I believe in taking any genre of fiction seriously. This extends, too, to romance. I don’t mean that to say that genre fiction can’t be funny or sweet, but rather, genre fiction matters in the same way that literary fiction does and thus, can and should be held to high standards for quality. And in the case of How To Keep Rolling After A Fall by Karole Cozzo, a high standard for representation of disability.
It starts out with a scene that is a bit jarring: Nikki is approaching the end of the summer, and she immediately is in an argument with a boy at the Rehabilitation and Nursing center. She’s been “volunteering” there over the last few months, and as the book begins, that boy realizes who Nikki is. She’s Nicole Baylor, the girl who got kicked out of her old school because of a horrible cyber bullying incident.
He was angry she hadn’t been forthcoming with who she was or why she was volunteering. Fair enough, right? The girl had a reputation preceding her, and that boy , Jeremiah, is and will be the only level-headed character in the entire book.
He gets half a chapter of story.
As soon as the fight breaks out, Nikki takes a walk away from the orthopedic wing, wherein she is immediately face-to-face with the boy in a wheelchair named Max. I use that description not to belittle Pax but rather to give a sense of who Pax is to Nikki and who Pax is throughout the entirety of the story. Pax is the boy in the wheelchair. The sweet, inspirational boy in the wheelchair. The boy who is never more than the sweet boy in a wheelchair who, because of his status as the sweet and inspirational boy in the wheelchair, becomes the person who has to give Nikki her strength back after her terrible cyberbullying fallout and the person who, throughout the story, is offered no privacy or personal freedom as a character.
He exists entirely to prop up Nikki, a character who never sees a single consequence or arc in her character.
But let’s back up a second before getting into the problem of Pax. Or rather, the problem of how Pax is written in the story. First, let’s address the fact that this story begins with the knowledge that Nikki got kicked out of her high school at the end of junior year because of a bullying incident. The incident? A party Nikki threw at her own home, without her parents knowing, involved girls hooking up with boys and one girl being photographed during the incident. Those photos were then uploaded to social media via Nikki’s account, even though Nikki “had nothing to do with it.” Nikki’s four besties, of course, got off scot free because they claimed they had nothing to do with the incident, and, since the images went up under Nikki’s name, she was the one to get the consequences.
And that’s what we’re told of this incident. It is, of course, the Big Plot Point the entire story. It’s an emotional connector for Nikki and her new friend at her new (private) high school, and it’s the emotional connector between her and Pax, who forgives her without any question. Of course, he met her post-incident, so he knows only that aspect of her and he, like every person picking up this book, is expected to just accept Nikki’s side of the story to be the truth. Even though we’re also informed that the girl who had her images uploaded on social media attempted suicide. Of course, there’s no sympathy from Nikki when she lays this out to Pax. It’s just a thing that happened that ruined her life, no big deal.
Bullying, y’all, isn’t something to just accept that easily. Rather, Cozzo only offers this backstory to afford her character a way into her current situation and to offer a false sense of sympathy from the reader. But, when your main character has no growth and has no growth because we know nothing about the major preceding incident besides what she’s told us, there’s no way to sympathize. Further, the fact that Nikki’s parents are depicted merely as strict and upset after the incident and, throughout the book, they continue to cave on their strictness, we see no other side of the story. By showing us nothing, we see no growth.
If anything, we see regression because of the role Pax plays.
Pax is a good guy. A real good guy. Even though he’s in a wheelchair, he’s a good guy and bonus, he’s cute. He’d even be cute if he wasn’t in a wheelchair.
But Pax doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him at all. He wants you to understand he’s great and happy and he’ll play a mean game of wheelchair rugby. Pax is okay with having lost the possibility of getting a full ride to a college on a water polo scholarship because, well, as much as being disabled sucks, he’s okay with it! And he wants to be an inspiration for others to (wait for it, y’all) keep on rolling after a fall.
If Nikki knows anything, it’s a fall! And oh, Pax, he’s the perfect guy to show her how to pick herself up and keep going. A wealthy, privileged white girl has to have something (don’t worry — she will tell you she’s those things!).
There’s no character in Pax beyond his role as inspiration porn. He has no depth, and even when there is a moment for him not feeling well and fear falls into the heart of Nikki, he bounces back quickly and shakes it off as no big deal. Because he’s a guy in a wheelchair and he’s damn happy to be alive. Even his mother plays into the role of her son as inspiration porn, and it’s disheartening through and through as a reader to see the cardboard nature of each and every one of the characters in this book, but especially that each of them is there only to serve as a prop for Nikki. Perhaps had Nikki been developed or offered any sort of depth to her character or any sort of history or, like, anything, we’d feel differently as readers. And perhaps that would have allowed for Pax to be more than the cute guy in the wheelchair.
But alas, it only gets worse.
The thing that bothered me the most about this book and its representation of disability is that Pax is offered none of the privacy that other characters who are abled are provided. And while it can be “easily explained away” by the fact Pax is open and honest and loves sharing his story in order to help others, that is in itself the problem. To be specific, there is an entire scene involving Nikki and Pax at the Rehab center at night, wherein they’ve decided to go and have a private swim in the pool. Pax had previously mentioned that he wasn’t ashamed of much because he’s had a catheter and in this utterly painful to read scene, we’re given an entire opportunity to force Pax to talk about using a catheter. This scene becomes further uncomfortable when Pax says — no joke — he hasn’t been in a real relationship since the accident and has no idea whether or not his body is capable of getting it up.
