Portraying Disability in Children's Fiction
In March last year, author Nicola Davies wrote about the struggle to publish her book, Perfect, which tells the story of a boy and his new baby sister who is born with a disability. Nicola hoped that the book would form part of a drive to talk about disability more openly. In this blog post, she tells us how the book has been received by readers.
Many children identified that ‘disability’ was just another way to be different
However strongly you feel about a story, however much you believe in what it has to say, you never really know how readers will react to it.
I was especially apprehensive about the reception that Perfect would get. It’s about the birth of a child who is, in some way, not what her brother expects. I didn't mention the word disability in the text, but the implication is there, very deliberately. I wanted to give children and adults a space to talk about their feelings around this sensitive issue.
One child wrote: I look out of the window, day by day to see the real embarrassment staring back at me. I’m just another disappointment to my family…
Cathy Fisher’s illustrations gave the story a new layer of emotional intelligence, and so out it went into the world in the Spring of last year. I was delighted by the response from organisations representing disabled people. One enthusiastically told me that our book was talking about things they wanted to see talked about. A young radio researcher, a wheelchair user in her youth due to cerebral palsy, thanked me for writing a story that showed that disability was not to be feared.
I’m continuing to tell the story, to talk about it to audiences of children and to gather their reactions. They gasp as I turn the pages and Cathy’s illustrations bring the boy, the little sister and the bird to life. They are sad when the brother won’t hold his little sister, and, at the end when he carries her into the garden to watch the swifts, they look at each other and smile. Often, by the end of the story, some children are holding hands. Two little girls yesterday were leaning affectionately on each other as I reached the last page.
Often, by the end of the story some children are holding hands
'I think adults should read this book,' one child told me. 'They might understand more if they did.'
Teachers sharing the book with their pupils have found it useful for PSHE, which is great, but more important to me are their other comments. Teachers have told me that children have come up with examples from their own families, and that they talked about how it feels to be different and how it is when things don't come up to your expectations. So overall, I am reassured that our book is doing ok, getting children to talk and share experiences, and to understand that in all our various ways we are all perfect.
If you're interested in books about environmentalism, nature and conservation, you'll love our upcoming Authors Live digital event with Nicola Davies on Thursday 9 March. It's easy and free to register your class to watch! We also have learning resources to help you explore some of Nicola's best-loved books.
If you're interested in exploring difference with your learners, you could try some of the titles on our list of books about being unique.