David Simms is the author of Dark Muse, a dark fantasy for young adults released earlier this year. Dark Muse focuses on the journeys of four friends with a variety of disabilities, brought together by their love of music, as they search for the protagonist’s older brother in a fantastic realm where music is alive.
He’s also a special education teacher, a musician who belongs to the Killer Thriller Band, and a reviewer for MonsterLibrarian. For Teen Read Week, I asked David if he would share his thoughts on writing about disability in YA fiction and the power of music to change teens’ lives.
For more on representations of disability in YA fiction, check out the blog Disability in KidLit (link).
Teens with Disabilities and the Power of Music
By David Simms
My first novel, Dark Muse, was released a few months ago, realizing a lifelong dream. It’s exciting that a publisher enjoyed it enough to sign me, and receiving high praise from both colleagues I respect, and, most importantly, from my readers, is enough to keep me smiling for years. I see that smile reflected in the eyes of students I work with every day, who remind me why I wrote the tale in the first place.
If someone had told me a decade ago that my first novel would be young adult, I would’ve laughed. However, marrying music and kids with disabilities seemed to happen by itself. Writing from the misfit’s point of view wasn’t exactly rocket science for me. I was a small kid until almost 17 and only felt at home when playing music with my friends, much like Muddy, Poe, Corey, and Otis, the teens who form the Accidentals. The Accidentals bond together and find resiliency, as they often push each other to bring out the best they have, and many times, that strength displays itself in music.
Dark Muse centers around the mythology of “the crossroads”, an old blues legend that a musician playing at the crossroads of Memphis would summon the devil and could make a deal for fame and fortune, but I wanted to change it up a bit. What if by playing your heart out there, you’d be transported to a world where music came alive, where the inspiration for many classic rock songs still lived? Creatures threaten the band of four in a gauntlet which includes a “stairway” to somewhere, “smoke” on the water, and an “iron man.”
I noticed that I’d never heard of a novel with teens with disabilities as protagonists before, at least none without using it as a novelty device. I wanted to celebrate my students (many of whom now make more money than me)! After teaching for special education for several years, I had volumes of experience to draw from, and hundreds of great kids from which to draw characters. All of the teens in Dark Muse stem from past students, of all backgrounds and musical persuasions. Muddy, Poe, Corey, and Otis fight through their demons, which include disabilities or their place in life. For example, Poe is nearly blind and Otis, the drummer extraordinaire, couldn’t be more fragile with brittle bone syndrome. Yet when they’re in the land of the crossroads, their disabilities fade. Instead of using it as an easy fix, though, each learns how to tap into inner strength to rise above adversity in our world. Muddy, the protagonist, has a father and brother who are technically more talented than him, yet his drive and purpose propel him much further than both. Dark Muse is just as much about the teens fighting daily just to survive in a school setting as it is a dark, mythological adventure.
Unfortunately, many public schools still have not picked up on the fact that not everyone learns–and tests—in the same way. “Respect differences and tolerate all – except when it comes to test scores” seems to be the mantra of many in government. Thankfully, many teachers and some administrators, like mine, understand the difference. I think that more teens, those with disabilities and those without, would flock to books more often if they could relate to characters similar to them. Just look at Harry Potter. It isn’t the magic or creatures that resonate with the millions—many books for kids have similar plots and setups. It is the characters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione weren’t the cool kids–not at first, anyway. Readers got to grow up with them, flaws and all. Dark Muse is no Potter, but I hope to reach kids who battle daily with problems of all kinds, whether they’re disabled or just having trouble fitting into that odd-shaped contraption that is our society.
My students are proof that success for all is possible if the dream is strong enough, and music (and other arts) give teens the opportunity to discover that they have amazing, magical powers. In fact, my favorite song, Triumph’s “Magic Power” is all about the power of music in young people’s lives. It’s a great song because it’s all about how music can cut through everything that’s going on.
I hope that in my future efforts I can continue to create characters based on those I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and develop unique ones that make readers feel they’re not alone in the halls and lunchrooms, at dances and sports, or in the dating scene. Of course, my characters just might have to survive in an even more twisted setting. I’m looking forward to revisiting the band many more times if readers enjoy them!