El Deafo by Cece Bell

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by Cece Bell

I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels, and I didn’t realize that this book is a graphic novel – well, actually, memoir – until after I bought it and cracked it open, at which time I groaned a little because it’s just not a format that generally appeals to me.  However, I couldn’t help but scan the first couple of pages, and I was quickly taken in.

As I said, this is a memoir in graphic novel form, recounting the author’s childhood.  Born hearing, when she was four years old Bell contracted meningitis, and as a result lost her hearing.  Required to wearing hearing aids, which back then (the mid-1970s) were comprised of ear pieces with cords attached to a device worn on the chest, Cece attends kindergarten in a classroom of other kids like her, all of them hearing impaired.  Kindergarten is the last time she attends school with other deaf or hearing impaired kids.  Soon her family moves to a new house in a new town, and Cece goes to the neighborhood school with all the other neighborhood kids.  Like most kids, what she wants most is to have friends and to fit in, but she always feels different because of her hearing aid.  To make matters worse, her small hearing aid is eventually upgraded to the Phonic Ear, a super-duper hearing aid that is even more conspicuous than the smaller one she had gotten used to wearing.  With the Phonic Ear, however, she discovers a super power: because it is paired with a microphone worn by the teacher, Cece discovers that she is able to hear the teacher wherever she is in the entire school building!  This results in some hilarity, especially when she hears her teacher using the bathroom.  Secretly dubbing her alter ego “El Deafo,” Cece wonders if she can harness her super powers to make friends.

I really enjoyed this book!  Honest without being sentimental, and told with a great deal of humor, it still reveals the loneliness felt by anyone who has grown up “different.”  Spunky Cece is a jewel of a girl.

One of my daughters read it after I did, in one day, and my other kids are lining up to read it.  A treat of a book for adults and kids alike.

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Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

71q9tVDYznL Freak the Mighty

by Rodman Philbrick

I read this months ago, and only recently realized that I never got around to writing a review. So now a lot of the details have faded from memory, but here’s what I remember (and my impressions):

“I never had a brain until Freak came along ….”

So opens this short novel written for the pre-teen set. Max, unnaturally large for his age (to the point that people are scared of him) has been deemed stupid, slow, etc., etc. all his life, and is in the special ed class at school.  The summer before eighth grade, Kevin moves into the neighborhood, and everything changes.  Kevin, who has a rare form of dwarfism, and who happens to be a genius, recognizes in Max what nobody else has before: that he’s actually a worthwhile human being.  Oh, and he’s actually not stupid.  Together, they call themselves “Freak the Mighty,” and go forth having adventures and giving the finger to everyone who disses them.

So, once again (see Out of My Mind and Wonder) we have a feel-good story for kids that purports to set forth a lesson in tolerance, compassion, diversity, and inclusion, but which fails because it denigrates intellectual disability.  It’s okay to be disabled, but it’s not okay to be intellectually disabled.  This is the message served up with lots of syrup to disguise it.  This message – this reiteration of the hierarchy of disability with intellectual disability at the very bottom – seems to be proliferate in children’s literature, which is, of course, merely a reflection of real life attitudes.

Sigh.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship and loyalty and discovering our own worth and believing in it.  Sadly, the other message kind of ruins it.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

41jSi7C+UcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This book was suggested to me by a commenter on my other blog when I began writing about my daughter’s dyslexia, which we only recently discovered that she has.

Fish in a Tree is a tween book, aimed at the 9 – 12-year old crowd.  Narrated by Ally, a sixth-grade girl who has attended seven schools in seven years, because her dad is in the army and the family moves a lot.  Ally has always been seen as a trouble maker at school – a girl who is defiant, goofs, off, and seems to prefer being sent to the principal’s office over staying in class and learning.  What nobody knows is that this behavior is merely a front.  More than anything, Ally wants to get along, she wants to be liked, and she wants to fit in – but she can’t read, and she’ll go to great lengths to keep that secret.

When her sixth-grade teacher goes out on maternity leave, the long-term sub comes in and shakes the class up with his enthusiasm and determination to see the best in every student – even Ally.  It doesn’t take long for Mr. Daniels to figure out what’s really going on with Ally, and he takes matters into his own hands, determined to address her dyslexia and show her that not only can she learn to read, but that she’s smart and gifted in her own way.

A little ableist, a little contrived, but still an enjoyable story.  It’s very much a teacher-as-hero story, and while it is a feel good story (and written for a certain young age group), it saddened me that real life school doesn’t often resemble anything close to what was portrayed in the story.  The hero teacher seems to be an endangered species, as the pressure increases to fit kids into neat little boxes, and to squeeze the best test scores out of them.  Also, shockingly, dyslexia is rarely “recognized” by public schools, even though it is the most common learning disability.  Because most schools and school districts do not officially “recognize” dyslexia, although they may recognize reading troubles and offer reading tutoring, most schools do not offer intervention that addresses the very specific needs of a child with dyslexia.  This leaves a lot of kids up the creek.  They either fall through the cracks (as was happening to my daughter before I began homeschooling her a year ago – and I didn’t even figure out that she has dyslexia until recently), or their parents are forced to spend big bucks for private tutoring by dyslexia specialists.  California just passed a law mandating that California public schools recognize dyslexia and offer services for dyslexic students the other day!  It’s 2015, folks.  And it won’t even go into effect for a year or two.

