By: Christine Nix
So B. It, a children’s novel by Sarah Weeks, is a first-person narrative of a twelve-year-old girl, Heidi It. Heidi’s mother is an intellectually disabled woman who calls herself So B. It. Throughout the narrative, Heidi has a curiosity to know where she and her Mama came from. Mama has in her vocabulary an unknown word: soof. Heidi is determined to discover the meaning and origin of soof. Eventually Heidi discovers her Mama’s past and learns her Mama’s name, Sophia Demuth. Although Heidi gets the answers she seeks, the novel allows us to question the importance of understanding family history or valuing family in the present. We, as young readers, parents to young readers, disability activists, and/or students focusing on disability studies, can explore disability and the familial relationship of having a disabled parent as we read Heidi’s story. The character Mama in So B. It allows for the exploration of identity for an intellectually disabled person as well as an individual’s ability, agency, and normalcy.
Through Heidi’s narration, she reveals the dynamics of her and her Mama’s relationship. Heidi, throughout the novel, is coming to put her mother into terms of normalness. We can consider normalness as recognizing that disabled persons can interact and be included in social structures (Adams et al.132). Heidi at times puts her mother into the category of abnormal. This frustration becomes more evident as the novel progresses, for Heidi shouts at her mother when Mama cannot tell her who is in a photograph (Weeks 62). Heidi considers Mama abnormal because she in unable to communicate with her. Heidi even categorizes herself as normal because she considers herself able to pursue the answers she needs. In an argument with their neighbor Bernadette, who has agoraphobia, Heidi states angrily “if you really cared about me you’d want me to be normal” (Weeks 88). We are not to approve of Heidi’s perspective in these moments; her frustrations and her current feelings do not promote inclusiveness. Mama dies while Heidi is away and, there is a shift in her attitude. Heidi comes to terms with the fact that her relationship with Mama should have been more important than her search of her family’s history. In losing her Mama, Heidi learns that knowing someone and knowing about someone is not the same. By the end of the novel, Heidi puts her family dynamic into terms of normalness and becomes appreciative of who her mother was.
Since this novel journeys to discover the background of Mama, the role of identity for a disabled person is presented in this children’s novel. Sophia is featured in dialogue and given personality traits such as being an affectionate mother and having hobbies such as coloring (Weeks 30). Furthermore, Sophia possesses relatable characteristics. Heidi informs us that her mother “hated to wear socks, rainy days made her anxious, and she’d do almost anything you asked her to if you promised her a Jujyfruit after – as long as it wasn’t a green one” (Weeks 37). These attributes of Sophia can allow us to view her in terms of normalcy; for young readers, it can present the concept that the intellectually disabled are in fact like the non-intellectually disabled. By connecting Mama’s disability with her identity and making her character relatable, we can comprehend that people with disabilities are relatable. Thus, Mama having these characteristics displays her humanity, a humanity that can be denied to disabled persons in media.
Although Mama is represented well, by her death Mama cannot be included fully into terms of normalness. By dying, Mama becomes abnormal because she is no longer living; this removes her from being like the rest of the characters that are living. Another way that excludes Mama from normalcy is that once she dies Heidi becomes more mature. So, once Heidi loses her intellectually disabled mother, Heidi loses the innocence of her childhood. This challenges us to consider Sophia’s character represents innocence. Although innocence is not necessarily demeaning, to have a disabled character be symbolic of innocence does not bring them into normalcy. Instead portrayals of disabled persons as innocent can cause attitudes of pity or admiration towards the disabled. Additionally, the article, “Institutionalizing Maternity” suggests that the novel portrays that the burdensome task of taking care of Mama is removed by her death (Potter & Parsons). This is an area that the text is problematic. Even though the novel gives Mama humanity that allows her to be viewed as relatable and normal, Mama’s death suggests that life without the disabled is less demanding.
