You have probably heard all about the stellar British comedian Rosie Jones, who rose to the top of her field despite all the barriers facing disabled people, and women, in comedy. But you might not know that she’s also a brilliant writer, and that her first book, The Amazing Edie Eckhart, was published by Hachette on 5th August.
The children’s book tells the story of Edie, who, as Jones puts it, is a “funny, smart, ambitious, stubborn girl who is starting secondary school for the first time—and she also happens to be someone who suffers from cerebral palsy.” Jones, who suffers from cerebral palsy herself, told me that as a kid, you could not tear her away from her books; reading was her first love. “It’s how my parents always knew I would be OK—no matter what happened with my condition, I would always have my books,” she says.
But the problem was that none of the books she loved and took comfort in had disabled characters. Jones says no matter how many books she read, she couldn’t find anyone whose life looked like hers; it meant she couldn’t imagine what her life would look like. “In my adult brain I now realise how damaging that can be for a child, if you don’t see yourself in books or on TV or in the media,” Jones tells me. “It means you don’t value yourself, and it means it’s hard to imagine how your life will pan out.
“I wanted to write the book I needed as a child,” she adds. Enter Edie, a girl who is the centre of her own story and who navigates life with her disability in the best way she can. “Edie has cerebral palsy,” Jones says, “but it’s not only a book about disability. Her disability comes up in the book, in the same way it comes up in real life, but it’s not her only quality.” Jones says this is exactly why we need more disabled voices in comedy, in books, in films and on TV, because having so little representation leads people to flatten the identities of disabled people, and force
them to become two-dimensional characters in their own lives. “Being disabled is not a personality trait,” she says.
Jones believes that audiences’ instinct to reduce individuals to their disabilities could also be damaging art by other disabled artists. “For example,” she says, “not everyone will enjoy reading Edie—of course, I hope they do! But if they don’t, sometimes when there are so few voices then people say to themselves: I didn’t like that book and so I am never reading a book by a disabled author again. But, for example, next year there could be a children’s book by a disabled author that could be completely different to mine, and that reader might love it.”
Jones says she feels the same way about her comedy. “I’m not everyone’s cup of tea,” she adds, “but because there are not enough disabled voices out there, people who don’t like my sense of humour assume they don’t like comedy by disabled people, which is ridiculous.” Jones also understands where this prerogative comes from, in an industry that is so dominated by non-disabled voices. That’s another reason why she wanted to write Edie, she says: she wanted to make sure that the literary world as well as the comedy world opens itself up to disabled artists.
When she was cutting her teeth in comedy, Jones says most people around her didn’t even understand what ableism was—including her. “I would get abused for my comedy work and the abuse was always connected to my disability, and I just accepted that,” she says. “But now we have a better understanding of what ableism actually means.”
Does she think the artistic industries are improving when it comes to ableism? Yes, she says. “More and more, I find that people don’t always expect everything I do and say to be about my disability. And that’s what we need: more disabled comedians, singers, writers, newsreaders, people in the public eye who are known for things other than their disability.”
There is still a way to go, she adds. “I worked on a project for the Paralympics in Tokyo, and I always notice that there’s a spike in interest in disability around the Paralympics, and then people go back to ‘normal’.” But we need to integrate ideas about disability into our ideas of what is “normal”, she says.
When I ask Jones what we can all do to help stamp out ableism, she has an extremely clear answer: “Just ask”, she says. “If you don’t know what ableism is, ask. If you don’t know if a disabled person needs your help, ask. If you don’t know if a disabled person is OK or not, ask.” Ask, she reiterates, and listen to the answer. “If you see a disabled person and suspect they might need help, ask them. And if they say they are fine, listen to them,” she says.
And so, how does it feel to have written a children’s book on top of a hugely successful career as a comedian? “Just amazing,” she says. "Sometimes it’s so hard to stop and take stock of things, and yesterday I had a quiet moment where it hit me: I’ve written a book."
It won’t be her last, either. Jones signed a two-book deal with Hachette for the Edie project, so there is a forthcoming sequel. She says that doing press for the first book is hard sometimes, because she is already so engrossed in writing the second. Edie’s life has already moved on in her imagination—and I can’t wait to read all about where her life takes her.
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