I am waiting for the day that vivid characters with disabilities do not pleasantly startle me so much. Because today is not that day, I was deeply impressed by Rebecca Elliott’s Just Because. Elliott does a rare thing, humorously and beautifully: she portrays a character with profound disabilities.
When children with physical disabilities appear in fiction, characters like Susan predominate. They are usually active and verbal, but above all they excel academically. For instance, Josie of Reaching for Sun is a poet. Melody of Out of My Mind, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and uses a VOCA, tells us she’s “ridiculously smart,” with a photographic memory. Nowhere is their brain damage associated with learning disability, except in others’ misperceptions. Those books remind us that physical disabilities don’t always signify cognitive disabilities, warning of how devastating underestimation can be.
However, it is equally true that the brain is a crowded place. Sometimes, the damage that causes physical disability also creates cognitive disability, and this experience tends to be overwhelmed — polarized — by “My brain works fine; it’s only my legs/mouth/etc. that don’t.” But in Just Because, based on Elliott’s own children, Toby tells us about his older sister Clemmie, who can’t move much or talk and communicates with funny faces and noises drawn like gracenotes. Using impeccable kid logic, Toby describes — but never explains — his sister and the ways they do things together. Each description is punctuated by the refrain, “Just because.” She’s like a princess, he says as Clemmie sits smiling on a sandcastle throne at the beach; “They don’t have to do much either.” And why didn’t they go to Jupiter in Clemmie’s wheelchair if they were already on the moon anyway? Oh well. Even though Toby is the one speaking and moving, it feels less like “telling about” and more like “sharing with”; they are best friends, as we see, and Clemmie is very much in on the story.
Clemmie is vivid through her brother’s eyes, and even more so in herself — almost saturated with sensory detail, expressed through both illustrations and typography. Her name is always cursive, curly like her enormous hair, and feels as though it should be said with a flourish. When Simon the ladybug tickles her hand in italics, his tiny legs are palpable. A single curve for her mouth conveys everything from uproarious giggling to distaste to contentment, and more than once I found myself grinning back at her and Toby and their pet bug. Their story just made me happy. I liked them; I felt like I had met them both, so well-drawn were their personalities literally and figuratively. Good characters are made of details like these, not algebra or airplanes.
The point is that they love each other, full stop. Maybe because Clemmie doesn’t mind if Toby eats the crayons. Maybe because Toby draws dragonflies. Or maybe, at the end of the day as they dream their respective dreams together, just because.
With its steady refrain and comforting illustrations reminiscent of rag dolls, this book would make a wonderful read-aloud. For anyone who worries, “What if I/he/she couldn’t… Would you still…?”, Just Because answers with a simple and unequivocal “Yes.”