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What are we laughing at? Children’s literature and ADHD

It’s been a hard day. You know—the kind of day when you go to pick your kid up from day camp only to be besieged by teachers and staff who each deliver reports of your kid’s terrible, no-good behavior.

It’s the usual complaints. Not listening. Not following directions. Not paying attention. Not obeying a teacher’s orders. Not keeping those hands to yourself. Talking at inappropriate times.

In other words: it’s another typical day in the life of a kid who struggles with ADHD. Every kid with ADHD has good intentions. Nobody starts the day thinking: what can I do today to piss off my parent or teacher? We start the day meaning well; it’s controlling those impulses, reigning in that excess energy, and staying focused for long periods of time that’s hard. And that, I’ve learned, has nothing to do with intention. I’m not excusing any bad behavior, but for my kid, it’s the thing (or the lack thereof!) between intention and impulse that gets in the way.

Not long before this, my family went on a long car trip. I raided my local library beforehand, loading up on audiobooks and videos to keep the kids busy. It was halfway through our Ramona Quimby audiobook marathon (narrated by Stockard Channing) that my daughter said it.

“I think Ramona has ADHD,” she said from the backseat. When I asked why, she countered with this: “Because she’s always getting into trouble and having tantrums.” My son added: “Miss Binney keeps telling her to keep her eyes on her work and stay in her seat.”

Oh my God, I thought. They’re right. I had never thought of it that way. To me, Ramona was always, well, Ramona. She was a handful, but so lovable for her imperfections, earnestness, and potential to be an interesting adult. Did Beverly Cleary create a character with ADHD in a time when we didn’t have such a rigorous diagnostic apparatus for children?

New research in ADHD shows us that the disorder is not so much about attention but self-regulation. Especially for the hyperactive/impulsive type, ADHD makes it hard to regulate emotions and energy or control impulses. Ramona showed the classic signs of a kid whose emotional outbursts, sensitivity, and physical restlessness could be due to ADHD.

I began to connect the dots: who else, but a kid with ADHD, would need all those reminders to keep his eyes on his work or sit still? Who else, but a kid with ADHD, would crave her teacher’s approval so desperately and then fall off the emotional deep end when somebody copied her idea and got the teacher’s approval instead?

* * * * *

During our car ride back, we indulged in a Jack Gantos marathon. We started with Dead End in Norvelt and From Norvelt to Nowhere and moved on to Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and Joey Pigza Loses Control.

Gantos makes no bones about the fact that Joey (and his father) have ADHD. Gantos is one of the funniest writers around, but what began to bother me was this: we were laughing at Joey when he did something crazy like swallowing the key or eating the shoofly pie. We were laughing at his impulsivity. Just like we laughed when Ramona had to pull Susan’s curls or when she lost her temper when she felt Susan copied her owl.

What are we laughing at when the funny part of a children’s story is about poor impulse control or emotional regulation? Anyone who struggles with ADHD can tell you that it is not funny or cute in real life when these things happen. In fact, it can be socially damaging. So why are we laughing at it in fiction? Is our laughter helpful or hurtful to the child who might struggle with these behaviors in real life?

Ramona Quimby, Joey Pigza, and while I’m at it, Clementine, Percy Jackson, and Tom Sawyer are some of my favorite characters from children’s literature who all seem to display traits commonly associated with ADHD. I love these characters because they’re not perfect, because they struggle, and because they are big-hearted, earnest, and lovable despite their flaws. Ultimately, I think these books bring humanity to the daily struggle to control one’s impulses and emotions. I’m just not sure about the humor.

I don’t want my kids to ever get the impression that when we laugh at the impulsivity of a fictional character who seems to have ADHD, that we are laughing at them or making light of their very real struggles. What I wished I told my kids about Ramona or Joey was this: look at how perceptive, creative, loving, and smart these characters are. Sure, they may push the boundaries and get in trouble from time to time, but they are worth the trouble. We love them for who they are, but we wouldn’t want them any other way.

Do you agree with this conclusion? Or do you think that I have gone diagnosis crazy or that it’s wrong to think about our beloved Ramona Quimby/Joey Pigza/Clementine in this way? Readers, I’d love to know what you think!

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Julie Hakim Azzam About Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. While her academic specialization is on literature from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, she has a passion for children’s literature and has been interviewing children’s authors for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.

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  1. Tom Angleberger says:

    Your kids are VERY observant! So many adult readers think Ramona is a normal kid dealing with normal problems. She is actually an amazing non-NT kid dealing with normal problems.
    My own theory is that she is a fellow Aspie. The best –of many– clues to this is the name of her doll.