While Mama’s death poorly represents the intellectually disabled, her sexuality is represented well in the text. With Mama being a mother there is representation of Mama’s sexuality. This allows the intellectually disabled to be viewed as sexual beings. For a young audience, the idea of sexual representation could seem mature. However, it is not that the novel goes into depth of the topic of sex. No. The importance of Sophia having sexuality is that it does not deny her sexuality. Due to her disability, her sexuality can be viewed as being suppressed or not part of her life. The text, through the character Mr. Hill, provides an ableist perspective and allows us to see a disabled person’s sexual nature be suppressed. Mr. Hill responds to Heidi about his intellectually disabled son being her father by stating, “I thought it was impossible… They were like children themselves” (Week 215-216). We can see this statement as yes, they were young and having a baby, but we can also read these words as denying the intellectually disabled sexuality because they are considered childlike or innocent. By Weeks including the ableist perspective of Mr. Hill, the text conveys the absurd idea of disabled persons not having sexuality. Clearly by Sophia and Elliot having sexual relations and producing a child, this supports that disabled persons are sexual beings as non-disabled persons are too.
In consideration of agency, there are examples of Mama’s insight and capability to love. Why can we consider Mama’s ability to love meaningful? It is significant to the narrative because it brings the intellectually disabled into normalness because love is a universal feeling. Mama’s ability to love gives her a sense of agency. More importantly, Sophia chooses who she loves such as Heidi’s father, Elliot. Additionally, Mama’s word for love is her nickname given by Elliot, soof. Sophia calls love a different name, but the feeling is still the same. Heidi explains this notion as she claims, “All along she had a word for love – it was just different from the one everyone else was using…Soof wasn’t Mama’s name; soof was Mama’s name for love” (Weeks 236). Mama expresses the capability for the intellectually disabled to love, regardless how the intellectually disabled express their love.
Mama’s character can be classified as having ability. However, we must recognize that the novel portrays Mama as being unable to do certain things due to her disability. Heidi explains that Mama cannot tell time, tie her shoes, and she cannot read (Weeks 10-11). The novel makes it known through Mama’s vocabulary list that she does not always have the words to express her thoughts and feelings (Weeks 244). However, the novel appropriately acknowledges that Sophia has ability, and the novel provides a focus on what Sophia can do. Bernadette helps Sophia raise Heidi; Bernadette is also able to teach Sophia skills such as opening cans (Weeks 6). The novel explains that Mama learned to brush her teeth and comb her hair (Weeks 34). Mama has ability; she can learn and develop skills that promote her competency. Mama’s learning signifies that the intellectually disabled are learners too, and they have the capacity to be able to learn and develop skills even as they become older. This notion of the intellectually disabled being lifelong learners promotes inclusiveness in education.
Overall, this children’s novel gives the character Mama an identity, agency, and ability. Besides Mama’s death and Heidi’s obstacles that cause her to consider Mama abnormal, Sophia’s character well represents the intellectually disabled. The issues that are present with this text prevent Mama from fully being considered normal. Furthermore, Heidi’s issues with have an intellectually disabled mother are removed once Sophia dies. These issues with Heidi’s family dynamic that last for most of the novel also prohibit Mama’s character from being included into terms of normalness. Moreover, there are portions of the children’s novel that are unrealistic, but when it comes to Mama’s character we can agree that Sophia’s character appears relatable. Mama’s character allows us to recognize disabled persons are not one dimensional beings, but disabled persons have depth and complexity just as non-disabled persons do.
Adams, Rachel, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. “Normal.” Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York UP, 2015. 130-32. Print.
Potter, T. & Parsons, E. “Institutionalizing Maternity: The Treatment of Mothers with Mental Illness in Contemporary Novels for Children.” Feminist Formations, vol. 23 no. 1, 2011, pp. 118-137. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ff.2011.0003
Weeks, Sarah. So B. It: a Novel. New York, Laura Geringer Books, 2004. Print.