Last year, I reviewed Just Because by Rebecca Elliott. I was very glad to read about Clemmie and Toby again in the sequel, Sometimes. Not only does it provide a gentle introduction to the idea of hospitals and doctors, it continues a beautiful and much-needed portrayal of disability.
Sometimes, says Toby after a brief introduction, his big sister Clemmie has to go into the hospital. Pets aren’t allowed, which dismays the polar bear and disappoints the dragon, but their pet ladybug Simon sneaks in on Clemmie’s wheelchair. Using the same kid logic that makes Just Because so subtly funny, Toby tells us how the three of them make the hospital less scary — impersonating elephants, for instance, or playing with other kids, or just being together. When Clemmie goes home, Toby throws her a party and dances for both of them. (He does not do tap dancing, though… well, sometimes.) Readers of Just Because will be comforted by familiar touches, such as Clemmie’s enormous hair and a return trip to the moon, where the little green alien is as happy as ever to see them. The warm and funny illustrations, as well as Toby’s narration, would be cheering to anyone facing a medical procedure or not. At the same time, the book also reaffirms the acceptance expressed in Just Because, and it’s particularly important here.
Toby’s matter-of-fact voice makes both hospitalization and disability (or chronic illness) a part of life like any other, tubes and all. “She makes me laugh and sometimes she stays in hospital,” he says in the same breath, her hospital stays merely ending a list of ways that Clemmie is the best sister ever. This balance runs through the book, with a humorous picture or reassuring line to counter — but never trivialize — the occasional fear.
The illustrations carry the book. Faces and body language are a huge focus, and the richness of the colors and backgrounds emphasizes them. When Toby dances, you can tell he’s absolutely exuberant. When Toby and Clemmie are holding hands tightly and gazing at each other, all eyes, you know they care about each other. And the symmetrical scene in which Clemmie and Toby eye their respective fears made me wince in sympathy and laugh at the same time. Every mouth expresses an emotion, with as little as a line. (Seriously, lean in and squint a little and watch Simon’s face as you read. Get a magnifying glass if you have to.)
Among my favorites: Toby and Clemmie and their new friends are in two rows holding hands, as though they were two chains of paper dolls. Yet with their various ethnicities and injuries and medical conditions, some apparent and some not, they are clearly not “cut” from the same shape. And still, the picture says, they fit together. I looked at this picture for a long time, for many reasons.
For instance: I didn’t know, until I read this book, how it actually felt to see someone like me pictured in one. Not just in form, but in spirit: the expression of a particular crookedness, spot on and grinning. It was akin to meeting my own ghost — a sort of sad and startled joy. But representation is more than just a mirror on a page. So much.
To write or draw a person is an enormous act of empathy. You are not only portraying a character the way you see him or her, but also influencing how others see that character — whether your reader can feel what the character feels. That character is a person. You are not only influencing how others see that person, but also how your readers see themselves. Especially where there is a lack of reflections, or the reflections are often distorted or broken, you’re not just their mirror — you lose that divider. You’re their eyes.
Rebecca Elliott sees illness and disability with an intensely respectful eye: straight on, and a little bit wry. Nothing is explained away or defended, only acknowledged. And that includes the hard parts. Clemmie is profoundly disabled and occasionally very sick. One child is bald from chemo, another has half his face bandaged, another has survived a brain injury. The gentle way the children are painted — colorful and ragdoll-esque and smiling at each other, slightly fuzzy at the outlines — softens and embraces those hard parts.
A picture like that says, Here you are. The fuzziness says, That’s all right. The smiles and the clasped hands say, You’re not alone, you have friends, you are in it together. To see yourself in the picture is to feel that: yourself in a peaceful moment when the pain recedes, just laughing, your hand in someone else’s, part of a group that accepts you for you without question. Even the hard parts. To feel that is to feel yourself included — in the truest, total, original sense of that word.
At the end of the day, as we all dream our respective dreams with or without a ladybug conked out on the edge of our blankets, Elliott has the best summary of love and belonging I’ve seen so far: Just because. And not just sometimes. All times. What else is there?
Rebecca Elliott’s blog, in which she links to an article she wrote about Clemmie and the representation of disability in literature.
The Children in the Picture campaign, a UK-based resource for authors and illustrators wanting to include children with disabilities.