Casual relief teacher Jessica Walton has written the graphic novel they wanted to read as a queer, disabled teen, and hopes others see themselves in it too.
When teacher and author of graphic novel Stars in Their Eyes Jessica Walton walks into a new classroom, students usually notice their prosthetic leg first. They’re very happy to field questions about it.
“It’s not on disabled people to teach everyone about disability,” they note. “But one of the things I really enjoy about my job is engaging with young people about disability and helping them feel comfortable with it. So that then, when they encounter another disabled person in their lives, they’ll know a little bit more about how to get through that encounter without seeming ableist or rude.”
An English and Humanities CRT, Jessica finds that engaging with students is particularly rewarding in primary school settings. “They’ll have lots of questions. I can talk to them about how to ask those questions politely and appropriately, and what to do if someone says no or seems annoyed. Kids are naturally curious, but disabled people get asked a lot of questions about our disabilities, sometimes every day, and many kids don’t realise that.”
How to have open and respectful conversations about disability and LGBTIQA+ identity are a big part of the plot of their graphic novel, Stars in Their Eyes. Beautifully illustrated by physicist turned visual storyteller and science communicator Aśka, it’s centred on disabled teenager Maisie. She has just come out to her mum as bisexual, and they are attending her first pop culture convention together, so Maisie can meet the star of her favourite TV show, who is also an amputee. Maisie also has her first crush on non-binary character Ollie while navigating the overwhelming surrounds of the convention. Fans of shows like Star Trek or Stranger Things will love all the in-jokes.
The book started life as a short story, in an anthology called Meet Me at the Intersection, but Jessica felt it deserved the standalone treatment.
“I had never written someone like me as the main character. I thought back over the books that I had read as a kid and, like a lot of queer teens and disabled teens as well, the representation wasn’t there.”
So much so that they started to devour young adult (YA) novels in their late 20s, reclaiming what they missed out on. “There’s a lot of really great diverse representation in YA at the moment,” they says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better. It’s like a little gift to teenage me.”
Even with LGBTIQA+ representation flourishing in YA, Jessica says there is still a way to go. “We particularly need more trans and intersex representation. But disability representation – there’s just not enough of it for any age group. Particularly ‘own voices’ representation, which means someone from that community writing about that experience. I think people can write outside of their own experience, but it’s important to have our own voices in the mix as well, and for those voices to be uplifted. Because, traditionally, disabled people have been left out of the whole publishing industry.”
While writing some of their own experience into Maisie’s, Jessica was surprised by their inner monologue. “It felt quite difficult, at first, to imagine how someone like me would be in that story. And I had to kind of work through what was probably a bit of internalised ableism.”
Jessica notes that stories written about the disability or LGBTIQA+ communities often focus on tragedy. “And often we need those stories, because some aspects of our lives are challenging or difficult. We’re still facing ableism, homophobia and transphobia in the world. So I understand that not every story can be happy. But I did really want something that was a bit lighter. The kind of story that I wished I had as a kid.”
Their CRT work helps them pick up the language used by young people, and the issues that concern them. It was also important that Maisie wasn’t “super-skinny” because that was also part of Jessica’s teenaged experience. “I had a group of friends who were all getting phone numbers and dating, and I was kind of struggling, as the fat, disabled, queer teen, to find that romance everyone says you’re supposed to have.”
Stars in Their Eyes folds in these issues lightly, and Aśka’s diligently researched illustrations help the story soar.
“She was really keen to get the representation right,” Jessica says. “I’d send her videos of me getting up and down from a chair, in and out of a car, and just walking. We also talked about things like how I get my prosthesis on, and the fact that I use a lubricant spray and a liner inside the prosthetic leg.”
While the idea that the graphic novel could be used as an educational tool wasn’t front and centre in Jessica’s mind while writing it, it’s a happy result. Teachers have already provided positive feedback, particularly on a swimming pool scene where a woman subjects Maisie to what the late, great writer Stella Young would call “inspiration porn”. To which Maisie responds, “I’m just swimming, like everyone else here.”
Jessica says, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘That’ll be a good way to talk about ableism in the classroom’, but if it ends up being like that, that will make my teacher heart so happy. I didn’t want it to be like a lesson, but if they can read a fluffy love story that also tackles some bigger, deeper issues, then that’s amazing.”
Stars in Their Eyes is out now, published by Fremantle Press.