Yes. Pax is upfront about a catheter and about being unsure whether or not he can have an erection.
This scene is an excellent example of what not to do with disability representation in a book, especially when written by a (presumably via internet searching!) able-bodied white author. As readers, this isn’t our business, just as it’s not our business in the world around us, unless we ourselves are the person who is disabled or close enough to earn that sort of trust from a person who is disabled. In this instance, it serves to answer invasive questions that Nikki nor readers are at all privileged to hear.
But worry not; when Nikki and Pax become a little more romantic later on in the book, she informs Pax that he can, indeed, get it up. Because we couldn’t let that go unexplored. Pax is here for one purpose and one purpose only. Never does he get the chance to be part of the story; never do we understand what it is that makes “a guy like him” (a terrible phrase that pops up far too often) attracted to Nikki. This is a book only about Nikki and the way Nikki wants to be seen.
A few cringe-worthy lines worth pulling to further why this is a book that’s a terrible example of disability representation and thus, a terrible example of a good romance for teen (or adult) readers. I flagged instances as I read, and nearly half the book is flagged:
“You will never be able to go anywhere without drawing some level of attention, without people wondering why you’re there with me”
— a line Pax throws at Nikki during a tiff they had. It’s almost as if the whole cyberbullying-and-getting-kicked-out-of-school thing we learned about in the first chapter no longer means anything in this town, but being around “a guy like Pax” would.
“‘There’s still so much good in her,’ he tells them. Then Pax looks back at my parents one final time before leaving my house. ‘And you know, it’s a damn shame that some boy she’s known for a few weeks gets to see it and appreciate it while the people who created her don’t.'”
— a nice little inspirational speech given by Pax the first time he meets Nikki’s parents. A chapter or so later, mom is moved and inspired by that nice boy and has a change of heart. So nice some boy she just met who has a heart of gold could inspire that kind of change. I have a few guesses as to why (what parent couldn’t be guilted by a boy with a wheelchair, right?).
“‘Number two, you didn’t mention crumbling sidewalks and a four-block walk.’ Then I stumble over my own feet and I realize my slip. ‘I’m sorry,’ I blurt out. ‘That was wrong.’
‘You know. Complaining. About having to . . . walk.’
Pax just laughs. ‘Aren’t we past that? In those shoes? You’re more handicapped than I am.'”
“I stare down at his limp legs. When I first met Pax, it kind of seemed like his self-assurance and big personality didn’t match up with the reality of his situation. Now it just seems like the uselessness of his lower body doesn’t match up with the reality of him. From the waist up, he is strong and capable in every sense of the word.”
All of the quotes are pulled from the final edition of the book.
Something I haven’t mentioned in this review but is worth sharing: I was sent this as a title for ALAN Picks. I’ve reviewed for them before, and even though romance isn’t my wheelhouse, I knew reading a romance and being able to write up a review for teachers, librarians, and other youth advocates wouldn’t be too hard (it’s what I do here, after all). ALAN Picks, for those who aren’t familiar, are only positive reviews. They highlight books that are good and worth knowing about.
I chose not to submit a review because I cannot recommend this book and even with some of the things that made the book feel “real” — things like name dropping brands and pop cultural references — don’t at all make up for the poor representation and lack of character development. Romance should be taken as seriously as other genres, and for a book meant to be light hearted, it fumbles before it gets anywhere. The kisses which should be swoon worthy are marred by the fact they’re only there because Pax is a tool of growth for Nikki. He is little more than inspiration porn for her, as well as for the reader.
To quote Kody Keplinger, who is one of the founders behind the incredible Disability in Kid Lit resource, a major problem with disability inspiration porn is this:
[E]ven if the intentions are good, it implies that the average disabled person is weak or lacks independence. So when people tell me I’m “amazing” for being out in the world, it implies the average blind person is a shut in. In reality, disabled people are people and want to be treated like normal people. This means not being seen as “brave” or “inspirational” for average, every day actions. Unfortunately, the news, modern lit, modern film, etc, seem to think this is the only way to tell the story of a disabled person. The plot is always “Character X has Disability Y, but she STILL MIRACULOUSLY MANAGES TO OVER COME IT.” Disabled people in the media are always treated as extraordinary and not ordinary. And, to put it eloquently, it sucks.
You can dig a bit more into the problems of disability/inspiration porn here.
I, like the author of this book, am white and able bodied. I, like the author of this book, am a writer and know the power of words. But what leaves me feeling unsettled is that this book lacks a sense of having done the work necessary to capture the reality of life for a disabled person. It lacks the sense of having considered that Pax should be more than a tool of Nikki’s growth. And it fails to even offer him a story he can call his own.
So much could have been done to save this book with just a little help from a sensitivity reader, a strong editorial eye, or even a few hours spent reading through the incredible resource that the kid lit community has about disability.
I choose to talk about this book with depth and criticism because this is a problem that emerges again and again in the YA world and beyond. The work isn’t being done, and critics aren’t speaking up — or they are and they aren’t being listened to by those who really need to hear it. How To Keep Rolling After A Fall doesn’t appear yet to have any trade reviews as of this writing, and I hope when those do begin to trickle in, that the reviewers are willing to do the work calling this what it is: a book to be skipped.
And there is no shame in not purchasing this book for a collection or recommending it to a teen romance lover because we are fortunate to have authors like Nicola Yoon, Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian, Lauren Morrill, Sarah Dessen, and many more who are writing romances that also tackle meaty topics like bullying or eating disorders or struggling family lives and do them some damn justice.