I recently finished Monica Roe’s recently published novel AIR. It’s excellent for so many reasons, and I’ll get to that a little bit later in this post, but first I wanted to address the bone I have to pick with Kirkus as a way to illustrate why we need more rural voices across all areas and aspects of publishing.
The first part of the Kirkus review isn’t too bad:
A 12-year-old athlete needs new wheels to practice riskier moves in wheelchair motocross.
Emmie’s a daredevil, just like her dad used to be, though her ratty old wheelchair isn’t really up to the jumps, wheelies, and speed she loves. She annoys school staff by doing tricks around campus despite the inaccessibility of the building and portable classrooms. After a mishap, the school imposes an unwanted classroom aide upon her, and a chain of aide-to-teacher gossip leads the school to hold a fundraiser for Emmie’s dream wheelchair. That would sure be faster than Emmie’s continuing to sell custom wheelchair bags online (lovely details about her customers normalize wheelchair use among everyone from a hunter to a LARPer to an entomologist). One customer, AK_SalmonGranny, becomes Emmie’s sounding board as she wrestles with her school’s patronizing paternalism but scolds her for participating in the fundraiser. Emmie’s journey is a solid-but-pleasurable delivery vehicle for any number of Very Important Messages. Emmie is angered by inaccessible architecture and enraged by inspirational glurge.
My only beef with the review at this point was some of the word choices. By my reading, Emmie doesn’t “annoy” the school staff so much as she worries them because of their ableist and deficient assumptions of what she can(‘t) do, which connects to larger themes of the novel about what it means and looks like to “help” someone who uses wheels.
I appreciated the discussion of how Emmie’s bag business works to show the variety of people who use wheels and still do the things they love to do – things that people might not think they’d be able to do.
But then directly following that important and helpful insight, the description of Emmie’s relationship and discussions with AK_SalmonGranny misses the mark. While AK_SalmonGranny does become a sounding board for Emmie and teaches her some important lessons about the 504 sit-ins that led to legislation for the inclusion of folks with disabilities, she doesn’t scold her for her reliance on the fundraiser to get her new chair so much as she provides an alternative perspective for Emmie to think about. Because so much of this story revolves around independence and what that looks like for folks who use wheels, especially in ways that ableist dominant narratives in society erase, AK_SalmonGranny merely points out that Emmie was working and making steady progress toward earning her wheels under her own steam and importantly opens up space for her to consider the motives of folks in charge of and participating in the fundraiser. She wanted Emmie to consider the big picture and encourages her to do so. She doesn’t scold her. If anything, she treats her as more capable than most of the other adults around her.
Okay, so far, the review has a few mischaracterizations of things that happened in the text. They sort of bothered me, but they were nothing compared to the last part of the review, which I think reveals the urbanormative/metrocentric and middle-class lens of this reviewer-writer in particular and reviewing bodies writ large.
Here’s the rest of the review:
Her coming-of-age, during which she bizarrely learns that as a child from a working-class home whose insurance won’t cover a new wheelchair for some years she apparently shouldn’t accept help buying a new one, is ill-suited to a tale that’s otherwise openly didactic about the social model of disability. Whiteness is situated as the default; contextual clues point to racial diversity in the supporting cast.
A fun, fierce heroine fights architectural ableism with the powers of friendship and capitalism.
There are several issues with this:
- It seems that this person equates working-class with poverty and because of that believes that Emmie should abandon her principles around hard work and independence in order to accept the chair for herself despite the other issues she uses her resistance to draw attention to. Emmie and her dad are working-class people doing their thing – living their lives. This is not a pobrecito kind of tale.
- This reviewer clearly didn’t read the text very carefully because the issue isn’t that insurance won’t cover Emmie’s desired sports chair. It’s that she can’t use the chair she has for wheelchair motocross because it isn’t designed for it and though insurance covered that chair, it won’t cover another one for a while, so she has to be careful not to abuse it too badly and to maintain it, which she and her mechanic-dad are perfectly capable of doing.