Anyhoodle!

So, yeah.  Enjoyable book, but probably doesn’t reflect real life all that well.  It does have a few tear-jerker moments, and the underlying message of “Great minds do not think alike” is a good one for kids.  I’d love to have my daughter read this, but it’s probably a year or two above her reading level.  We’re working on it though!  (Her reading, that is.)

Three Children’s Books About Down Syndrome

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:

UnknownWillow the Walrus-Educating Children about Down Syndrome

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.

61efFfCjfdLTaking Down Syndrome to School (Special Kids in School)

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.

51ONebSQKHL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_My Friend Has Down Syndrome (Let’s Talk About It Series)

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.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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by R.J. Palacio

Strictly speaking, this book is not about disability, so I’m not exactly sure if it belongs here or on my other book blog.  I guess you could say it crosses over, so I’m going to go ahead and review it here (and there).

Wonder is sort of a hard book to categorize.  At its core, it’s a story about inclusion, although the story takes place in a (fictional) school that emphasizes that it is “not an inclusion school” (emphasis mine), meaning it is not a school that accommodates kids with special needs.  In all honesty, I’m really not sure why the author chose such a setting for such a story.  It seems like the story would have worked very well – and possibly been a bit more relatable – were the setting a regular public school, instead of a rather elitist private school.

In any case, this story, aimed at the pre-teen set, is about ten-year old August Pullman – “Auggie” to his friends and family.  Auggie was born with a collection of syndromes/conditions that have had the main result of severe facial/cranial deformities.  Auggie’s appearance actually frightens people.  Mostly due to the fact that he’s had to undergo countless surgeries over the course of his young life, he’s always been homeschooled – up until now.  Now, as he enters fifth grade, his parents have decided to enroll him in the prestigious Beecher Prep School (again, not an inclusion school – but Auggie doesn’t have special needs anyway, although he does wear hearing aids).   Not surprisingly, Auggie is terrified (but also excited).

Also not surprisingly, Auggie is not well-received at the school by the other students (or by some of the parents).  The oddity of his appearance literally stops people in their tracks.  “Freak” and “monster” are just a couple of choice names he is called.

Told in the alternating voices of Auggie himself as well as numerous supporting characters, the story unfolds over the course of a school year, and the students of Beecher Prep learn hard lessons in tolerance, diversity, compassion, friendship, loyalty, and character.  The ending is predictable, but leaves the reader reaching for a tissue nonetheless.

There were aspects of the story that bugged me: all the “dating” going on with these very young kids seemed unrealistic; the emphasis on Auggie not having special needs (and, of course, a gratuitous exclamation of “I’m not retarded!” thrown in; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is a hierarchy of disability, and intellectual disability is at the bottom of the heap); and, as I said, the setting of the story in a school that is “not an inclusion school” even though it’s most certainly a story about inclusion.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I did like the story.  Very much.  It’s very well-written, and I think the author has done a fabulous job capturing the angst and attitude of this particular age group, and this does make it relatable and likely explains why this book is such a hit with kids right now.

Definitely recommend, with the above-mentioned caveats.

 

 

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

[Originally posted on July 10, 2014 here]

6609765 Out of My Mind
by Sharon Draper

Sigh.

After having numerous friends (mainly parents of children with disabilities) rave about this book, I read it with much anticipation. I kept waiting for it to grab me, but it never really did. It’s safe to assume that I’m in the minority in that I did not love this book.

Written for the preteen/adolescent set, it’s a fictional narrative by an eleven-year old girl by the name of Melody who is profoundly disabled by cerebral palsy.

“Words.

I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.

Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.

Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.

Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.

Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs . . . .

I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.”

Melody is wheelchair bound and not only can she not speak, she cannot feed herself or dress herself or bathe herself. She is unable to use the bathroom by herself. Most people assume because of her physical limitations and absence of speech that she must also have severe mental limitations, and she spends her days in a special ed classroom where a procession of teachers with low expectations parade in and out.

Melody is bored and frustrated. She wants to fit in. She wants to have friends. She wants to say what’s on her mind, but her words are all stuck inside her mind – until she acquires a speech device that finally allows her to express herself. It’s a dream come true – but will it change Melody’s life and people’s perceptions about her in the way she hopes?

I was tempted to call it a “feel good story” until about three-fourths of the way through. Though it’s written for kids in the 9 – 12 age group, I appreciated the fact that it’s not all wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end.

