Disabilities in Children's Literature

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Disabilities in Children's Literature


The presentation of mental, physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities in the children's literature genre.


The presentation of disabilities in children's literature, while historically infrequent, has nonetheless offered a breadth of insight into as well as perpetuated stereotypes for an otherwise underrepresented minority group. Often by necessity, studies of how individuals with special needs are represented in children's literature link a disparate variety of handicaps together in their examinations of the issue, regularly classifying mental, physical, cognitive, and emotional impairments together under a broad definition of the term "disability." While the issues associated with each group vary dramatically in both their individual concerns and needs, ultimately they face many of the same hurdles with regards to their representation within the broader scope of children's literature. Over the course of the evolution of English-language children's literature, depictions of disabled characters have been rare. In texts where such characters are prominently featured, many are defined almost exclusively by their impairments with few other resonating characteristics offered. More often than not, these characters are placed at the periphery or are used to engender sympathy for the protagonist. Many critics have contended that these works are frequently a child's first tangible encounter with disability and, as such, these often cliched representations of disabled persons may lead to confusion or anxiety when children interact with handicapped individuals. However, beyond the stereotypes, several children's authors have actively attempted to use the children's literature genre to construct informative and accurate portrayals of various physical and mental disabilities as a means to educate and enlighten young readers.

In an article in Children's Literature in Education, Wendy Smith D'Arezzo has noted that "ten percent of the school population in the United States is currently identified as having a disability that significantly affects the child's ability to perform in the classroom." With such a large portion of school-aged children falling under the umbrella term "disabled," critics have argued that it becomes more and more important to acknowledge disabilities in such mainstream media as children's literature. M K. Rudman has asserted that, "When any segment of society is excluded from its literature, the implication is thereby conveyed that the group is without value." Thus, children's literature can be utilized to help young readers gain comprehension and insight into their special needs peers, which will ideally foster greater understanding and inclusion. Barbara H. Baskin and Karen Harris, authors of Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, have suggested that such social inroads may prove most valuable for disabled children, because, among the many misunderstandings associated with the disabled, the belief that their primary concerns begin and end with their particular impairment is an oversimplification. Baskin and Harris have argued that, "Many disabled adults, in describing their childhood, claim that coming to terms with their impairment was a minor issue compared to with the more painful problems of isolation, overprotection, segregation, pity, or other similar rejecting or punitive behavior." With positive examples of interaction demonstrated through children's literature, Baskin and Harris have alleged that "the probability of acceptance is enhanced. That is, as positive, direct personal encounters are structured and information that normalizes and clarifies is internalized, rejection decreases."

Historically, the presentation of disabilities in juvenile literature has rarely been overly sympathetic or empathetic. Indeed, in the early eras of children's literature, disabilities were often associated with guilt or crime. For example, Mary Jane Kilner's Adventures of a Pincushion (1787) features a girl who regularly lies, actions that Kilner links to the girl's subsequent paralysis from a horse kick. Such implicit warnings to children to be on their best behavior were typical of children's literature in the eighteenth century, where fear of reprisal, whether parental or divine, was considered a valid means of social education. Lois Keith has even suggested that fairy tale representations of "evil" had their roots in disability: "The fairytales of northern Europe, with their physical depictions of witches (often in the guise of the wicked stepmother), continued the idea that a physical impairment was a sign of ‘badness.’" However, the negative connotations of associating disability with bad behavior or wickedness were only one method of presentation. In the Victorian era, children's literature began over-sentimentalizing death and disability in children. This tragic mode resulted in a saturation of injured protagonists in juvenile literature of the period. The disabilities were inevitably physical in nature, as seen in such renowned characters as Tiny Tim, the saccharinely sweet, crippled son of Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) and Clara, the wealthy handicapped recluse in Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1880). Still, even with these disabled characters in the forefront, both frailty and illness overcome were manifestations of a "miracle cure" methodology that seemingly pervaded the era. Katy Carr from Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did (1873), Colin Craven of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911), and the titular heroine of Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna (1913) all suffered from injuries or illnesses that kept them bed-ridden, however, their injuries were unrealistic and vague, seemingly created for pity and the inevitable implementation of a miracle cure that was brought about by their inherent goodness and faith. Such representations can be seen as in line with the ingrained didactic sensibilities of children's literature in the era. Many other works simply reduced characters to a personification of their limitations, even in some cases, being identified solely by their impairment. As Baskin and Harris have noted, such characters were only "known by his or her disability … the handicapped character has no name, in other stories, such as [Dikken Zwilgmeyer's] Johnny Blossom (1912), the disability formed part of the name, as for example, when one character was always referred to as ‘Katerina the Dwarf.’" In stories where disabled characters served more incidental roles, they seemingly existed only to demonstrate the Christian kindness of the primary protagonist, as with Raymond M. Alden's The Christmas Tree Forest (1906) and Zwilgmeyer's Johnny Blossom. Such presentations of the disabled were common, Baskin and Harris have argued, demonstrating that "when they were portrayed, they usually played restricted, particularized roles. Often they served as models of forbearance and humility or as rightfully punished malefactors. The onset for the disability was especially fertile ground for gleaning object lessons."

