The collection of 13 short stories that makes up UNBROKEN: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens is diverse in almost every way imaginable. Edited by Marieke Nijkamp, the stories feature varied disabilities, ranging from legal blindness to deep anxiety to using a cane or wheelchair to travel to irritable bowel syndrome, and characters consistently impress with in-depth personalities and courage and imagination. Stories include protagonists of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as various economic levels and romantic orientations. Settings vary in time and space, some seem to be set in the past, others in the future. And while most stories have a fairly realistic bent, many include touches of magical realism, sci-fi, and magic and fantasy. There is truly something for everyone in this collection.
Each of the tales stars a teenager with a disability, and each of those teens leads the reader into a world where perspectives and experiences are challenged. The subtitle of Unbroken, 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, pinpoints the focus perfectly. Each of the 13 authors has created a world where the main character is unconcerned with explaining her or his disability to the reader. We are left to navigate the stories tentatively even as we are immersed in realities with challenges, difficulties, and also immense joys.
Stand out stories include Kody Keplinger’s “Britt and the Bike God,” in which a girl with retinitis pigmentosa bikes her way into fully accepting her blindness, a love/ghost story titled “The Leap and the Fall” in which author Kayla Whaley deftly creates a true hero of a teenaged girl in her wheelchair, and Katherine Locke’s sci-fi story “Per Aspera Ad Astra” of a girl with debilitating panic attacks who must challenge herself to save her family. Another favorite for me was “Plus One” by Karuna Riaz, which helps readers understand the intense self-consciousness of anxiety as it becomes an unwelcome companion and intertwines with cultural and family expectations. Several stories, notably “The Leap and the Fall” and “A Curse, A Kindness,” include two girls finding love.
I want to especially mention “Dear Nora James, You Know Nothing About Love” by Dhonielle Clayton. In it, Nora struggles with balancing irritable bowel syndrome and high school and an absentee Dad who wants to reconnect and an understanding best friend who needs a big favor. The dialogue, interactions and personalities of the characters are all so true-to-life and poignant that readers can’t help but feel both protective and proud of Nora James.
While some of the stories include uneven dialogue, what I especially appreciated was the matter-of-fact inclusion of each challenge and disability, whether emotional or physical, as a seamless aspect of each teenager’s whole being. This collection is an important book for neurotypical and physically-abled readers. But even more importantly, as the title promises, this collection affirms and centers disabled teens.
Some stories include curses, but they don’t come across as gratuitous and they highlight character traits. There are several romantic entanglements with kissing. Overall, Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens will make an important and oft-read addition to any collection or classroom. Recommended for ages 13 and up.