When was the last time you found a character in a young adult book who needed glasses? Were they ever one of the teen main characters?
I was inspired to write this post by American Panda by Gloria Chao because Mei, the protagonist, admits to being nearsighted. Mei narrates, “Because of my nearsightedness and my mother’s tenet that ‘no woman is attractive in glasses,’ I recognize people by silhouette and motion” (Chao 3%). I wear glasses most of the time because I’m nearsighted and need to see clearly what is happening around me. When I was in high school, I mostly only wore my glasses in class so I could see the whiteboard, so I relate to Mei describing how she recognized people by their blurry shapes. Now I fully enjoy recognizing people with more detail when I wear my glasses.
As I finished the book, I started thinking about how often I see young adult characters with glasses or contacts. Except for the occasional blind character (Isaac from The Fault in Our Stars) or boy who wears glasses (e.g. Simon Lewis as a mundane in City of Bones), I don’t remember if I have read a YA book where the girl doesn’t have 20/20 vision before June of this year. I especially don’t remember ever reading from the perspective of someone who was farsighted, with or without corrective lenses. If I have read these books, it’s been way too long since I read it to remember.
So, I tried some quick googling to find a list of these characters, and I didn’t find much success beyond finding blind characters. I did try to get into Blind, by Rachel DeWoskin, which is about a girl who became blind in an accident, but I couldn’t get into it.
I digress. The more important point is that I’m not encountering many YA books that include characters where it is mentioned that these teens have imperfect vision or are in some way wearing glasses or contact lenses. If there are a lot of these books, I haven’t found them, and I would appreciate any recommendations you have, especially if they’re girls who wear glasses. Assuming that these books are few and far between, why would that be? A lot of people in the United States do not have 20/20 vision and wear a corrective lens to see. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a graph that shows the percentage of children from ages 6 to 17 who wear glasses or contact lenses. Their website says, “In 2016, the percentage of children aged 6–17 years who wear eyeglasses or contact lenses was higher among girls (36.2%) compared with boys (29.1%). . . . Among both girls and boys, children aged 14–17 years were most likely to wear eyeglasses or contact lenses” (Centers for Disease Control par. 1). While this is not a majority, these are high percentages for teens, the target audience and age of main characters in YA books. If so many people wear corrective lenses in reality, why isn’t it represented more in YA books?
I can take a couple of guesses. The first is that for as little as I’ve seen of YA characters wearing glasses or contacts, I have to wonder if this lack of representation falls under one of the issues of YA only wanting to show people fitting certain beauty standards. In other words, YA still has a tendency to show beautiful people, and that tends to mean people not wearing glasses in this culture. My second guess is that authors may not have experience with realities of needing glasses as a teen.
Whatever the reason, I would like to see more characters who don’t have optimal vision. I want to see more characters with glasses or contact lenses, characters who don’t have 20/20 vision, blind characters, etc. All it takes is a mention of this character putting glasses on or taking contacts out. If it’s important to the plot, there can even be a moment where the character is having trouble seeing something without their glasses.
For now, I appreciate that Gloria Chao made Mei’s nearsightedness and lack of glasses an important feature in American Panda. Even though I really want to give this girl a pair of glasses.
What do you think about characters having glasses or otherwise imperfect vision? Do you have book recommendations for characters who need glasses or contacts?
* I apologize for having only percentages marked. The Kindle edition only has location numbers, so I went with percentages.
Centers for Disease Control. “QuickStats: Percentage of Children Aged 6–17 Years Who Wear Glasses or Contact Lenses, by Sex and Age Group — National Health Interview Survey, 2016.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 66, no. 34, 2017, p. 917, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6634a7.htm.
Chao, Gloria. American Panda. Kindle ed., Simon Pulse, 2018.