How We Roll is really, really well done. Quinn, who has alopecia, and her family move to a new town so that Quinn’s younger brother Julius, who is autistic, can go to a better school. Quinn is mostly relieved to be in a town where no one knows she has alopecia, and she can wear a wig and fit right in. She befriends a group of popular girls at her new school, and a boy Nick, whose legs were amputated after a snowmobile accident caused by his brother Tommy. A former football star, Nick’s still coming to terms with the changes to his life and with his resentment over his brother’s role in the accident, and Quinn’s too afraid of her own reputation to admit to him why she understands what he’s going through so well. I love how thoughtful and intentional this novel is, and how much it subverts expectations and defies the usual tropes we find in young adult fiction.
First, I love how Friend treats her characters’ disabilities / conditions (is alopecia a disability?). Friend is very honest about how autism, amputation and alopecia all impact not just the characters’ lives but also their families. For example, each of Quinn’s wigs costs $2,000, her mom is practically in daily meetings with Julius’ therapy team, her dad keeps trying (and failing) to break Julius from routines, and Nick sleeps in the family den rather than his old bedroom. Moreover, I love how, even though Quinn is super comfortable about how to act around persons with disabilities, she still gets it wrong sometimes. But more importantly, her missteps don’t make her freeze; rather, she deals with them. For example, she invites Nick to her house and it’s only when he shows up in his wheelchair that she realizes her house is up a steep incline and accessible only by steps. Instead of immediately giving up on getting Nick into her house, she asks his permission to have her and her parents carry his chair up the steps. And later, when he visits on his prosthetic legs, she knows she has to resist the temptation to help him up the steps.
There’s also a great scene where she sees him at an event in his wheelchair and is super curious about why he isn’t wearing his prosthetics. She’s literally about to ask him why when she realizes — not that it’s an inappropriate question, even though it is — but that he maybe just felt like using his wheelchair that day, just like she feels like wearing a wig some days and not wearing a wig other days. I love that because so often the question of what is or isn’t appropriate to ask a disabled person is framed as a series of do’s and don’t’s that, quite frankly, can be intimidating and, worse, reductive. So I love that Friend shows how important simple thoughtfulness and empathy can be. It’s not so much that you should never ask a double amputee why they’re using their wheelchair, but that you should consider whether you want someone to ask you why you’re, e.g. wearing your hair a certain way or wearing a particular item of clothing or whatever other visible decision you made that morning.
I also love Friend shows that Quinn’s hesitation to let people know about her alopecia isn’t innate but rather directly linked to how society responds to people with alopecia. There’s a great moment where Quinn goes to a party and feels really cute because of the hat she’s wearing, but then a total jerk makes her baldness the butt of a cruel joke. I think it’s really important because again, so often book and movie characters are portrayed as being very self-conscious about their disability, and while those experiences are equally valid, I love that Friend puts the blame for this self-consciousness squarely on the shoulders of society, which is really where it belongs. I’ve heard that of all the barriers disabled people face, attitudinal barriers are the most difficult to deal with, and I think Friend really brings that point home. And I also love that Quinn can feel absolutely cute while bald, not because it’s inspirational, but because it’s realistic, given the disabled people I’ve met in real life. And again, this type of representation is so rarely seen in media.
Finally, I love that the whole mean girl / mean popular people is turned on its head. Quinn’s friends at her new school are the popular crowd, and so often the It Girls are portrayed as bitchy and the indie / nerdy girls as the only nice ones. Here, there are no immediate villains (even the jerk who bullied Quinn at her old school was obviously ashamed of his behaviour when she confronted him later on, though he was too much of a jerk to apologize). I like that each time Quinn hesitantly reveals a bit more of herself to her new friends, they don’t react the way she expects them to, and instead reveal their own experiences that are somewhat similar. For example, upon learning of Julius’ autism, one of them reveals she has a sister with Down Syndrome. I also love that Nick’s ex-girlfriend (who is one of Quinn’s new friends) handles Quinn and Nick’s friendship with such maturity. To be honest, I don’t think I would have had that level of maturity at her age, and it’s behaviour I aspire to even as an adult. So I really like that Friend deliberately steers away from stereotypes for all the characters.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.