It's Down Syndrome Awareness Day! I wore mismatched socks to show my solidarity, and now I want to share a little excerpt of my novel No One Needed to Know with you - a scene that includes an adorable high school girl with Down Syndrome.
But before I do...
I've written here and on other blogs a lot about how my novel was inspired by the relationship I had with my oldest brother when we were kids. I haven't written a lot about how some of my experiences as a teacher shaped the book as well.
To supplement my acting career after I graduated from college, I became a substitute teacher in Special Education classes. I started with preschool children, then worked at a school with blind autistic children, and ultimately got a full time job at a private school for children with learning disabilities. When I went back to work after my daughter was born, I worked with special needs children at an elementary school in Tennessee and eventually got hired at an inclusive child development program in Nashville for children birth through 5 that helps special needs and medically fragile children alongside their typically developing peers. I've been there almost 13 years now.
In other words, I've worked with a lot of children from 6 months through 12 years old with challenges, including several sweet Down Syndrome babies that I have loved with all my heart.
In No One Needed to Know, my main character Heidi attends a dance at a bowling alley that is a fundraiser for her brother's high school special education program. She meets his friends and learns a lot more about them and her brother during this experience. (My brother used to be in a group that went bowling regularly, and this scene is based on that.)
Heidi is inspired by the dance to figure out how to teach the rude and mean-spirited kids at her own school more about kids with special needs in hopes it'll make them kinder. The setting and characters of the final chapters of the book are stolen straight out of my earliest teaching memories.
This is from Chapter 12 "The Dance", well over half-way through the story.
Due to the fact that everyone in the group was so different from each other, I was desperate to know which disabilities Donald’s friends had. My mom told me I wasn’t allowed to ask that. She said it was rude. “Just talk to everyone like they’re no different from you or me.”
“But Mom, I just want to know the condition—”
“I’ll make you sit outside on a bench all evening if I hear you asking anyone,” she said. Dad backed her up with some extra warnings of his own.
I thought they were being pretty ridiculous, and the questions burned on my tongue all evening with each person I met. Donald’s best friend (whom I didn’t know existed) was a guy named Peter. Even though he had the ability to recite the first five pages of The Hobbit by heart, I had to walk this hulking, six-foot-three boy to the bathroom because he couldn’t understand the directions. I also had to keep him from biting his left hand, which was permanently scarred from his front teeth. What kind of disability was that? Was it like Donald’s but way more intense?
Then there was this other boy named Kincaid. He was on the small side, almost as short as me, so I took him to be a freshman. This boy twitched, barked, and swore alternately, particularly when he got nervous. What caused a person to do that? I met a few kids who looked like some characters I’d seen on TV. Their faces were round and their eyes small. One of them, a girl named Kathryn, was very cheerful and was excited about the e-reader she recently got for her birthday. In a thick voice that was sometimes hard to understand, she told me several times that she could enjoy all the popular books now because she could make the font big enough to read.
When I knew my mom wasn’t in earshot, I asked her, “Do you have trouble reading because of your. . .?” I let it dangle on purpose, hoping she’d finish my sentence for me.
“Oh, yes,” she said, nodding enthusiastically. “My Down Syndrome makes my eyes have trouble.” She pointed at another girl who was walking by. “Claire has a hard time reading, too, but that’s because she’s mentally retarded.”
“Wait. You actually called her ‘retarded’?” I whispered the last word, afraid to say it all the way out loud. It didn’t matter, though. Claire heard us anyway.
Claire stopped in her tracks and began to shout at Kathryn and me. “I’m not retarded! I’m not! Shut up, Kathryn! I don’t like that!”
Ms. Anderson, my brother’s Life Skills teacher, rushed over to us, put her hands on Claire’s shoulders, and led her out of the party room. Kathryn and I followed her out to the main lobby where we found Ms. Anderson saying some quiet, soothing words near Claire’s ear. It took a minute to calm her down because Claire kept shouting things like, “She’s not supposed to say that! You said she couldn’t say that!”
Their teacher said some more things that I couldn’t hear over the music playing, but after a moment Claire quit raging and lifted her tear-streaked face to Kathryn. “Say you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Kathryn said easily enough. “Want to go bowl?”
Then they took hands and strolled away together like nothing happened.
I imagined going up to Cathy and ordering her to say she was sorry for blabbing about my brother to Jackie and the others and ruining my life. How awesome would it be if she just did it and then we wandered off from the other girls at recess to play handball and laugh with each other like old times?
Ms. Anderson was about to walk away, and that snapped me out of my ridiculous daydream. I skipped up beside her and touched her shoulder to get her attention. “Why did Kathryn call that girl retarded? Isn’t that a bad word?”
Ms. Anderson smiled gently at me. The lines around her eyes deepened in a way that let me know she smiled more than she frowned. I would think her life would be very hard working with these special needs teenagers all the time, but her bright eyes and laugh lines suggested otherwise. “We’re all pretty sensitive about that word being used incorrectly. There is, in fact, a condition that goes by that name, but we prefer to say ‘developmentally disabled’ or ‘developmental delayed’. A little more eloquent, don’t you think?”
