Education Faculty Publications


Swimming Against the Tide: Disability Represented Through Fish Symbolism in (and on) Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels

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Children's Literature in Education



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Mainstream American culture still commonly considers disabilities as defects. Whether physical, emotional, or mental in nature, these features are hindering an individual, separating them from the perceived norm, and having a negative impact on their acceptance. Films and literature targeting children and young adults currently are seeking to change this impression. One example of this phenomenon is the disabled characters in Pixar’s animated movie Finding Nemo. In the wake of the film’s popularity, a plethora of middle-grade and young adult novels also began using piscine symbols, imagery, and idioms to frame, present, and discuss disability. Symbolic devices found in cover art and within these texts, such as “fish out of water” and “swim against the tide,” demonstrate the condition of the disabled characters in children’s literature, providing non-human representations to bridge the theoretical gap between the medically diagnosed disabilities and the reality of the social identity of the lives of those who have a disability. This study examines texts, published from 2006 to 2015 that all use fish as symbols to examine issues of identity, especially in relation to disability. Reading the novels through the lens of disability studies highlights the ways in which these fish symbols and fish-related idioms sometimes portray disabled characters in reductive, simplistic ways, but also often work to portray disabled characters holistically and as possessing agency against the expectations of the norm.


Disability studies, fish, identity norm