- Didactic is another example of poor word choice. Because the book isn’t that at all. Through an excellently crafted and complex story, Roe offers readers an opportunity to question and challenge their own ableist notions (however well-meaning) and further nuance majoritarian narratives about what people who use wheels can do and how that is connected to the ableist design of the world around them. She isn’t teachy-preachy or heavy-handed about it at all.
- Whiteness is far from the default. While Roe isn’t super explicit about mentioning the racial identities of her characters, it is clear through context clues that characters across the story are diverse. It’s not her fault that this reviewer didn’t read very carefully. I imagine that the reviewer rightly understood this text to take place in a rural setting and based on dominant narratives of rural places, codified the characters as white. But it takes place in rural South Carolina, which is most definitely not a white monolith, and it’s clear to this rural reader that the characters in the story reflect that diversity. That she doesn’t explicitly racialize the characters provides an excellent opportunity for readers to consider how they bring their own assumptions to the text. I really loved that, actually.
- And lastly – that note about Emmie fighting ableism with capitalism made me cringe. She wouldn’t need to fight if schools weren’t inequitably funded. She wouldn’t need to fight if those funds weren’t allocated in ableist ways. So, she doesn’t fight ableism with capitalism, she fights it with her voice – one that throughout a number of situations in the text goes unheard because the folks around her don’t think she, a kid who uses wheels, knows what she needs or can recognize when she needs help and doesn’t. She fights it with her own independence and gumption and tenacity and friends and speaks up for other students who would benefit from accessible architecture at the same time.
Suffice it to say that I’m really disappointed in this review, but it is a reminder of how where we’re from and who we are shapes our reading of texts. It’s a reminder that we need more rural voices and perspectives throughout all parts of the publishing world. The weight and power that Kirkus reviews carry in how librarians, teachers, and readers select books makes this review incredibly problematic because it mischaracterizes what actually happens in this text at so many points within it.
If I would’ve read this review before reading the book (and without knowing Roe’s other work) I probably would’ve steered clear of Air because of this review. So, I’m writing this for my rural readers out there to let them know that they should absolutely pick up this book and read it.
And here’s some more of my working-class rural take on why:
One of the chapters of Monica Roe’s 2022 debut, AIR, is called “How Not to Help” and I feel like that’s one of the many things that Emmie, the main character of this book, taught me. I learned about the 504 sit-ins (how had I never heard about those?), to check my expectations of others and make sure I’m not projecting my own savior complex onto them. I also learned how to pause and reflect and ask questions about what is “good” for someone else, especially someone with a disability.
I also found myself thinking a lot about the rural school where I taught and how accessible and equitable its design was or wasn’t and whether or not they listened to the folks who actually experience and navigate those spaces every day of their lives. I started thinking even more about universal design and why we don’t use it more often to plan and structure and order how schools operate.
After my Papaw was in a farm accident where he lost his left leg at the knee, I started to help him navigate a world I never knew or had to experience. I remember vividly trying to help him into a restaurant where the grade of the ramp wasn’t smooth and the concrete was crumbling and being angry at how difficult it made the simple pleasure of dining out for him. But even this small glimpse into his world isn’t the same as experiencing it for myself. Sure, I’d been on crutches before and that was annoying in and of itself, but it was temporary for me and so I didn’t have as much need to invest in considering aspects of accessibility.
I now have a nephew with a limb difference – one of his hands only developed a thumb and partial pinky. Because I’m a teacher educator, my brother and sister-in-law have asked me a lot about how to navigate school spaces and advocating for him, and I’ve found that I don’t really know what to tell them, how to guide them, and that I’m not really any kind of help at all.
And why is that? Because it’s not been my experience because of the way our society privileges ability.
This book was a window/sliding glass door for me in a big way. Emmie’s interactions with her dad, friends, teachers, and administration after the loss of her mother, who was her biggest advocate against “The Divine Right of the Bipedal,” taught me so much – mostly that I really know so little, and that is such a gift.