I liked the way she spoke to me in a light voice that made her words very clear but didn’t make me feel like she was treating me like I was a baby. How long did it take her to perfect that style of speaking? I wondered whether that was how she talked to my brother and his friends. It would be hard to talk to them like normal teenagers, wouldn’t it? So many of them sounded like little kids.
I agreed. “My mom said I couldn’t ask about what’s wrong with everyone here.”
She winced. “We’re also pretty sensitive about saying something’s ‘wrong’ with our friends here.”
“Look, I see that you’re interested in learning something, but I can’t go into specifics about everyone’s different diagnosis. There are confidentiality laws . . .”
“I understand,” I told her.
Right then I heard a cheer from one of the bowling lanes. I followed the sound to find Donald, Peter, and two other boys cheering about someone’s score with their arms raised over their heads. Donald and Peter did an awkward high five. I wondered what the score could be.
“Great job, Donald!” Ms. Anderson shouted.
I guess the shock in my voice came out a little more than I expected because Ms. Anderson patted me on the shoulder and said, “Your brother is a pretty good bowler. The best in the group by far.”
“Really?” I could hardly believe it. My awkward brother? “I can barely pick up a bowling ball, let alone score well.”
“Donald just might surprise you sometimes, I think.”
I hope you enjoyed that little piece of my story. You can learn a more about No One Needed to Know by visiting the page on my website.
It's available in print at Amazon.
The book shares some insight on several kinds of special needs, although the main focus is autism. If you order a copy today, you'll have it in plenty of time to read in April - Autism Awareness Month!
I'm always happy to read your comments or answer your questions. All the best to you!
Why I Like Princess Stories
My life is full of princesses at the moment. And that’s okay with me. Last weekend, my 16-year-old daughter starred as Princess Fiona in her high school production of Shrek the Musical. I adore this musical, and I love the spunky, silly role of Fiona. I know I’m her mom, but I swear my daughter was perfect in the role. She was beautiful and hilarious all at the same time.
(BTW, if you’ve never seen Shrek the Musical, the Broadway version is on Netflix).
While she was busy rehearsing her show, I was busy cleaning up an old fairy tale of mine about a feisty princess who makes a dangerous bargain with her father to escape an arranged marriage. Her name is Faith, and her story is called The Royal Deal. I wrote this story back in my twenties along with several other original fairy tales. I decided to pull these stories out of their hiding spots on my computer hard drive and revise them. My plan is to release them (and write a couple new ones) as a series of novelettes every few months over the next year or so. I had a version of The Royal Deal on Wattpad for the last couple years, and it got a lot of votes and positive comments. I think people liked it because Faith is not your average princess.
This brings me back to the point of this post. Here’s the thing about princesses in fairy tales: typically, they aren’t very self-sufficient or strong. They’re often kind of trapped or stuck in hopeless situations and don’t know how to get out of them. (I’m writing all this as a BIG FAN of fairy tales, mind you.) If you look at the most famous ones from the Grimm Brothers tales – or Disney movies – what you’re mainly seeing is a bunch of really sweet, kind, lovely young ladies doing their best to remain so despite their circumstances.
When my daughter was little, I used to tell her things like “Cinderella would never yell at anyone” or “Snow White would keep her room clean” or “Belle would always say please and thank you” or “Sleeping Beauty would go to bed without arguing.” See? I’d use them as role models of good behavior. Princesses had manners. They were clean. They were helpful.
This worked pretty well until my daughter turned eleven and got a mind of her own.
I don’t care for the argument that all princesses do is wait for a prince to rescue them. I find that to be a very simplistic way to explain these old stories.
Cinderella stayed kind-hearted and worked hard despite her dismal treatment, and that is why she was honored with the gifts from the fairy godmother that allowed her to attend the ball and meet the prince. Meeting and marrying the prince wasn’t ever Cinderella’s goal. She just wanted to survive and maybe have the nice night out at the ball that she deserved. Having a prince fall for her was a bonus.
Snow White, according to the Disney version, did dream of marrying a prince. Big deal. Lots of girls hope to have a great boyfriend or a husband one day. This is a pretty universal feeling for teen girls. However, Snow had bigger and more immediate problems. The biggest was surviving in the woods after her stepmother sent her there to be murdered. Getting married to a prince wasn’t on her mind when she was earning a place to live by helping the dwarves.
Beauty (or Belle in the Disney version) traded places with her father to stay in the Beast’s castle. Obviously, she didn’t know he’d wind up to be a handsome prince if only she fell in love with him. Marrying a prince was never a goal of hers. She was a peasant, after all. This is another story about how a person with a good heart gets the happy ending she deserves.