    May I also say, that as an autistic kid that read a billion books, I was always most connected to Ramona. I’m so thankful Cleary wrote those stories just in time for me to read them and benefit from them.

  2. I agree totally about Ramona Quimby and Clementine. I haven’t read some of the others you mention, but would add Anne of Green Gables to that list. Fortunately for Anne she is able to hyper focus on her school work, because her special interest is literature. Junie B. Jones and Judy Moody are further examples. Timmy Failure may be another though I’ve only read the latest one, where he’s walking around in a museum without pants, so I couldn’t possibly say. Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes has been mentioned by others, though he may be twice exceptional.

    Since a sizeable chunk of AD/HD kids also have some autistic traits it’s impossible to draw a line when it comes to fictional characters, but my autistic, AD/HD daughter actively looks for neurodiversity in her reading. In a lot of stories there seems to be one in the cast who is neuro-atypical — she says it’s Fregley and perhaps Rowley in the Wimpy Kid books and although these characters are written to be laughed *at* (especially Fregley), she identifies with these guys the most. (If she didn’t read the Wimpy Kid books critically I wouldn’t let her read them at all.)

    An issue I have with most of these popular middle grade series is that the *good* girls — the ones who seem at first glance to have advanced executive functioning — are pitted in opposition to these highly spirited heroes and heroines. You know the type — they are highly feminine, perceived to be loved by teachers, afraid of getting dirty and often swotty. They’re usually punished for their pretty pettiness at some point, usually by getting wet or their dress dirty, or somehow losing their right to look feminine.

    In modern books I’d like to see more AD/HD on the page. My daughter would benefit from reading stories about other kids who take medication and whose lives are significantly improved because of it. Instead, the dominant ideology is that ‘drugging kids removes all creativity’, as evidenced just last year in the first Dogman book by Dav Pilkey, for instance, in which the boys’ grumpy, unsympathetic teacher writes a note home to say the parents should consider drugs. (Implication being: if the boys were drugged up they wouldn’t be wasting their education by writing comics in class — in reality, it’s drugs that would *help* a genuine AD/HD child to sustain a creative project of that length. And — great news — drugs don’t get eradicate the creativity!)

    For the neurotypical part, this is obviously a difficult line for authors to walk, but I don’t want to see rule-followers consistently punished, either. The Susans, Margarets, Jessica Finches and Richie Lucilles of these stories might actually be rule-focused autistic girls with dirt-related sensory issues themselves. But even if we don’t read them that way, we’ve been teaching kids to despise conscientious Hillary Clinton types for decades.

    Is it any wonder?

    Can writers provide this generation of kids with some novel character webs, please?

  3. Some of the characters you reference are among the most beloved and entertaining characters in children’s literature because of the traits you describe. I would add Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables series) to your list. The qualities these characters share: creativity, impulsivity, and high sensitivity are the upside of ADHD and what makes us readers choose these books again and again. Who wants to read about rule following/color in the lines Beezus? Would anyone choose to read about somewhat boring Diana Barry over the outrageous and inimitable Anne Shirley? The books that demonstrate the balance of highs and lows of these characters are why they remain so endeared…we love them for these dynamic qualities – not in spite of them.

  4. Speaking as a mother of two kids with ADHD and the wife of a guy with ADHD who also happens to have ADHD herself (yeah, our house is fun)? It feels pretty good to laugh at ourselves through fictional characters. Part of what makes them funny is their relatability! It’s kind of a relief to see your own foibles from a remove that way, when you see it happening to someone else and you know it will all work out all right in the end. The only exception for me among all the books mentioned was one of the Joey Pigza books– I forget which one– oh, it must have been “Loses Control”…duh, that was kind of a hard read for me because he WAS so out of control it was more scary and painful instead of fun.

    Also I’m really intrigued by Stace’s comment about the goody-goody girls maybe being neurodivergent too, because to be honest, I’m much more of a Susan than a Ramona. My AD-H-in-label-only-D is strictly “Inattentive Type,” no hyperactivity, and I AM probably on the autistic spectrum though that has never been officially diagnosed, and …yeah, I was one of those rule-focused girls with dirt-related sensory issues…!

  5. I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who taught elementary school (second and third grades) for more than thirty years. I read “Ramona” books to my students every year. My kids all LOVED Ramona Geraldine Quimby–the boys as well as the girls! Most young children exhibit some of the behaviors of kids with ADHD at times. I think that is one of the reasons Ramona appeals to kids. She’s a normal kid. She isn’t a perfect little angel. I view her character as lively, imaginative, and “spunky.” If she had been a student in my class, I doubt I would have referred her for testing to see if she had ADHD.

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