I accidentally started a new book-buying passion – overseas books. Other countries are clearly ahead of us in depicting medically diverse children in picture books.
Which is a surprise after Wonder by R.J. Palacio has spent 383 weeks on the NYT best seller’s list. Much of that book-love comes from being required reading for middle grades, but it is time to also embrace the empathy developed through picture books.
On a lucky day last month, two books arrived: What Happened to You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George and Sometimes by Rebecca Elliott. And, in doing my post bookfair shopping I noticed that Alexandra Strick and Steve Antony’s You Can! is now available through US booksellers.
As realistic fiction, these books fill a need that talking animals cannot. Children who have never seen themselves in a book, now have a mirror. These stories show that differences are a part of life, but they do not have to be the main plotline of our story. These books showcase a variety of people and situations without defining their challenges.
When in a waiting room, the main question running through my head is “What are you in for?” as if we are serving a sentence. At first my curiosity was desperation to find others who understood Neurofibromatosis. Now, I have fellowship and literature to offer.
Yet, some days I don’t have that energy, or I need to focus on something other than the “why.” I love the way that the back matter of What Happened to You explains that sometimes people don’t want to be a “teachable moment.” I think of this sentiment often, wearing a shirt to identify our sentence for those searching but focusing on the child’s interests when starting a conversation.
The cover of What Happened to You helps us see that some kids have body differences. And the message of the book shows that knowing the “why” is not as fun as enjoying the person. The questions the kids ask are direct and often impolite. But as the book progresses, a new friend asks something that shows understanding – it would be boring to have the same conversation with everyone you meet.
Sometimes shows us siblings who spend a significant amount of time together in hospitals. Printed in 2011 by the author famous for Owl Diaries, this book would be considered “quiet.” I prefer other terms: powerful, important, and inclusive. We see the kids use imagination to pass inpatient time along with images of medical equipment and other friends in the hospital. The emotions associated with hospital life are shared, and the love between the siblings is both described and visible. Buying a new copy might not be an option, but Sometimes can be ordered through library loan, and gently used paperbacks are still available through online retailers.
You Can follows fourteen children from birth to adulthood. Their situations are never labeled but the images throughout the book reveal some of the challenges kids face. Each two-page spread begins with “You can…” showing kids what they can (and should) aim for in life. For example, there is an image of children fanning a smoking oven that suggests learning from our mistakes. I especially love the picture of the children in the library with the words “You can…love a good picture book whatever your age.”
Depicting the childrens’ challenges is done gracefully. The page of a track event includes a guide connected to a vision impaired runner and the line “You can…do almost anything anyone else can do – even if you have to do it differently.” This sentiment supports thriving kids of all abilities.
The subtlety of Steve Antony’s illustrations might cause the casual reader not to recognize some of the situations depicted. Just like real life. However, the children affected by those conditions will notice. This might be the first time they “see themselves in a book.”
When it arrived, I quickly noticed that the end paper images include a baby with a cleft lip. You Can is the first mainstream picture book I’ve read that depicts this condition, even though it affects one in 1,600 children. We need to do better. (Capstone just sent an ARC of Liam the Lion, so soon two books will be available. I hope this is the beginning of a trend.)
Years of being a librarian didn’t help me find these books. They came through affiliation with the Writing Community. I know there are thousands of other spectacular and inclusive books that I have missed. Anyone reading is invited to send recommendations. Especially if it is for your own book. Quiet books are often overlooked and need more attention. Please send your recs my way!