Sleeping Beauty (Aurora in the Disney version) thought she was a peasant. She'd been raised as one. Yes, as she wandered through adolescence she ponders how nice it would be to meet a prince (or any man, she’s not specific about it being a prince in her big song) and not have to live in the woods with her crazy aunts anymore. I don’t think she believed those dreams would come true for her. She thought she was stuck. Yes, we can put 2018 ideals on her and say she should've figured out her own way to escape the woods (and the curse she didn't know about) and lead her life, but this story wasn’t written in 2018, was it? Plus, that story isn’t really about her. It’s about the prince’s adventures to rescue her.
Oh, and Ariel. You know I love my mermaids, but of the princesses Ariel is the one who is most true to the “I want to marry a prince” form. Let’s be clear, though, at first what she wants is just to be human and have a different (perhaps more exciting) life than the one she’s living. The prince thing comes later. Heck, she doesn’t even know the man she rescued from drowning was a prince at first. All she knows is that she loves him, and she will go through all kinds of pain and horror to be with him. Our 2018 ideals attack this way of thinking, but it still makes for good fiction. We want her to get her man after everything she goes through. Spoiler, it actually doesn’t work out for her in the original Hans Christian Anderson story. Disney made it a bit sweeter.
Now, Fiona from Shrek is a parody of the princess stories. Fiona doesn’t wind up with a prince. She longs to be rescued by a knight or prince and is certain they will fall in love. They will be wed and have a happy ending. Of course, her rescuer winds up being an ogre, and all her big plans are dashed. Fiona isn’t the strongest of characters. In fact, she’s a bit whiny at the start. But when she falls in love with Shrek, you realize she has something all princesses in fairy tales possess – a good heart.
In the way back time of my early twenties, I had the wonderful job of doing traveling children’s theater, and I played lots of princesses in fairy tales. One of them was the princess from The Frog Prince. She’s the opposite of all the princesses listed above, because she’s a snot. Selfish and mean to that poor frog. Still, in the end, she kisses him, and guess what? She ends up marrying a prince. Let me remind you that marrying a prince was not the point of this story. She just got lucky.
Since I toured with Lilliput Players in the early nineties and the movie Shrek was released later in the decade, there have been so many retellings of fairy tales both in movies and especially in books. I see new ones all the time. I think these stories keep happening because people want more of our princesses than to be rescued by princes.
One of my favorite authors, Tracy Barrett, (author of fairy tale books The Stepsister’s Tale and Marabel and the Book of Fate) said at a recent book signing, “The old fairy tales are so short that they lack motivation. They don’t tell why the characters behave the way they do. A villain is just evil. A princess is just kind.” That’s why she writes novels that are either re-visiting a tale like Cinderella or playing with the tropes of the genre – to fill in the holes. That all makes sense to me. In fact, I’ve even written my own re-telling based on the lesser known Grimm fairy tale King Thrushbeard. (It will be in my Chasing the Romantics series later on.)
The Royal Deal is an original fairy tale - not a retelling. I wanted Princess Faith to have a lot of the typical trappings of a princess. She’s kind. She’s thoughtful. Despite being pampered and having lots of servants, she tries to be helpful. Unlike the princesses mentioned above, she's fully aware that she’s a princess and that she’s destined to marry a prince. She wants to marry the prince she’s been told her whole life would be her husband, but he’s gone missing and is presumed dead. Now she must marry the younger brother, whom she despises. What can she do? She decides to take matters into her own hands by making a deal with her father. If she can survive for three months in the woods by herself with no help, then she can choose her husband.
So, I’ve written a fairy tale about a princess who doesn’t want to marry a prince.
I’ve also written a fairy tale about a princess who puts herself into peril rather than having it done to her.
You’ll have to read it to find out how it all works out.
Well, that book is in the world now, and I’m starting work on revising the next story for the series, The Tomato Quest. The young lady in this story is not a princess, but she is the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. She’s in love with the gardener’s son. Right now, the story is completely in the point of view of the gardener’s son as he goes on a quest to seek his fortune in order to earn the right to marry the girl he loves. My plan is to add this noblewoman’s point of view to the story as well. She’s not a princess, but she has a lot of the same qualities of one so I shall treat her as such. I’ll make her sweet and charming, but, because it’s 2018 and not 1818, I will make her a little spunky and fiery, too. I hope in the end, readers will be happy with the way this novella ends.
If you love fairy tales (which if you’ve read this far into my post, I’m assuming you do), I have another fairy tale called “The Hallway of Three Doors” coming out in a new book later this month called Mythical Doorways. You can find an interview I did about that by clicking on the book cover image. This fairy tale does not have a princess, but it does feature one determined female protagonist and a rather charming prince.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to leave a comment below. Sign up for my mailing list, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with my new releases.
D. G. Driver
Award-winning author of books for teen and tween readers. Learn more about her and her writing at www.dgdriver.com
Author D. G. Driver's
Write and Rewrite Blog
“There are no bad stories, just ones that haven’t found their right words yet.”
A blog mostly about the process of revision with occasional guest posts, book reviews, and posts related to my books.