So you just found a new book about a disability. In a world of literature where differences are often so underrepresented, it feels like any children's books that feature stories of inclusion are something to get excited about. However, as an author of two children's books featuring characters with disabilities myself, I urge you to consider whether you're picking up a book because it's a great addition to your child's library or if you're simply choosing it because it's about a disability... and if so, is that a good enough reason?
Let me explain. Admittedly, I indeed have purchased books for this reason, only to get home, read the book, and realize how disappointed I am. Where is the LITERATURE? Consumers, fellow authors, future authors: we need quality literature! I challenge you to write a story about your character in which the disability becomes secondary. While Sophie's Tales might not be perfect, when writing the books, my goal was that these would be intriguing stories that would capture the attention of audiences both with and without hearing loss and that Sophie would be a character who wouldn't be defined by her hearing loss.
I always have an eye out for new books about disabilities of all kinds, and it's funny to see where they pop up: book stores, local boutiques, even grocery stores, where I found my most recent discovery, Maddie's Me Bag: A Sweet Tale About Diabetes! Other disability awareness books on my shelf include: My Brother Charlie (autism), Wendy on Wheels (physical disability), and Different is Awesome (limb loss).
So, what should you look for before picking up your next book about disabilities, and what should you consider before writing one of your own?
1. Illustrations: Today, one of the first things a reader looks for is diversity in children's books. Flip through the book in question- are people of different ages and cultures represented? Do the illustrations feel reflective of children, families, and/or classrooms today? Of course, older books or books that take place in other time periods can provide great messages even though they may not represent children today. However, it is important to consider that children with disabilities often live very differently today than even 5 or 10 years ago. Technology may be very different today, as is the case for children with hearing loss who use small digital hearing aids or cochlear implants.
In Maddie's Me Bag, illustrations are modern, with a classroom that reflects different genders and skin tones. Maddie shows off her medical bracelet, and another student sports her glasses.
2. Reading Level: Sometimes a children's book about disabilities is so focused on getting its message across that it loses its sense of audience. In a typical children's book, the reading level should remain consistent, with the same level of vocabulary, structure, and words to the page throughout the book. Just because a book is about disabilities does not mean this type of consistency should be compromised. There are ways to explain the disability and the vocabulary while still staying at a consistent reading level throughout, such as using a glossary at the end of the book. This will also help make the book more adaptable for a teacher or parent to read with an older or younger child accordingly. If you're purchasing the book, think about your audience and make sure the reading level truly aligns. If you're writing a book, don't compromise reading level- it may be challenging but will make your writing stronger in the end!
How do you feel about this much text on one page in a picture book aimed at elementary-age readers?
3. Story & Character Development: This is arguably the most important part of distinguishing a good book, and arguably where most books about disabilities fall short.
Let's explore these two basic synopses:
Maddie's Me Bag is a story about a girl with diabetes
Wendy on Wheels is the story of an adventurous ten-year-old who has a blast rolling through life with the use of her wheelchair
After reading those, which would you pick up? Wasn't there more to Maddie than that she just had diabetes? I don't know from that synopsis, but I do know that Wendy is adventurous and has a blast rolling through life!
What is the story about?
Is there a storyline outside of the disability?
Is there character development for the main character outside of his/her disability?
Is there character development for other characters in the book?
I asked these while assessing my new find, Maddie's Me Bag, and unfortunately it didn't quite pass the test for me. It may be a great tool to teach kids about diabetes, but I found the 'story' confusing. For show and tell, Maddie asks her mom for help deciding what to bring in. Her mom says, "Diabetes is just a tiny part of you... like a grain of sand on the beach. Let's talk about all the ways you can tell your classmates about yourself." Yet, Maddie proceeds to bring in an entire bag filled with diabetes tools: a glucometer, special snacks, her medical bracelet, testing strips. To me, this didn't send the message that diabetes is only a 'tiny part of' her.
4. The Big Finish: Think about your favorite children's book. What was the best part? Does it have an exciting climax that has you on the edge of your seat? Does it have an emotional ending that tugs at your heartstrings? What about a twist you didn't expect? More often than not, your favorite part happens in the second half of the story, where there is traditionally a moral, a lesson, a takeaway, a vindication.
Unfortunately, children's books with disabilities can be... anti-climactic. They make their points, teach their lessons, and get their message across, but where is the high point, the plot twist, or the big conclusion? I love a happy ending, especially in a children's book, but my hope is to write something kids will want to read again and again, like in Sophie's Tales: Overcoming Obstacles, when Sophie and Champ are racing towards the finish line.
What is the moral of the story?
What is the lesson or takeaway?
In the end, is the character defined by his/her disability?
Does he/she overcome obstacles? [In the best case scenarios (in my opinion), perhaps the character is able to use his/her disability in a positive way.]
Let's revisit Maddie's Me Bag to see how it ends. Maddie has now presented her show-and-tell. What was the problem? The question remains unanswered. For the conclusion, the class writes Maddie notes after her show-and-tell. What will they say? They turn out to be friendly notes from classmates praising her for being brave about her diabetes. A nice enough sentiment, but oh how I would have loved for those notes to be all about Maddie herself, not about her diabetes, so that she could know that she is loved by her peers regardless of her diabetes! This book truly did not stray from its diabetes-driven agenda, and it would be hard to envision it fitting into the mainstream setting.
How do you assess children's books with disabilities? What are your favorites?
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