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.

Aerial image of the boy and his mother looking at swifts flying from Nicola Davies' book Perfect
I road tested the text first on friends with direct experience of disability, and on classes of schoolchildren, and got green lights. Children particularly seemed to take what they needed from the story. Those with disability in their families talked about how protective they felt towards relatives with disabilities. But they also spoke about negative feelings that they had experienced and then overcome. Many identified that ‘disability’ was just another way to be different, and talked about how they had been made to feel because of their race or culture.

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.

Image of the baby sleeping from Nicola Davies' book Perfect
The response wasn't universally positive. One reviewer, a wheelchair user herself, hated the book and told me in person just how much. 'I don’t want disabled children exposed to the idea of perfection,' she said. I tried to explain that the point I had wanted to make was the exact opposite of what she had taken from the book. But I had to accept the hard truth that, for that particularly significant reader, my story didn't deliver what I had intended. Her response had a huge effect on me. I felt that I had offended her and I still feel uncomfortable. But the conclusion that I have come to is that discomfort around talking openly about the issues and feelings around disability is really why I wrote Perfect. The fear of saying something out of place, is what shuts down the very conversations that we need to have.

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.

Nicola Davies

Nicola Davies is an award-winning author of a host of brilliant fiction and non-fiction for children. Her books often draw on her background as a zoologist, focusing on nature, conservation and environmentalism.

Her picture books include The Promise, winner of the English Association Picture Book award for best fiction in 2014, and her non fiction includes A First Book of Nature, which won the Independent Booksellers Best Picture Book award.

Nicola has a fantastic video on our website to help you and your pupils draw inspiration from nature to come up with creative writing - check it out here! We also have a resource inspired by Nicola's books.