Monday, December 29, 2014

The shocking word in a bestselling book for kids

This guest post is from Josie, a 13-year-old who is the oldest daughter of my brilliant/funny/awesome writer friend Marjorie Ingall. Josie is an 8th grader in New York City who's into public-forum debate, feminism, reading, drama, playing the flute and being a big sister to Maxie.

When I saw my little sister Maxine reading the Dork Diaries books, I immediately recalled my own experience reading them. With a flashlight under the covers. Under the table during dinner (frequently and suspicion-inducingly glancing at my lap). Laughing with my friends about the crazy, funny and sometimes cringeworthy life of 14-year-old Nikki Maxwell.

Watching Maxine enjoy the books, I was struck with the need to read them again. So while she was at Hebrew school, I did.

And I was loving "Tales from a Not-So- Fabulous Life" at age 13 just as much as I had at age 9. That is until the mean girl, MacKenzie, rescinds Nikki's invitation to her birthday party, THE social event of the year.  Obviously, everyone else in the class laughs at Nikki. In her diary she writes, "I felt like a total retard!" 

Wait. What? 

I didn't remember this at all. But then, nine-year-old me wouldn't have found this a cause for alarm. She would smile and shake her head at Nikki's dilemma and continue with the story. 13-year-old me had no intention of doing so.

When people like this author use "retard" and "retarded," even in a self-deprecating way, they're desensitizing kids to what the words mean. For younger me, the use of the word "retard" here was reason to laugh. And for other readers and kids, that's still the case.

Millions and millions of copies of these books have been sold. Yet no one appears to care about its use of "retard," even by a character who is considered relatable.

I'm almost the same age as Nikki now. But, I don't see her in the same way as I did when I was nine. I used to think I was like her. But since then, a lot has changed. My family, especially, began to acknowledge how frequently—and wrongfully—we'd been using the word retarded. At school, we began to learn about bullying; the way name-calling can be just as hurtful, if not more hurtful, than physical violence. And now, I think of myself as someone who wants to stop people from and educate them about using the word “retarded.” Now I am someone who actively speaks up.

During advisory, a homeroom-like study period at my school, another student was loudly talking about his "retarded" friend, to the amusement of two or three other kids. Instead of gritting my teeth and returning to the book I'd been reading, I turned around to face them.

"You know what? I don't want to hear the word 'retarded' in a place where I'm supposed to be surrounded by caring, intelligent, open-minded people. So keep your ignorance out of my earshot, if you don't mind."

He responded, "Whoa. Can you, like, chill? It's not like 'retarded' is a bad word."

"No, I think it is a bad word,” I responded. "I think it speaks to your sense of superiority to actual developmentally disabled people. You think you can use this word, this word that's incredibly hurtful and offensive to so many people, and use it to describe everyone you look down on. I don't want to hear it."

If you hadn't already assumed as much, I'm incredibly vocal about my thoughts.

In my opinion, characters like Nikki and books like Dork Diaries are just another reason to reconsider the way we look at real issues (like the use of "retard"), and how we present them to kids.

Image of Josie: Cristobal Vivar/Deborah Copaken


  1. It's shocking to see that authors of school books want to avoid promoting diversity. If there were more strong characters with disabilities in these types of books, it would promote respect for the disability community and, perhaps, mankind as a whole. I find it weak when people turn the word "retard" when there is a plethora of non-demeaning alternatives. Words are powerful tools and sometimes we fail to realize this and use the excuse "It's just words" to cover it up. Civilization itself was built from language; society as we know it would not exist without words. A punch physically injures, but words can scar the soul. In the hopes that more people realize this, keep voicing your thoughts as that is the only way they'll be heard.

  2. Bravo Josie! This is incredible. I am also a passionate teenage advocate against the r-word and commend your response to the other student. That is the only way people will become educated about this awful word.

  3. Thank you so much for speaking up Josie! I am always thrilled to see outspoken young women who use their intelligence and passion to help stand up for others!

  4. What a well written and thoughtful essay. Thank you Josie! Great job sticking up for disabled people, like my son.

  5. Thank you for speaking up - so many kids wouldn't have done that.

  6. Thank you for voicing your thoughts! It is only when we will all move from being bystanders to upstanders that we will see social change.

    Quick note - you described Nikki's life as "crazy". Many people find using crazy and insane to be similar to using the r-word, because they take terms that initially described people with real illnesses (mental illnesses like bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder) and use them to describe things that we don't like, that are bad, that are ridiculous and other forms of unpleasant. With one in four adults and one in ten people under the age of 18 experiencing mental illness, there's almost always someone in the room who could be hurt by it, too.

    Keep speaking up.

  7. Josie, Ellen and anyone else is certainly entitled to be offended that the r-word was used in this particular children's book -- to protest it's use, to demand libraries not stock it, heck, even to write the author and tell why you really, truly, deeply wish that she would change it in all subsequent reprintings of this book. It is a free country, after all.

    I do get that the r-word is offensive and Josie, Ellen et al are entitled to want folks to stop using it.

    The part that I don't get is why given the myriad of ways that individuals w/disabilities are discriminated against in this country, why the r-word is the specific (proverbial) hill you've chosen to die on.

    (I ask because Ellen's admitted, more than once, that she used the r-word prior to having Max and didn't consider it to be a big deal -- that she, pre-Max, admits to using it... in a manner that in no way was aimed at hurting individuals w/intellectual disabilities. This certainly suggests that had Ellen's son Max been born neurotypical, she may well still be using the r-word).

    1. I am not sure that anyone in this space has opted to "die" on this proverbial hill, to the exclusion of other disability rights issues.

      Either it be use of the r-word, employment discrimination and/or hate violence, all stem from the systemic, institutionalized devaluation of people with disabilities. That the r-word is maintains such a common, thoughtless presence in our daily lexicon shows how desensitized we are to that devaluation. As Josie noted in her piece, language plays an important role in producing this situation.

      Critiquing the r-word cannot be the end of the conversation, other words will simply replace it; but to have the conversation without it would be to ignore a major way in which our cultures treats people with disabilities as less than. And in part because it is so pervasive, because it is so often used without ill intent, it is a good place to start the conversation. The r-word is something most of us have said at one point or the other, without thinking; by calling out its use, we have the opportunity to challenge as many people as possible to begin thinking about why.

    2. Eri, I couldn't have said it better myself. Sandra, if you read this blog and others by parents of kids with special needs (or, as here, generally considerate people), you'd see that this is just one of many conversations we have about how people treat those with disability—not the only one.

  8. I put down "If I Stay" for exactly this reason. I was engrossed in the story, I liked the characters and BAM the word "retarded" seemed to be in bold print. Good for you for standing up when it mattered.


Thanks for sharing!

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