For the last two years running, I’ve gone into my son’s classroom and talked to the children about Down syndrome, as Finn has Down syndrome. I’ve begun my little talk by reading My Friend Isabelle to the class – which is a wonderful book, by the way: frank, sensitive, short and sweet, and never pitying or condescending. This year Finn is in first grade, though, and I’ve wondered if first-graders might be a little beyond My Friend Isabelle. So I’ve started searching for a good next-level book to read to a class. Following are three I found on Amazon, and my thoughts on each:
by Shelly Weiss
Aimed at ages 4 – 8, this book does a fair job of giving a brief description what exactly Down syndrome is – the triplication of certain chromosomes. Beyond that, this book pretty much turned me off. I think there is a real problem with attempting to portray Down syndrome embodied in a walrus, or any other non-human. Presenting the person who has Down syndrome as not a person at all I think could end up being very confusing for kids in this age group, and lead to more questions than answers for them. Further, the entire premise of the book is Willow, the walrus who apparently has Down syndrome, reciting a poem that feels very much like she’s trying to sell the reader on Down syndrome and why people with Down syndrome are great. I don’t want to qualify Finn to anyone, and I very much shy away from doing so. I’d like instead to foster acceptance of everyone by everyone merely for our shared humanity.
Thumbs down on this one.
by Jenna Glatzer
Aimed at ages 4 and up, this one felt promising by its title, but ended up being a disappointment. We find out on the second page that Nick, the main character, a boy who has Down syndrome, goes to a regular public school with “all sorts of kids” rather than a “special school.” Yay, right? Wrong. We find out later that although he goes to public school, he’s in a special ed class. Now, I know that there are plenty of parents out there whose kids with Ds are in special ed classrooms either part- or full-time rather than fully included in general ed, and I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of that here, because that’s a whole other blog post. But in a nutshell, this book is NOT pro-inclusion, and it’s kind of subtle about not being pro-inclusion because it sort of seems like it’s trying to appear to be pro-inclusion, but it’s just really not. So if you happen to be a parent who is pro-inclusion, this probably isn’t a book that would be your cup of tea – it wasn’t mine.
Further, it’s ableist, as well. “Not all kids with DS are the same. Some of them have more trouble learning than I do. I am lucky because I am learning handwriting and math. Some kids with DS can’t do that.” The message I get – and that young children would surely get – is that ability = value. So, it’s really sad that some kids can’t do handwriting and math, and they are to be pitied. Right?
Even some of the “Tips for Teachers” in the back of the book are problematic. For instance, in a paragraph about using People First Language, the author advises, “Remember, it’s not a ‘Down syndrome boy,’ but rather, a boy living with Down syndrome.” Living with? How about just with? The “living with” is just not a far leap at all from “suffering from” or “afflicted by.”
Anyway, I just really didn’t care for this book.
by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
Out of the three, this one is the most promising. It’s very down-to-earth and compassionate without being sappy or condescending. It’s narrated by an eight-year old typically developing girl who tells about going to summer camp. One day, a new camper arrives, and she has Down syndrome. The kids are a little wary of her at first, but quickly figure out that above all, she’s a kid who wants to fit in, make friends, and have fun just like the rest of them. This book, I feel, presents differences without being divisive, and definitely presents inclusion in a very positive light.
Although it’s aimed at ages 4 – 8, I feel like it’s probably best suited for second- and third-graders, so I’m not sure about reading it in Finn’s first-grade class. I may just suck one more reading out of My Friend Isabelle – I’m not sure yet. Still, I’m hanging on to this one for future use for sure.