Judging Disability by Its Cover: A Nested Case Study of Student Perceptions of "Normal" Childhoods in and on Middle Grade Novels

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Institution Granting Degree

The Ohio State University

Cedarville University School or Department



Middle-grade novels, critical literacy, disability studies in education, normal, visual social semiotics, content analysis


This three-fold dissertation examines the semiotic and textual ways that children’s literature is mediated by fifth-grade students’ conceptualizations of “normal” childhoods. Through a nested case study, I examined the discourses of a small group of fifth-grade girls, narrowed to the specific interactions of three focal students who have a personal connection to disability, to answer the following question: How does critical literacy mediate the reception of texts/covers that include characters with disabilities? Critical literacy theory provided a platform for conversations with students about the representation of childhood on the covers of books and in the books themselves. Students were encouraged to critique texts and participate in redesigning them in favor of a more accurate depiction of disability. Across the course of a year, I collected information about student interactions with the literature using ethnographic methods through audio/video recordings, semi-structured interviews, field notes and artifact collection (i.e. drawings and writings in student sketchbooks). Using discourse analysis, I analyzed this data to uncover the indexical methods that students utilized to index “normal” childhoods in relation to their discussions of middle grade novels. These findings were partnered with a content analysis and visual social semiotic/visual rhetoric analysis of book covers of the inclusion of disability in three middle grade novels (Rules, Waiting for Normal, and Short) read by the girls across the course of the year-long study. I found that the book iii covers consistently portray either a “normal” childhood or an overemphasized abnormal representation that both hide the reality of disability. In conversation with students, images were often rejected in favor of personal understandings of the disability. They did this by redesigning the covers to use semiotic resources that they connected to personally. Additionally, these students used their own experiences to aid in their understanding of and connections to the texts/covers that they read/view. When interacting with these entities, they determined their stance toward the text, labeling it on a binary scale, and therefore placing childhoods and disability on a similar scale (happy/sad; normative/abnormal; abled/disabled). They did this by indexing the binary label and the word normal in relation to their conversation about disability. This multi-faceted research provides a platform for unpacking the specific elements of text and image that can present opportunities for children to have discussions about the unequal distributions of power surrounding the depiction of children with disabilities.