There are a few things I have opinions on—a lot of the time I just shut up, but sometimes I get argumentative, and sometimes I get argumentative about my opinions with people on Twitter. We are usually quite civil about it, but this is the first time I ended up reviewing a book out of the scenario. I connected with author Lira Brannon last week—connected is a nice term, in retrospect, I did interrogate her a bit about the “inspirational” nature of her book A Different Kind of Cheerleader, and the type of “inspirational”-ism that was implied, as the book is both centred around disability and Christianity. As I said on Twitter, “Disability isn’t inspiration: it’s life”. Lira, however, dealt with my interrogation well, and when I asked if I could receive an electronic copy of the book for free in exchange for a review on my blog, she agreed and quickly hooked me up with a Kindle download code.
Trigger warning: The later aspects of this review mention self-harm and suicide.
The main character, Tansy, is a thirteen-year-old with a spinal cord injury [SCI] from a skateboarding accident in her childhood. Now a paraplegic, Tansy has all but abandoned the dream she and her best friend share of successfully qualifying for their junior-high cheerleading squad. As she starts junior high, she is introduced to a variety of new people who change her perceptions about what she believes she is capable of—and what she thinks about God, and who she was created to be, and to become.
I’d throw this one in the 10 to 15 age-range—but, I personally enjoy teen fiction, so go with what works for you/the kid you’re trying to buy a book for.
Overall, while the core aspects of the plot were fairly predictable, there were enough twists in the core of it to keep me interested and guessing—I started reading the book late Thursday evening, kept going until 1:30 AM, and finished it off the next morning [and people, my Concerta would have worn off at 11:30 or so—it was the book keeping me going].
While the core aspects of the book include Tansy’s desire to become a cheerleader independent of her disability, the author paints a very clear picture of the rest of Tansy’s life: starting at a new school and dealing with how her teachers respond to a student using a wheelchair (i.e. the typical ‘I can’t walk, but I can hear’); Tansy’s feelings towards her disability (anger, resentment, and eventually acceptance); responding to how her friends perceive her disability; relationships with her mother, brother, friends, physical therapist; and how her SCI and using a wheelchair pose additional contemplations within the already complicated life of an adolescent trying to figure out her place in the world.
Though I slated the book for younger ages, there are some themes including self-injury, attempted suicide, and suicidal ideation present in the book that may be more suitable for slightly older readers. The mentions of these aspects are brief, however, they were a source of confusion for me as I didn’t think there was enough detail preceding or explaining the circumstances in which Tansy’s acquaintance from rehab, Meg, was hospitalized following a suicide attempt (this may require a re-read on my part). While not comorbid, I appreciated that the author intentionally mentioned the mental health aspects associated with living with a disability and/or following a traumatic injury.
The storyline brings Tansy to interact with a variety of people who become a part of the bigger story unfolding—pressures from different people lead her different directions: some into finding the confidence to try out for cheer, others who cross her path in unexpected ways that help teach her about God—and through these conversations, more about the people around her. While some characters seemed slightly out-of-place [i.e. I don’t care if he’s the coach’s son, why the heck is the youth pastor hanging out in the middle school gym and at cheer tryouts all the time?], for the most part, the interaction of the themes surrounding Tansy’s daily life learning to more fully coexist with her disability, and the journey towards believing in God, was well structured.
I thought, despite all the #inspiration[al] tags, that overall the author did a decent job at not sensationalizing Tansy’s accomplishments, and allowing her to both succeed and screw up as much as a character without a disability would have, with a few exceptions of circumstances that wouldn’t have arisen if not for Tansy’s disability […which obviously is realistic]. In terms of the realism of integrating Tansy into the cheer team, I [being an adapted physical activity nerd] felt that Lira addressed the types of “wheelchair tricks” Tansy was able to learn well, but would have enjoyed reading more about how she became a true team member and not just a possible story of oh you’re in a wheelchair, we’ll let you on the team even though you blah blah blah through more concrete examples of how she used her chair as an asset and not an inspiration–such as how she would be integrated into team and more gymnastic-type and how existing routines were adapted. But, like I said, I’m a nerd that way.
A question guide is provided in the back of the book, which prompts the reader [or an educator or youth leader, etc.] to reflect on what they’ve read. The questions are evenly distributed between faith, friends, family, and Tansy’s disability. Though I never use reading guides on my own [because, what is this, school?], it’s definitely a nice bonus feature.
A Different Kind of Cheerleader is geared towards older-school aged kids and younger-teens—an easily approachable read, with enough plot twists and serious/more mature themes to keep older readers engaged Cheerleader would be a great way to approach the topic of disability in a variety of settings. As both faith and disability are core-topics [and often very confusing], I’d recommend younger kids (under 12) be supported through reading this book, by a parent, mentor or educator, to best facilitate learning and enabling kids to ask questions and form a better understanding of their own thoughts on both core themes.
A Different Kind of Cheerleader is an approachable and engaging book for readers in their younger teens [and, if you’re me, early twenties], presenting a variety of opportunities for critical thought on faith and disability. With multiple quick unexpected turns in the plot, Cheerleader is easy to get lost in for a few hours, and would be a suitable way to begin a discussion on teens’ thoughts on what it means to live with a disability—and hopefully, one that can help realistically assist them in contemplating how to restructure their thoughts on a variety of different topics.
Disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of the book, A Different Kind of Cheerleader, from the author, Lira Brannon, which I offered to review prior to finalizing the agreement. I was under no obligation to provide a favourable review.