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Posted by Kate, July 31, 2012

Deaf and blind characters in children’s fiction

A day or two ago, I had my ears hoovered in a hospital. I will spare you the details. But immediately afterwards, everything was quite astonishingly loud. I knew that I’d had poor hearing in one ear for weeks, but hadn’t known my other ear was affected too. Afterwards, clothes rustled, page turns rasped, and my children were unbearably loud. My brain has clearly somehow adapted to this and reset some sort of internal volume control, but it was an interesting and really quite disconcerting experience for a while.

My temporarily limited hearing was not serious in any way, and I’m not comparing it to more profound and permanent hearing loss or any other kind of sensory disability. My cousin is deaf. I have been close, all her life, to the blind child to whose mother I was a birthing partner (the child’s now at university). I do have some understanding of what it means to be deaf or blind from second-hand experience, but I am in no way an expert.

Nevertheless, this experience of suddenly being able to hear things clearly again made me think about deafness and blindness in children’s books.

As I child of perhaps eight, I remember being hugely affected by a children’s biography of Helen Keller (pictured above). I somehow got her confused in my mind with the young woman, suffering from altogether different disabilities, but also raised in rural America, in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. I must have seen a reproduction of the picture at around the same time. Something about this image of isolation chimed with an idea I had of what it might be like to be Helen Keller.

But I cannot remember reading children’s fiction with deaf characters in it as a child. A quick internet search provided these lists, among others:

Sharon Pajka’s list of books for older readers

A Forest Books list, which has a lot of books for younger readers

A Wikipedia list

But none of these books is familiar to me.

I can, though, remember reading several books with blind characters, and these in particular had a very big impact on me:

By the Shores of Silver Lake and subsequent Laura Ingalls Wilder books

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

The Witch’s Daughter by Nina Bawden

Here are some lists of books with characters who are blind or partially sighted:

DCMP’s list

The Blind Children’s Fund list

The Perkins School for the Blind list

Once Upon a Bookshelf’s list

And I found this National Federation for the Blind piece on how to evaluate picture books with blind characters and how to consider the dangers of stereotyping very interesting.

I was interested to see how few books, particularly “mainstream” books aimed at a general audience, seem to feature child characters who are blind and that even fewer feature child characters who are deaf. Of course, attitudes towards disability of all kinds and its representation in children’s books have changed hugely since I was reading as a child and thinking about this change has led me to Lois Keith’s book Take Up Thy Bed and Walk reviewed here,

Are there children’s books featuring blind or deaf characters that you’re know of, and could recommend?

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