In the last year, I have been collecting children’s books rooted in India with the noble though only partially realised intention of passing them onto the little ones in my life. I devour each one with the pretext of screening it, especially on the basis of how it tackles the themes of gender and class.
One day, Tulika Books popped up on my Facebook newsfeed, announcing an offer on children’s books about disability. This made me think about why I had not organically come across any book featuring disability in any way in the past year. I also wondered what I could expect from children’s books featuring disability. With this in mind, I set out to explore a few of these books.
These are the three that made me think the most.
Ten by Shefalee Jain. Age 2+
Children in ones and twos gather to watch something, their numbers growing by the minute. They are not named, and they appear as you might encounter them on a quiet street.
Walking, cycling, on the way to school, this motley gang is drawn to something. But what are they looking at? This is a counting book and so much more. The text is scant and is set in a lovely rhyme format which makes for a well-paced read-aloud session.
One of the children happens to be a boy who uses crutches. This inclusion is seemingly effortless, and yet how often do you see a child with a disability as part of storytelling, or even the teaching process?
In addition to counting, you can use the illustrations in the book to discuss each character with the child you are reading to. I can visualise my nephew taking off on a tangent about each character and telling me about their life.
Watch for what comes through when children describe the boy on crutches. It will not only tell you what they associate with disability, it can be an opening for a much-needed conversation.
Kanna Panna, Story by Zai Whitaker, Pictures by Nilofer Wadia. Age 5+
The story is narrated by Kanna, who doesn’t talk much, but does have a lot of words in his head. He goes to his chithi’s (aunt’s) home where he and his cousins have a blast.
During a visit to a cave temple lit by tube lights, the power goes off, and Kanna leads the fearful bunch out of the caves.
Suddenly, he has a lot to say. Kanna starts school, talks in rhymes, and makes a friend. All along, there are subtle hints that Kanna can’t see too well.
Kanna could be any little boy. His eyesight is but one aspect of his larger character.
Whitaker creates a character who is subdued to start with, and who eventually becomes comfortable with his own goofiness. Pausing to study Wadia’s vivid illustrations, you realise that Kanna is never looking at other characters or things.
When he is at the pond, his hands play with the water, when the family is looking around the cave temple in awe, Kanna looks at nothing in specific but is feeling a pillar, and when he leads the family out of the dark cave he isn’t even looking in the direction in which he moves.
Yet all of this is evident only when you sit with the book for a second time and marvel at the layers both in the text and the visuals. My eight-year-old niece read this book. When I asked her to tell me the story, she described everything and seemed to relate to the boy, but didn’t realise that he can’t see well!
I told her of my suspicion about his sight and she was surprised. She skimmed through the book for a second time and agreed with me. We talked about Kanna some more and she told me she had never before read a story about disability. This was a lovely start.
Catch That Cat, Story by Tharini Viswanath and Pictures by Nancy Raj. Age 4+
Dip Dip, the protagonist, is curious, playful and full of energy. She is a messy little bundle by the end of the day. She uses a wheelchair. Her friend Meemo loses her cat, Kaapi, and is inconsolable.
Dip Dip skips school to look for Kaapi, all over the streets and all the nooks and crevices she can find. When she finally finds Kaapi high up on a tree, bribing, baiting and reprimanding the cat doesn’t work, as Kaapi now is too scared to descend.
Dip Dip pulls herself up onto a branch, Kaapi is rescued and Dip Dip’s family finds both of them on the tree! Dip Dip, Kaapi the cat and Dip Dip’s wheelchair are part of the delightful cover illustration.
She is splayed on the grass laughing loudly (try to listen, and you can hear it) as Kaapi jumps on her tummy, possibly tickling her. The wheelchair stands nearby. Flip to the first page and Viswanath’s words tell you that Dip Dip is the naughtiest child in school. Raj’s illustrations have her seated on a tyre swing, screaming with glee.
The wheelchair is partially visible in the background. In the story that follows, you see Dip Dip doing many things on the wheelchair and off of it. I had to stop to consider how Dip Dip managed some things, for instance moving up a hill, or climbing onto the tyre swing.
For children who are reading, this could be a lovely way to start understanding issues of physical access to spaces, to play and much else. Another aspect of the story that is very nicely done is when Dip Dip is out and about in public, speaking confidently to people she meets on the street. By this point in the story, Dip Dip in the reader’s mind is a spirited and gutsy girl, and one doesn’t worry about her being about the streets alone.
The illustrations show the beautiful streets and hills with glimpses of Dip Dip and/or her wheelchair moving past a backyard, or on a street. She is part of the town and claiming it as her own in search of Kaapi. No fear. No panic. Just moving around her territory looking for a friend’s cat.
My feminist wish list
What is it that I liked about these books? I am a feminist, and I use this lens to the culture that I consume. When I extended a similar ask to books on disability, a wish list of sorts emerged – sensitivity in representation, a shift from stereotypes, characters with disability being significant in the story (which needn’t translate to making their disability a centrepiece), and good storytelling. How did these books fare against my tentative wish list? Beautifully.
These are gorgeous and fun stories, with positive images and very interesting ways of representing disability. The characters are well-rounded and have their own sense of self and agency, which may or may not have anything to do with their disability. The disability is not compensated for with other significant abilities or ‘specialness’. Most importantly, the stories are non-preachy and fun – something you want to share with the children in your life.
Do they cover everything that needs to be said about the issue? Of course not. They didn’t set out to do that in the first place. In these books, disability gains visibility in the storytelling. Through them, one sees children with disabilities in many roles – as part of groups, as individuals at turning points in their lives, as heroes. That’s a very good spectrum to cover, and I am looking forward to many more such stories.
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha