The majority of young adult books featuring a character with a disability are written by an author who does not have any special needs. The majority of these books also make the character a token one, where the character is intended only to build sympathy. Laughing at my Nightmare by Shane Burcaw is a wonderful exception in two ways. First, Burcaw was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age two and so brings personal insights into having a physical disorder. Second, in the midst of educating readers about his potentially fatal disease, Burcaw also shares plenty of universal stories. Over all, Laughing at my Nightmare is a humorous and realistic memoir that will resonate with all readers.
Because Burcaw has been in a wheelchair his entire life, his day-to-day life looks somewhat different from that of an average able-bodied person. For example, while most of us might take for granted our ability to eat, for Burcaw during his childhood, the act required someone cutting up his food and the use of plastic fork because metal was too heavy for him to lift. As Burcaw grew older, and his muscles deteriorated, eating even required a feeding tube. Most of us also might consider a trip to the bathroom to be a rather mundane event, but for Burcaw it requires someone else pulling down his clothes and lifting him to the toilet and then redressing him. This means, Burcaw often likes to hold his pee as long as possible, to avoid the twenty-minute disruption to his day.
These examples might seem like Burcaw’s memoir will be another tear-jerker about a disabled teen overcoming the odds. Burcaw instead regularly lightens the mood with his unique perspective on his disability. For example, he quips that the real fun for him began at the age of three when he got his first wheelchair. Now if Burcaw wanted to “inspect the fascinating bug on the wall” all he had to do was press a directional button to move closer. Later, when he received a wheelchair with joystick controls, he could also smash full speed into a wall. Then there was the day that Burcaw and his friends wanted to dunk in basketball. His friends were too short and so Burcaw came up with an idea to help that used his wheelchair. It unfortunately also destroyed the rear motor controls, “which had to be replaced at the price of $4,000 each. Whoops.”
Of course, these incidents do put front-and-center Burcaw’s disability, whereas I said that Burcaw shares plenty of universal stories. Readers with or without disabilities should be able to relate to Burcaw’s childhood fear of being left alone. One night after Burcaw went to bed, his parents sat outside on the porch, and he decided to call out to make sure they could hear him. Unfortunately, the baby monitor had died. For forty-five minutes he screamed alone. While most of us might not share Burcaw’s experience of having to receive monthly shots, a good many of us are no better at handling shots. I know myself that like Burcaw I start feeling the pain of a needle, the minute I see a needle. I also have to distract myself by thinking of other things while the needle is going into my arm. Young people especially will also relate to Burcaw’s desire to fit in with his peers as much as possible, to the point that during middle school he dressed like a skateboarder. There are endless other examples, just waiting to be read!
I do have some cautions. Burcaw’s early concerns was that his publisher in wanting the memoir to be young adult might decide to censor him to make the book appropriate. After several discussions with his editor, he realized that his editors wanted Burcaw to tell his story in his own way. As a result, there is a lot of swearing that might turn off some readers. Girls may end up grossed out by the graphic depiction of how Burcaw pees and poops. There is also frank discussion of sex and other mature topics that might not be best for younger readers. Finally, I tired of judgments of other students with disabilities.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Laughing at my Nightmare. Burcaw’s memoir heightened my awareness of what it might be like to have a physical disorder, while also reading like the bizarre and beautiful adventures of a typical young adult. Not only will you not look at life in quite the same way after reading Laughing at my Nightmare, you’ll also start to seek out similar books.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?