relevance. Authors. I guess for me the question is, is there room for Ramona to have ADHD? And is there a difference between a reader thinking “I love Ramona because she is like me” and “I love Ramona because she has ADHD, like me”? Does it matter?

I’m all for readers reading books however they want. Want Ponyboy and Johnny to be boyfriends? Fine by me. But as a critical tack I worry about erasing the distinction between what’s in a book and what’s in the reader. Both have jobs to do.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. M. Hennessy says:

    Thank you Roger. I would like there to be less labeling of children and people in general. We are so much more fluid and we need to see how someone is “like me” more than they are not like me. A label separates more than it brings us together. Letting the reader appreciate a character–the craft and imagination of the author–makes the story meaningful to the reader. What the character represents is rather irrelevant because we can all appreciate the character in our own way.

  2. I think all kids can find in Ramona a mirror. She is a spunky, lively, imaginative character. My elementary students–girls AND boys–loved when I read Cleary’s Ramona books aloud to them. They all related to Ramona Q. She was not a prefect little angel. I know I wasn’t. Had she been one of my elementary students…I doubt that I would have referred her to the SPED department for testing.

  3. “There is an odd literary question which I wonder is not put more often in literature. How far can an author tell the truth without seeing it himself? Perhaps an actual example will express my meaning. I was once talking to a highly intelligent lady about Thackeray’s NEWCOMERS. We were speaking of the character of Mrs. Mackenzie, the Campaigner,, and in the middle of the conversation, the lady leaned across to me and said in a low, hoarse, but emphatic voice, `She drank. Thackeray didn’t know it, but she drank.’ And it is really astonishing what a shaft of white light this threw on the Campaigner…The author sees only an arc or fragment of a curve; the rider sees the size of the circle.”
    –G. K. Chesterton

    I don’t know if Chesterton was right about this; I’m thinking Roger has the better end of the stick. But I love the idea that one of Thackeray’s characters drank, and he didn’t realize it.

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t know, either, Elless, but what a great thing to think about!

  5. Perhaps the book and the reader both have jobs to do, as you say. Parents (or other adults helping children with choosing literature) have a job to do, as well.

    Thinking about Ramona as a potential ADHD kid has the potential to influence parents with their own ADHD kids to consider a book where they might find a character to identify with.

  6. Julie Azzam says:

    Thanks, Roger, for your thoughts on this. I am glad that this blog post is starting a conversation. I waited, sitting on my hands, for a few days before responding, but I do want to respond to a few things:
    We will never know what Cleary intended; I do not concern myself with questions of authorial intention. The writer produces the work but can’t be relied upon to be the sole explicator of its meaning. I’m happy to see people are disagreeing with me, but fundamentally, are we in the business of limiting interpretation to authorial intent? I hope not.

    In response to the question of “does it matter?”, the distinction clearly matters. I am not in the business of giving a literary character a diagnostic label, but representation matters, especially in the absence of an abundance of literature with expliitly tagged ADHD (or autistic or dyslexic, etc) characters. It matters to me, my kid, and any other kid out there who reads books about neurotypical kids and feels like that doesn’t adequately represent themselves or the struggles that they face on a daily basis. Impulsive kids are especially vulnerable because their behavior can sometimes suggest that they are “bad kids.” What I loved about Ramona was that she was impulsive, like my kid, but man, was she lovable. I’m still bothered by the way that Ramona’s impulsivity seems to drive part of the humor in the book, but by and large, I believe it could help some kids to think of Ramona as somebody who was impulsive. That combination of being misunderstood but fundamentally loveable, and not the label of ADHD per se, was important for us here. It is my hope that in this character, a child with ADHD can internalize that more positive representation.

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