Narcolepsy in Literature: 'The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict'

I have frequently seen misrepresentations of narcolepsy in the media. The majority of media featuring people with narcolepsy focuses more on getting laughs out of the character’s symptoms rather than accurately depicting the condition.

This ableist approach to narcolepsy’s depiction in media helps perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Thus, it is important that this disability (and others) be correctly illustrated.

Introducing my 'Narcolepsy in Literature' series

In my “Narcolepsy in Literature” series, I will be reviewing a number of books in which the authors have depicted characters suffering from the disease of narcolepsy.

Each book will be given a rating of 1 to 5 SLEEPY STARS based on how accurately I feel the experience of narcolepsy is depicted in the story.

That being said, no 2 experiences of narcolepsy are exactly the same. Ultimately my ratings will be based on my knowledge and experience of narcolepsy.

'The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict' – 4 sleepy stars

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart has been awarded 4 SLEEPY STARS for its depiction of narcolepsy. In this book, the main character, a 9-year-old named Nicholas, suffers from severe narcolepsy.

I could relate to many of his experiences with this condition, especially the various frightening nighttime hallucinations that he has. I also found that this book depicted the safety hazards that come with narcolepsy in a useful way.

Depiction of safety concerns with narcolepsy

For example, when making arrangements for Nicholas to participate in a workshop class, an adult asked with concern how often he collapsed into sleep, comparing such scenes to a doll whose strings had been cut. I found this particular statement to be an intriguing description of what I know to be cataplexy.

This scene was impressive to me because it brings up the safety concerns that come with having narcolepsy. I have written an article on this in the past. Keeping myself safe despite my narcolepsy symptoms is something that I have to think about every day.

Nicholas’ friend even comes to his aid when bullies descend on him during a sleep attack, stating that it wasn’t fair to hurt him while he was “defenseless.” Such depictions of the danger that comes with having a sleep disorder as severe as narcolepsy were appreciated.

Why minus 1 sleepy star?

I took away 1 SLEEPY STAR from the rating for 2 reasons. The first is due to the way Nicholas’ sleep attacks were depicted. In the book, he frequently falls to the ground in sleep rather than from paralysis. Usually, falls due to narcolepsy are from cataplexy: temporary paralysis where the person is typically completely conscious.

The author does address this detail later in the book, stating that cataplexy was classically experienced with strong emotions and that Nicholas just got lucky in having this unusual symptom of falling to the ground in sleep due to strong emotions.

However, I would’ve appreciated it better if the author had just depicted Nicholas as having a more representative case of narcolepsy.

The second reason is that Nicholas was shown to fake a sleep attack to get out of something in the book. It felt inappropriate to see a person with narcolepsy depicted as faking their symptoms for any reason because people already have such a hard time believing how severe our symptoms really are.

Have you read this book? Do you plan to?

Looking for more book reviews? Check out Tatiana's review of "Hallucinations" by Oliver Sacks.

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