Susan reads

Since the reading classes were studying A Wrinkle in Time, my science class started a unit on the solar system. One of those days, another class joined ours and stayed for the rest of the unit. We were to be their “buddies.” Helpers. Something to that effect.

“Amy and Kris, why don’t you guys work together.”
As Kris sat down, she said, “She’s like me.” Her voice was upward: surprised or pleased or both. So was I; I’d never met someone else like me before, who moved and communicated in a similar fashion. We spent a lot of time passing notes, less “buddies” than ordinary partners. Later, as best we could manage, we were friends for a while. We had friends unlike us, too, but it was nice to interact at a similar pace and not have to run to keep up with each other.

Books are frequently used as tools for inclusion, a world in microcosm. Children’s books often fall into what Rudine Sims Bishop and others call mirrors and windows. Mirror books have characters who represent the reader, while window books introduce characters who are significantly different. Many diversity-conscious books are considered windows, but Bishop writes that with the right slant of light, any book can become a mirror. That is, a well written book will highlight different aspects for many readers, accessible to a variety of moods and purposes and interests.

However, often when books for young readers address inclusion or disability, readers with disabilities smack into solid doors. The saying “You’re a better door than a window” means “You’re in the way” or “I can’t see through you.” For readers with disabilities wanting to see them, many books featuring disability are often neither mirror nor window, because the books aren’t written for them. They’re written to explain them.

Door books tend to break the rule of “Show, don’t tell.” The character becomes, instead, something like Show and Tell. Often the narrator is a nondisabled child explaining that a classmate is “just like us even though [insert disability]”. Book jacket blurbs turn friendship into “a friendship that transcends disability.” Readers with disabilities are often not the audience but the object, the objective, the lesson.

I wonder sometimes what would happen if we dispensed with mixing metaphors — just opened the books and let the light hit us. One of my favorite open books is Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. Forgive my starting from the end, but the last line says it all: “That is Susan through and through — just like me, just like you.” Susan Laughs actually means it.

Think of a preschool class, where kids are introducing themselves and learning to interact with other kids in general. This book introduces Susan, a girl who likes to sing and play outside and has a cat. The two-word rhymes are straightforward, and the illustrations are hilariously expressive down to the last face. A dour portrait plugs its ears when Susan and her friends sing and bang the pots, and the cat is an opinionated sidekick, clinging frowzily to a wagon handle and grinning on precarious hind legs as Susan dances atop her grandfather’s toes. On the last page, under the last sentence, Susan is sitting in a manual wheelchair. It puzzles me when people call that “a twist” and are surprised that kids “missed the twist.” I don’t see it.

Look at the picture, then the words again: “just like me, just like you.” Whom is the book  talking to? Who is “you”?

Who are you?

Willis and Ross don’t give the impression that people without disabilities are the only audience. Readers who are like Susan the way Kris was like me can see themselves, if they wish to, as participating characters, not props — Susan’s personhood is free of “despite” or persuasion because it is not doubted. Her disability is another aspect of her, not explained away.

“You” is us and they and them and we — mad and bad and grinning, singing and riding and dancing, weak and strong. When “Susan hugs, Susan hears” at bedtime, you see that stories are for her, too. The book is an introduction, a day, and an affirmation: Susan reads.

Short further reading, not exhaustive:

Schneider Family Book Award list. Portrays disabilities from various viewpoints at several reading levels.

Russ and the Almost Perfect Day. The main character has Down syndrome, which is not mentioned but evident through photos.

The Moses series by Isaac Millman uses text and sign to portray the activities of a student at a Deaf school.

Looking out for Sarah is told from the perspective of a dog guide.

Just Because is about the love between a profoundly disabled girl and her brother.

Please note: Book jackets are sometimes at odds with the message of the actual text.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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One Response to Susan reads

  1. Beth says:

    Amy–thank you for your insights into how disabilities are addressed in literature and in life. Experience always helps in realizing what you know, don’t know, or think you are doing well but perhaps haven’t thought through. The concept of mirrors and windows is great and I will keep that in mind in future reading.

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