Book Review: OCDaniel by Welsey King

Cover of OCDaniel. Blue background with numbers, some crossed out with the letters OCD vertically-placed, Daniel spelled out acrostic style. Author Wesley King's name at the bottom right. There is a Q-Tip with yellow scribbles representing hair in the middle of the O.

Daniel has OCD…except he doesn’t know. He just knows about the “zaps” and other sensations he feels that compel him to flicker the lights or count his steps. He also knows he doesn’t want to be seen as anything other than a normal kid, and attempts to distance himself from anything that could make him look weird. That means no matter what, he never tells his family or his friends what he’s really thinking. That’s one of several conflicts in Wesley King’s OCDaniel, a middle grade novel about a quirky kid with a bunch of normal kid problems and a big secret.

This isn’t unusual for someone with OCD. Despite showing OCD traits as a child, it wasn’t until my 20’s until I got a firm diagnosis of OCD, similar to King’s own story he includes at the end of the book. Many people with OCD hide their symptoms, which is major reason why this book is so special.

But don’t be fooled into thinking King’s book is only about OCD! Daniel’s story is interwoven with the pressures of being the water boy on his school’s football team, figuring out girls, and a mysterious letter he receives from a “Fellow Star Child”. It’s also funny and charming, the title cover’s Q-Tip a nod to how Daniel is described by his coach.

For those looking for an empathetic and adventurous middle grade novel, OCDaniel should be on your to-read list. More ahead, but beware: spoilers are in the next section!

Spoilers Ahead

Daniel’s perception of normal is challenged when he receives a note from a “Fellow Star Child”, who turns out to be the girl others at his school call “Psycho Sara”. Sara has anxiety and schizophrenia and barely talks, often seen alone or with a TA. But Sara recognizes that Daniel is different. Once Daniel figures out the author of the note is Sara, she asks him to help her find out why her father disappeared. Daniel ends up being one of the only people she talks to, recognizing his OCD early in the novel. She doesn’t tell him it’s OCD until much later, finally giving Daniel answers about his quirks.

Daniel also grapples with the relief of knowing that OCD is a condition shared by many and the stigma of being seen as “crazy”. His friendship with Sara challenges his perception of normalcy and the value of being himself. At the same time, Daniel juggles being temporarily promoted to kicker on the football team, his crush on Raya Singh (and maybe even Sara), writing his own book, and investigating the alleged murder of Sara’s father at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.

His friendship with Sara helps him to embrace his true personality, someone who loves writing and talking about global politics. Daniel realizes he doesn’t need to “play it cool” anymore.

Daniel also helps Sara discover what her mother and her boyfriend have been hiding from her: her father died from an overdose, partially spurred on by his own mental illness that is similar to Sara’s.

Despite the heavy topics, King writes a very real depiction of two characters struggling with their own battles and embracing their strengths at once. The mystery and romance storylines also keeps readers engaged up until the very end, when Daniel embraces his new nickname: OCDaniel.

Further Reading

In 2020, a prequel about Sara called Sara and the Search for Normal was published.

OCDaniel is one of several books included in my “Books About OCD Written by Authors with OCD” blog post. Look there for more suggestions of what to read next.

Young Adult Books with Mentally Ill Characters (Without Being All About Their Mental Illness)

Photo by Hu1ea3i Nguyu1ec5n on Pexels.com

Representation of all kinds of humans is important. In books, there’s been a push to have more characters with accurate representations of mental illness. All too often, books will rely on stereotypes or depict a character with mental illnesses without doing proper research. Stay faaaaaar, far away from those.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of books that make a character’s mental illness the entire focus. While there is nothing inherently wrong with accurate, well-written books with mentally ill characters, sometimes you just want an interesting plot without mental illness being the primary focus. Or you’re curious to see how a mental illness looks when characters have managed it with coping skills or medication. Either way, it’s worth seeing more mental illness representation in new and accurate ways.

Where are the YA Characters with Mental Illnesses That Don’t Dominate the Plot?

Young adult books are often guilty of this. It isn’t wrong or awful to have books that focus on mental illness. Actually, it’s helping push more productive discussions of mental illness into mainstream conversation.

But teens also need books that have characters managing their conditions without it dominating the entire plot.

Thankfully, more books are coming onto shelves and filling that demand. It’s hard to know the accurate number of books with the combination of mainstream and self-published options available, but finding books featuring teens with mental illnesses is getting easier every day. Here are some of my own suggestions when it comes to young adult books mentally ill characters…without mental illness being the focal point of the story.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

This suspenseful, dark academia-themed murder mystery book is perfect for readers looking for a main character with anxiety and panic attacks, but still manages to stay on the case until the very end (warning, it’s a cliffhanger).

