After a gunshot leaves her paralyzed, Barbara Gordon enters the Arkham Center for Independence, where Gotham’s teens undergo physical and mental rehabilitation. Now using a wheelchair, Barbara must adapt to a new normal, but she cannot shake the feeling that something is dangerously amiss. Within these walls, strange sounds escape at night; patients go missing; and Barbara begins to put together pieces of what she believes to be a larger puzzle.
But is this suspicion simply a result of her trauma? Fellow patients try to connect with Barbara, but she pushes them away, and she’d rather spend time with ghost stories than participate in her daily exercises. Even Barbara’s own judgment is in question.
In The Oracle Code, universal truths cannot be escaped, and Barbara Gordon must battle the phantoms of her past before they swarm her future.
Tell us about how you brought your work advocating for diversity in publishing to the writing of The Oracle Code. How did that lens of understanding the industry impact your process?
The Oracle Code is an unapologetically disabled story. The vast majority of the cast of characters is disabled. It features wheelchair basketball and biped slalom. It’s a love letter to Barbara Gordon’s Oracle, the most important superhero in Gotham City. (Fight me.) It draws very heavily on my own experiences as a teen in a rehabilitation facility. It’s a story that doesn’t just explore disability but celebrates it too.
It’s informed by my work advocating for diversity in publishing to the extent that I poured my heart into it. I aimed for the impossible story, but I approached it ready to compromise as necessary. (Not in the least too because I’d just come off of editing Unbroken: 13 stories starring disabled teens, and I was working on another project with multiple disabled MCs. The angsty part of my brain worried I was pushing my luck!)
Instead, the wonderful people at DC met me where I stood. They believed and believe in the story as much as I did. They showed themselves as passionate, ready to learn, and willing to listen. DC cared about getting representation right. So to me, DC is a fantastic example of how a publisher can lower barriers, create access, and work to be inclusive.
Why is it important to you that disabled people are represented in stories and more specifically, graphic novels (because of the visual representation)?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, trying to figure out what answer to give. Because the truth is, there are many reasons.
One of them is that, for the longest time, books taught me that the only worthwhile ways to be disabled were: as an inspiration to abled folk, cured by the end of the story, or dead. And as a neurodiverse, physically disabled person, I’ve spent too many hours arguing with abled folk who’ve internalized those same messages. I’ve spent too many hours arguing that we simply get to be human, too.
Another reason is that, all throughout ALA Midwinter, the DC booth had a gigantic The Oracle Code banner. It featured Babs, a white girl who uses a wheelchair, Issy, a Black girl who uses a wheelchair, and Yeong, a Korean-American girl who uses crutches. They’re huddled together, reading. And I cannot tell you how many people (including me) burst into tears upon seeing it, because it’s still so rare to see more than one physically disabled person represented, to see disabled joy shine that bright.
There are many reasons, but in the end, it’s simply this. Because every reader deserves to see themselves as the hero.
Because Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said it best:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
What was your favorite aspect of telling Barbara Gordon’s character? How did you approach telling her story?
For me, the defining aspect of Babs’s character is her insatiable curiosity and her desire to solve every puzzle around her. It’s how we first meet her: on a rooftop, with her best friend, hacking. It’s also how she finds herself again: through puzzles and mysteries.
In approaching Babs’s story, it was desperately important for me to have a clear understanding who she was and find that through-line, because—even as she learns to deal with the grief resulting from her trauma and her anger and her quest to find a new normal—that’s who she still is. How she is, how she approaches and interacts with the world, has changed (and vice versa), but who she is, hasn’t.
Talk to us about the themes in The Oracle Code that are most important to you. Why did you choose to connect Barbara’s journey in this novel to the challenges of healing from trauma?
To me, the most important theme in The Oracle Code isn’t necessarily trauma—or healing from it. It’s friendship and that weird space where friendship and trauma intersect (both positively and negatively). It’s storytelling, and how we use stories to give meaning to ourselves and the world around us—and how we use stories to talk about the things that scare us most.
It’s about finding your wheels. And while it’s certainly a traumatic experience that brings Babs in this situation, and she has to deal with grief and anger as a result of it, I hesitate to use the word ‘healing’ in this context at all. It’s healing only in the understanding that we don’t have to be flawless, we don’t have to be abled to be whole.
How is your process different when you write a graphic novel than when you write a narrative-only story?
In many ways, the process wasn’t different at all. It was structured. Neat. I started with an outline and wrote the script from there, and as someone who is an absolute Type A plotter, there was nothing there that really intimidated me. I love structure and I love finding all of those little puzzle pieces and figuring out exactly where they click.
Of course, at the same time, the process was completely different in every way. Unlike with prose, where the words carry the story, I wrote my script to be mainly invisible. I approached it as a letter to my amazing artist—Manuel Preitano—in the full understanding that only the captions and dialogue would make it onto the page… and maybe not even that! (After all, there’s a specific kind of delight in deleting words that are no longer necessary because the art shows it all so beautifully.)
I loved that collaborative aspect. Right from the start, it felt as though Manuel could peek into my brain and see exactly what I envisioned, while at the same time he offered suggestions and ideas that made the story so much better. It was an absolute joy!
I should also note that Manuel was so patient in listening to my experiences and careful with finding the exact right way to portray wheelchairs and crutches and assistive devices and how to use them. So bonus points for that!
Tell us about a few published or upcoming graphic novels that you loved reading.
Oh wow, so many. I’m loving the entire DC Books for Young Readers collection. Most recently, I loved Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux’s Shadow of the Batgirl and Laurie Halse Anderson and Leila Del Duca’s Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed. Dustin Hansen’s My Video Game Ate My Homework is also a fantastic title for younger readers. Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiro’s Superman Smashes The Klan should be read by every comics lover.
Outside of the superhero sphere, I adored Jerry Craft’s New Kid, and I’m a big fan of Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes. Ethan M. Aldridge’s Estranged is a stunning YA about identity and fae. Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer is so necessary. And I’m about to dive into Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl and Niki Smith’s The Deep & Dark Blue.
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Marieke Nijkamp is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of This is Where It Ends and Before I Let Go and the editor of the YA anthology Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens. She is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and geek. She resides in the Netherlands.