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Deaf and blind characters in children’s fiction

helen_keller.jpg-4688.jpg

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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14 Responses to “Deaf and blind characters in children’s fiction”

  • Will have to search memory longer for actual books,
    but this post did immediately make me think of –

    http://www.livingpaintings.org
    I have worked with them and they have a unique and special approach to transforming picture books into subtle 3D editions.

    They are an award winning charity that makes special raised versions of pictures that come to life when fingers feel them
    Audio descriptions tell the pictures’ stories while directing the fingertips across the raised image, describing what is being touched, felt and ‘seen’
    Combining the senses of touch and hearing in this way makes up for the missing sense of sight

    Thousands of books and packs are available Free to blind and partially sighted children, young people and adults; their families, schools and carers. Their Library delivers via the post to members across Britain and Ireland.

    I have just copied this from their site but obviously lots more to find out if you visit it.

  • On Twitter, Philip Ardagh points out that his Grubtown Tales series includes the profoundly deaf Emily Blotch and that she has a key role in SPLASH, CRASH AND LOADS OF CASH.

  • I don’t know of any books that contain a deaf character. Having severe hearing loss myself, I have experienced a range of emotions and feelings both good and bad associated with this ‘disability’. Without really thinking about it, the main character in one of the books I am writing has severe hearing loss and wears a hearing aid, she talks about this and it will become an integral part of the plot.

  • One of my former student’s mother wrote a children’s book called My Fair Child about a young girl with albinism. Maureen Ryan Esposito is the author. Maureen wrote the story based on her own experience growing up with albinism. Her two children contribute to the book by incorporating a few of their own illustrations to make the story a family project.

  • I received an email from Beth Cox, who is an editor who specialises in the representation of children with disabilities in children’s fiction. She says: do also keep in mind that minor changes can be made in mainstream books to make them more inclusive. As part of the In The Picture project, the steering group put together some basic tips for representing disabled children and disability. You can find them here: http://www.scope.org.uk/campaigns/scope-campaigns/children-picture/authors-and-illustrators/tips-illustrators

  • I have just read a newly published book called Whisper by Chrissie Keighery. In this book the protaganist, a 15 year old girl, is newly profoundly deaf due to a bad case of meningitis, and it follows her first term at a school for the deaf. It is in the YA category and looks, in depth, at the ways she can and can’t fit into society due to her disability.

  • I have a couple of lovely picture books which address hearing and visual impairment in a gentle manner inviting discussion with young children. ‘Freddy and the Fairy’ by Julia Donaldson has a hard of hearing fairy doing her best to grant the wishes of a little boy, but gets everything wrong, as the boy learns the importance of speaking clearly, and ‘Mr Jack’ is a humourous story about a visually impaired dog who fortunately has someone looking out for him when he forgets his glasses and iscoblivious to his potentially disastrous mistakes. My son loves these books and relates to grandmothers who don’t hear or see so well.

  • We love Mole’s Sunrise, all about a mole, who is blind, wanting to enjoy the sunrise and his friends explaining it to him. Living Paintings create tactile books with raised images and audio descriptions of the images for blind and partially sighted children and adults. We were able to release our adapted version of Mole’s sunrise on the same day that the mainstream version for sighted children was published.
    Read more on our website http://www.livingpaintings.org/moles-sunrise-press-release

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