Without spoilers, Stevie’s passion for true crime takes front and center in this book, but does not ignore her anxiety. Her experience is very relatable and shows that her entire life isn’t dominated by her panic attacks while being realistic about her struggle. The rest of the book is primarily focused on the mystery at hand and developing the characters…AKA, potential murderers.

Horrid by Katrina Leno

Several characters in the book struggle with anger issues, including the main character Jane. It’s also implied that Jane has pica, or a compulsion to chew or eat objects that are not food. Her target tends to be pages of books or flowers.

Though her anger and grief over a family member’s death make up a large part of the novel, her illnesses are more there as a side note as opposed to the primary focus. The novel leaves room for questions about how much Jane’s conditions may have affected her actions.

Like Truly Devious, we’re left on a cliffhanger-like ending, but there doesn’t appear to be any plans for a sequel. It seems more like an ambiguous ending where the reader decides what really contributes to the events.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

The Six of Crows Duology reinvented what fantasy could look like. Bardugo has received well-deserved praise for her fantasy series featuring six astounding characters. Besides tackling ableism from learning disabilities and physical disabilities, Bardugo also masterfully weaves in characters with implied PTSD.

As Alaina Leary wrote in Brooklyn Magazine, “Bardugo writes in multiple perspectives, which does a great deal of justice to her characters’ lived experiences.” This gives all of the characters much more nuance and room to be their whole selves, emphasizing that while disabilities (mental or physical) are a big part of their lives, there is still much more to be seen in their character and the story itself.

Want to see more books like this added to the list?

Keep an eye out for updates and feel free to recommend any books you’ve loved that fit the criteria!

Literary Magazines for Disabled and Neurodivergent Voices

Femme-presenting person with short auburn hair and dark, thick-framed glasses. They are wearing a red blazer with a white blouse underneath. They are using a wheelchair and are in front of a laptop screen in a cafe setting.
Photo by Marcus Aurelius on Pexels.com

Despite making up about 25 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the world population, disabled and neurodivergent voices are often excluded from mainstream media. Or if they are included, it’s specifically for themed months or timely topics that will bring more attention to the subject…at least until it isn’t trendy anymore.

Having space for marginalized voices is essential. Navigating the world with a disability can be tough, and without a sense of community, it’s a lonely place. That’s why having specific spaces for disability-centered dialogue and art should be a top priority. These are just a few publications for disabled and neurodivergent voices.

Keep checking back for updates and additions. (Last updated on 2/2/2022.)

Wordgathering

With support from Syracuse University, Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature is available as an Open Access and digital publication. Issues are released quarterly and all submissions are free. Their primary approach is a “cross-disabilities” method, acknowledging the wide lens of disability experiences. While they love poetry, they also take prose and nonfiction entries as well. Wordgathering asks that you query before sending book reviews or interviews.

See their submission guidelines here.

The Handy, Uncapped Pen

Both a blog and a great hub for disability-related resources, the Handy, Uncapped Pen accepts submissions of poetry and prose. They require that all submissions be from those who identify as disabled or neurodivergent. The Handy, Uncapped Pen has two reading periods a year: February 1st through April 30th and August 1st through October 31st. They also love list-based articles, but don’t get enough of them.

Maybe this is your chance to write a brilliant round-up of books? No matter what you submit, they pay $3 for accepted submissions.

See their submission guidelines here.

Serotonin

Focused on mostly poetry and short prose on mental illness, neurodivergence, and suicide prevention, Serotonin welcomes work from these perspectives. Their masthead is run by those who also identify with one of the three topics. All of their work is posted online.

Submissions should include up to three poems (up to 20 lines each) or one piece of prose under 500 words. Authors are paid $5 per piece. Donations are welcome to help support their mission with their Tip Jar option.

See their submission guidelines here.

Monstering Mag

What sets apart Monstering Magazine is that they focus on those who are both disabled and experience gender-oppression (women, non-binary, agender, gender-nonconforming, transgender, and gender-expansive people). They take poetry, prose, and art submissions that honor their mission of loving and embracing the idea of the monster or the unknowable, often coded as disabled voices throughout media and history.

See their submission guidelines here.

Blanket Sea

Both a nonprofit magazine and small press, Blanket Sea prioritizes work by those who are chronically or mentally ill, including neurodivergent and disabled voices. Blanket Sea was founded by Alana Saltz and all of the editors have personal experiences with chronic or mental illness. Along with their rolling poetry, art, and prose posts, their microchap series chooses several manuscripts to publish as free ebooks with the option of donations.

The site offers all of its content for free, but is willing to take donations through their Ko-Fi to help offset the cost of running the site.

See their submission guidelines here.

