Alexandra Strick is specialist in the field of children’s books and disability. For more than 10 years she has been a passionate campaigner for making children’s books accessible and inclusive, working as a freelance consultant in all aspects of children’s books and disability. I was utterly delighted when she accepted my request to write a piece for the blog today as a follow up to yesterday’s round-up of reviews of children’s books which include characters with a disability. So today I hand Playing by the book over to Alexandra – with huge thanks – I think you’ll find what she has to say very interesting.
And could there be a more perfect time to discuss the subject? With the heady exhilaration of the Paralympics having just drawn to a triumphant close, this has to be an ideal opportunity to look at how books can help to build on children’s increased awareness of disability, develop a better understanding of disability issues and harness a growing interest in disability sport.
There’s no doubt that the Paralympics have had an extraordinary effect on the nation. At that opening ceremony just two weeks ago, I remember gasping at the talents of the hand dancer David Toole, and then glancing briefly at Twitter to see a tweet which read ‘OMG look at the adorable little man with no legs trying to dance! Aw bless!’
However, two weeks on, I feel things have definitely shifted. And a Channel Four poll confirms it. Two-thirds of those surveyed said the Paralympics have had a positive impact on their perceptions of disabled people. Paralympic audiences quickly forgot about the competitors’ impairments, to focus on the excitement of a particular sport and the sheer sporting excellence of the athletes. The Paralympians were inspiring not because they were disabled but because they were so incredibly good!
I think children’s books featuring positive images of disabled people have the ability to create much the same effect on their audience – and more. I think they can really help our children to see disability in a different way.
Historically, disabled characters in books haven’t always presented the greatest of role models. Disability was generally invisible but where it did appear it often seemed to almost define characters – embodying their evil or bitter nature or positioning them as an object of pity. Heidi, Colin in The Secret Garden, Katy in What Katy Did, Tiny Tim, Captain Hook….I struggle to remember may disabled characters who just ‘happened’ to be disabled without it being a key aspect of the plot.
However, in recent years, some really good inclusive books have started to appear. They give us interesting, fully-rounded disabled characters, so that is their personalities, actions, adventures and aspirations which stand out, not the fact that they happen to be disabled.
It is great that some of these books show disabled people without comment. Disabled characters do not always need to be endowed with superhuman powers or magic wheelchairs! There is also always the risk that books about disabled characters resort to the ‘triumph in adversity’ approach. Instead we need books to show that it isn’t the disability which makes a person different or special, but rather what they do or how they handle a particular situation.
We need to show disability as a normal part of life. So I am always on the lookout for high-quality books which show images of disabled children joining in alongside their non-disabled friends, without comment. Books like those by Child’s Play are good examples. Their board and picture books are full of a diverse range of characters, including children and adults with hearing aids, cochlear implants, mobility aids, wrist splints and wheelchairs. Likewise in picture books like Goat Goes to Playgroup and Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldson (and illustrated by Nick Sharratt and Axel Scheffler respectively), we see deaf and disabled characters appear without comment.
I am not saying that a children’s book should avoid talking about disability at all or showing a disabled person having any problems or weaknesses. Suggesting that every disabled person is a saint – or that there are never any challenges to overcome – is both unrealistic and unhelpful. Again, one of the things that the Paralympics have achieved is to make people more aware of the different forms of disability which exist and the diversity of experience. Alongside the ‘incidental’ images of disabled people, we also need books which help us to learn more about disability.
Recently I particularly enjoyed the teenage read Whisper by Chrissie Keighery, which shows a girl trying to adapt to life with deafness and struggling to establish whether she can still fit in amongst her hearing friends or find a place within the unfamiliar Deaf community – I think it really reflects the wide spectrum of emotions, views and experiences of deafness.
I’m also glad that we have a growing number of well-written books which remind children that disability isn’t just about wheelchairs – but also Asperger’s Syndrome, mental lillness, learning disability or facial disfigurement. Then there are other great books which really challenge the way we think about disability. For young adults (and adults!), Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman, Naked Without a Hat by Jeanne Willis and Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBride Johnson will provide particularly challenging food for thought. In their own ways, they each contest some of the common myths, stereotypes and assumptions about disability.
I hope by exposing children to a range of really good inclusive books, we can help sustain the positive ‘Paralympic effect’ whilst also developing a better understanding of disability issues, and from an early age.
Above all, what children’s books can surely do is to help ensure that the future generations recognise that – very simply – disabled people are just like the rest of us.
You can read more about the work Alexandra does on her website http://www.alexandrastrick.co.uk/. You can also follow her on twitter @stricolo and do check out the web resource she has created for Booktrust on disability in books, www.bookmark.org.uk. If you’ve any comments, or questions you’d like to put to Alexandra, please do leave them in the comments to this post – Alexandra is happy to reply to any queries.