For this review, Catherine examines the contemporary middle grade novel “Air” by Monica Roe. Catherine is disabled but not a wheelchair user.
Twelve-year-old Emmie is a high-energy WCMX (wheelchair motocross) aficionado. She enjoys popping tricks on her wheelchair, going fast, and of course, hanging out with her best friend Ale. She is anything but the reserved, dependent wheelchair user that her community and teachers view her as. She’s daring, stubborn, and fiercely independent, just like any other girl her age.
Not only is she an athlete, but she is also an entrepreneur set on materializing her own dreams. She and Ale run a small online business selling Spanish moss—and other woodsy things that grow in their rural Southern town—along with Emmie’s handmade embroidered wheelchair bags.
Once she gathers enough money, Emmie hopes to buy her own fully tricked-out WCMX wheelchair that can hold its own as she pursues her athletic goals and braves jumps on her dad’s old, abandoned skateboard ramp.
The only thing dampening her style is the well-meaning people in her life that constantly push their own vision of “her needs” onto her. When she has a minor slip on one of her school’s poorly designed ramps, her principal is quick to try to “make things right” by unilaterally deciding to give Emmie an unneeded and unwanted aide. Things become more complex when the principal meddles with her goal to buy a WCMX compatible wheelchair by organizing a community fundraiser.
While Emmie is excited to receive help toward buying her dream wheels, she grows increasingly uncomfortable as the fundraiser—which the principal is self-admittedly using as a PR opportunity for the school—is organized and promoted in ways that don’t really represent her or her experiences as a disabled person.
In this coming-of-age story, Emmie must face the day-to-day challenges of growing up, navigating friendships, stubborn family members, and first-crush awkwardness, all while dealing with the deliberate and undeliberate microaggressions of being a young disabled pre-teen.
While reading this book, it was a pleasure to become acquainted with Emmie’s way of thinking. Despite having clear goals, Emmie is far from having a one-track personality. She is a complex and caring individual that does a lot around her single-parent household after the death of her mother two years prior to the story’s start. She supports her dad as he works full time as a mechanic and takes night classes. She also does her best to understand his fears and wants while simultaneously challenging them as she follows her own dreams.
The story is also filled with a wide wealth of secondary characters including Emmie’s friends Ale and Tina, her aspiring rodeo star crush Devontae, and the unwanted aide that is forcibly integrated into Emmie’s school schedule.
Not all of Emmie’s interactions within the greater story are perfect. At times she’s prone to misunderstandings, stubbornness, shyness, and her own passive aggressions as she lets out her frustrations. She’s imperfect and makes mistakes as she learns the best method to reach her goals, but that makes her character all the more human and easier for readers to relate to.
Monica Roe’s Air, the author’s debut novel, should be read by young readers, parents, and educators alike. It offers positive wheelchair representation and allows non-wheelchair users a valuable perspective that can help create positive change as readers evaluate their own habits and ideas surrounding wheelchair users. It also imparts important lessons as Emmie acknowledges the discomfort required with self-advocacy and works to find the right words to truly express her needs and take the reins of the narrative her community has surrounding her.
While the main character of “Air,” Emmie, has Spina Bifida, author Monica Roe does not. According to Monica Roe’s website, she is a pediatric physical therapist for rural Alaskan communities and is a researcher/advocate for the social model of disability and inclusive rural health. Roe also studies public health, focusing on disability-inclusive disaster preparedness for rural communities threatened by climate change.