Wishbone Words

A brand new magazine launched in 2021, Wishbone Words was founded by Hollie Warren and was designed to amplify disabled and chronically ill writers. Their goal to achieve more compassion and understanding in the world, and with the affordable price point, you can enjoy poetry, prose, and other arts from writers around the world.

See their submission guidelines here.

Sick Magazine

Based out of the United Kingdom and the state of Maine, SICK aims to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes of those who are chronically ill or disabled. They accept essays, features, visual art, poetry, and other media. They also accept submissions from those whose conditions are considered in remission. Payments are made in GBP, so please anticipate this if you are located outside of the EU.

See there submission guidelines here.

Disability Activism: Why Using Identity-First Language Empowers Me (But Doesn’t Have to Empower You)

A picture of me, a white woman with dark brown hair, a jean jacket, and white blouse posed next to a white fence with trees in the background.
Hi, it’s me! I figured putting a stock image on something sort of about me would be silly. But now I feel self-absorbed. There is no winning in this situation.

*An earlier version of this Op-Ed appeared in Quail Bell Magazine on December 21st, 2020.

Before I begin, I think it’s good to distinguish identity-first and person-first language…

What is the difference between identity-first language and person-first language?

Identity-first language refers to a person as disabled or some other direct way of acknowledging a disability of some sort. Person-first language is normally phrased as “person with Tourette’s” or “person who has a disability”. There are many reasons why people would choose one or the other. The main criticism of identity-first language is that it is dehumanizing or puts the disability at the front as opposed to the human with the disability. The main criticism of person-first language is that it fails to acknowledge the difficulties or realities of those with disabilities at all.

A pitfall I see with many well-meaning but nondisabled advocates is speaking on behalf of others without taking their opinions into consideration or researching what language might be best for them. For those who identify as neurodivergent (ADHD, autism, sometimes Tourette’s, etc.), many choose identity-first language to take pride in their differences. For those with more visible disabilities, they may want person-first. It truly depends on many factors since 26% of the US population has some sort of disability and the circumstances or stigmas behind them differ.

With Tourette Syndrome, I see a lot of people using person-first language, especially in posts from the Tourette Association of America. I think a lot of this has to do with the severity and visibility of people’s tics being quite visible. Because the disorder is so stigmatized, it is already hard to be treated as human beings as opposed to slapstick comedy routines or unfortunately, demon-possessed.

My Roadblock using identity-first language

Early last year, I published an article about an inclusive art center using identity-first language. When my article went live and was posted to various social media platforms, I expected at least a few negative comments. One commenter mentioned an interviewee’s tie was too short. For a while, I was pleasantly surprised that was the sole complaint. 

But that’s when I saw it.

“The one thing I will insist on is the person is an artist, who just happens to have a disability, never a disabled artist,” commented an older gentleman, who was involved with an inclusive arts center as well. To what capacity, I wasn’t certain, but I felt compelled to respond to him — politely of course — as to why I chose the language.

“I’m the writer of this piece. I am actually disabled as well, and many of us prefer identity-first language as opposed to person-first language because it is a core part of our identity. This isn’t true for everyone, but many of my disabled friends would also insist upon the same name.”

Others who identified with the language also chimed in to agree and share their own thoughts about how it felt right for them. His response?

“Sorry, but I too have a disability and my fellow artists share my thoughts. You create art, you are an artist. An artist who just happens to be what we are. If you want to make money off of pity, then by all means, do it.” 

I was taken aback by his statement. When I discovered more about disability rights, reading about identity-first language helped me to reclaim something about myself I had to keep hidden for so long. The idea that my use of identity-first language is strictly for pity is not only blatantly false, but hurtful. Finding identity-first language empowered me after years of being told to hide a big part of myself: my Tourette Syndrome. 

Why tourette syndrome is an important part of my identity

Approximately 50% of Touretters are not diagnosed until adulthood. I was one of them, wondering what exactly was “wrong” was me. 

I challenged his thinking. “I understand to an extent, but as a movement, we don’t see identity-first language as pity, but for understanding the normal differences between us, not a profit gimmick.” 

Though he never responded to my follow-up, I questioned my own reasons for using identity-first language. Was I really seeking pity? Not a chance — ever since I was a kid, pity has made me feel uncomfortable. When I tell people I have Tourette’s and they respond by shifting uncomfortably and muttering “Aw, I’m sorry,” it makes me feel icky. Identity-first language allows me to own my identity the way I wish after years of being denied the opportunity.

I hardly speak for every disabled person about what they should be called. Person-first or identity-first language are both valid ways of regarding someone with a disability…as long as they are comfortable with it. Different people will want to be addressed and referred to in different ways. A common mistake that does more harm than good is to speak for another person as opposed to honoring their wishes, and that includes anyone, including those with disabilities. 

More Information about identity-first and person-first language