That said, there were several things that bother me about the story: most of the kids that populate the book are downright obnoxious, and it was difficult to like any of them. I suppose this was at least partly intentional on the author’s part in order to create a “Melody vs. The World” dichotomy. There is one girl who sort of befriends Melody, who is clearly conflicted, and she was probably the most likeable and believable character. It felt like the author was unsure of the era in which the story takes place – she has Wiis and iTunes existing alongside MySpace, which as far as I know has been dead for years. While not a major thing, it was a distraction. The kids used “hip” lingo that I’ve never heard (do kids really say, “That’s so tight!” or “That’s what’s up!“? Maybe I’m out of touch – or maybe it’s a geographical thing – none of my kids have ever used those phrases), so that felt unrealistic. The author does not seem to have a grasp of the difference between “inclusion” and “mainstreaming” in the realm of school, and nothing seems to be decided by way of IEPs. Also, aides for disabled students are really awesome and involved and attached, almost members of the family. Yeah, right. Not that there aren’t good aides out there, but I thought the author’s portrayal – especially of Melody’s aide – was a pretty major departure from reality.

Oh! And the classmate with Down syndrome! I’m convinced the author read something with a title like, “Stereotypical Down Syndrome Traits.” Always happy. Hugs indiscriminately. Possesses sixth sense about other people’s moods and emotions. Gag.

What bothered me most of all, however, was the same old valuing of people based on intelligence. Melody, you see, while profoundly physically disabled, is pretty much a genius. Even she says that she hates the word “retard.” I got the distinct feeling it wasn’t because she felt it was mean or derogatory or marginalizing, but rather because she’s not “retarded.” “She may be severely crippled, but at least she’s not retarded!” the author seemed to be saying. I’m so tired of this message – so tired of our society’s insistence on valuing people based on intelligence and potential to achieve, rather than on humanity.

There was also the fact that Melody’s parents, while loving, fierce advocates, seem to have no qualms about expressing – to Melody! – that, yeah, she’s defective, broken, messed up. When her mom is expecting another baby, everyone is worried that the new baby will also have CP. “We love you, Melody, but we sure hope and pray that this new baby isn’t screwed up like you,” they pretty much tell her.

It was frustrating and disheartening.

I can see the pluses of this book for the age group it’s intended for – by allowing kids a glimpse into the mind of a child with disabilities, it might serve to demystify disability to an extent and foster compassion. However, I feel that the positive impact it could have is mostly canceled out by the negative messages about disability. I’m not sure I would even recommend this book to my own kids, who have a sibling with a disability.

[Bracing myself for comments expressing outrage.]

Meet Annie by Heather J. Scharlau-Hollis

[Originally posted on April 10, 2012 here]

Meet Annie by Heather J. Scharlau-Hollis

In this short and sweet book aimed at young children, we meet Annie who is just like you and me in all the ways that count to little kids: she likes to play with her toys, she likes to splash around in her swimming pool, and she sometimes gets in trouble. But Annie is also a little bit different – she has Down syndrome. Although the book doesn’t explain what Down syndrome is, it touches on the fact that Annie looks a little bit different and learns a little bit differently, and that everyone is a little bit different in their own way, and those differences make us who we are. My favorite aspect of the book is how the author invites and encourages its audience to identity with Annie by asking a question at the end of each page:

“Sometimes my zipper doesn’t zip right. I ask Dad for help. Do you ever need help?”

“Sometimes I cry when I get scared. Do you ever get scared?”

Encouraging empathy and compassion without resorting to condescension or stereotypes, this is a wonderful book that should have a place on everyone’s bookshelf who is touched by a child with Down syndrome.

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

[Originally posted on October 20, 2011 here]

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

When I picked my second-grade twins up from school yesterday, their teacher (also a friend of mine), tearfully told me about this book she had just finished reading to the class, and she urged me to take it home and read it, so I did.

Young Trisha has a learning disability and is the target of teasing and bullying. She longs to go live with her dad and grandma in Michigan and make a fresh start, where nobody will know how dumb she is. In Michigan, however, she is bewildered and crushed to find herself in a “special” class, just like in California where she lived with her mom.

Enter Mrs. Peterson, the teacher of this class – known as The Junkyard for its misfits, oddballs, and seemingly discarded kids. Her introduction misleads the reader into thinking she is a harsh character, until she explains the definition of genius to her class:

“Genius is neither learned nor acquired.

It is knowing without experience
It is risking without fear of failure
It is perception without touch
It is understanding without research
It is certainty without proof
It is ability without practice
It is invention without limitations
It is imagination without boundaries
It is creativity without constraints
It is……extraordinary intelligence!”

… and tells them that this describes each of them.

And thus follows an uplifting narrative about how these kids find their own worth, and their own special genius.

This story, inspired by the author’s own true-life experiences, is a wonderful parable about diversity, tolerance, and the value of all people, no matter what their differences or limitations might be. I love that my kids’ teacher is sharing these principles in her classroom. A wonderful story for teachers and parents alike to share with elementary school- age children.