The mid-twentieth century saw vast improvements in the depictions of people with disabilities in popular culture, though again, the offerings in the children's literature genre were limited almost exclusively to works featuring characters with physical impairments. This may have been, in part, due to a manifest increase in the visibility of polio after World War II. Regardless, Baskin and Harris have stated that, "the treatment of these issues remained romanticized and ‘happily ever after’ continued to be the favored ending. The barriers were being breached, however, and the unnameable could at last be discussed." In 1970, as the international visibility of the impaired began increasing, scholars Douglas Bilken and Robert Bogdan published their theory of "handicapism in children's literature" in the Council for Interracial Books Bulletin, identifying eleven stereotypical roles for disabled children in juvenile literature, which included functioning as figures of pity, victims, evil, simple props, superhuman, overly bitter, a burden to those around them, asexual, and isolated, among others. Ellen Rubin and Emily Strauss Watson have suggested that, "Drawing a parallel from sexist and racist language, ‘handicapist language’ has a similarly damaging effect on self image but is now just beginning to be recognized by the public in general and writers in particular." Greta D. Little has contended that, even as late as the 1980s, the disabled in children's literature continued to share unfortunate similarities with their earlier brethren; where the "role of these characters in the plot continues to be defined by their handicaps, as it was in the nineteenth century," albeit couched in more positive and accurate terminology. However, even though some have argued that the late twentieth century witnessed several compelling and authentic portrayals of the physically handicapped in children's literature, the same cannot be said for works that address the mentally handicapped. Few books written expressly for children that realistically present mentally handicapped characters exist, though such classics as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon (1966), and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) have been appropriated by many teenaged readers.

Among the first realistic depictions of mental disabilities in children's literature was Marlene Fanta Shyer's Welcome Home, Jellybean (1978), in which the protagonist, Neil, has an older sister, Gerri, newly home from a mental health institution. Shyer portrays both Neil and his family's reaction to Gerri's presence with surprising empathy. Mara Sapon-Shevin has stated that the "problems which Geraldine creates by her arrival and subsequent behavior in the family are not minimized; she bangs her head against the wall at night, keeping her family and irate neighbors awake; she ruins two of Neil's school reports by past- ing labels from cans on them (imitating his scrapbook)." Shyer even demonstrates the heartbreaking realities that sometimes occur in such stressful situations, such as the eventual dissolution of Neil's parents' marriage, due in part to the increased stress resulting from Gerri's mental handicaps. Claudia Mills has opined that, "Books for children about mental disability inescapably convey values about how we should respond to differences in intelligence. They can portray time in the ‘slow group’ as a shameful disgrace or present difficulty doing simple math problems as the butt of an extended joke; they can tell us that the life of a disabled person is not worth living—or worth living, but only because the disabled person happens to be specially talented in some other way. The message that I think is most true to the moral reality is that we are all differently abled in all different kinds of ways: none of us is normal. The best we can do is to treat each other kindly, to help each other plant our buttons and, we can hope, reap our unexpected oranges." In Welcome Home, Jellybean, despite the aggravations, Neil is able to learn to accept Gerri's limitations and enjoy his relationship with his sister. Such relationships form the basis of many successful and realistic books about special needs children with mental issues. Tina Taylor Dyches and Mary Anne Prater have suggested that the "trend toward including individuals with mental retardation/developmental disabilities in mainstream society is impacting their treatment in children's literature. During the past decade, authors have depicted children with MRDD [mental retardation/developmental disability] who are living in their families' homes rather than in institutions, attending neighborhood schools rather than specialized schools, and having a variety of friends rather than having no friends." Contemporary children's books have also begun to reflect the growing public response to less conventional disabilities, like those resulting from emotional and cognitive difficulties or impairments like attention deficit disorder, which has been featured in Susan Shreve's Trout and Me (2002) and Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza trilogy (1998-2002). Marah Gubar has stated that Gantos' depiction of his protagonist Joey's struggles with an increasingly common and misunderstood disorder is particularly empathetic, contending that Gantos' books offer "a multi-layered critique of the way in which adults—including educators, parents, and doctors—treat Joey. The Joey Pigza trilogy does not simply aim to induce child readers to relate to its troubled child protagonist; it also prods adults to confront our habit of making premature assumptions about disabled children and unwise judgments about the way we treat them."


Jacob Abbott
Elfred; or, The Blind Boy and His Pictures (juvenile fiction) 1856

Tom Birdseye
Just Call Me Stupid (juvenile novel) 1993

Barbara D. Booth
Mandy [illustrations by Jim LaMarche] (picture book) 1991

Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden (juvenile novel) 1911

Betsy Byars
The Summer of the Swans [illustrations by Ted Co-Conis] (juvenile novel) 1970

Lucille Clifton
My Friend Jacob [illustrations by Thomas Di Grazia] (picture book) 1980

Susan Coolidge
What Katy Did (juvenile fiction) 1873

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak (juvenile fiction) 1875

Barthe DeClements
Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You (juvenile novel) 1985

Nancy W. Faber
Cathy's Secret Kingdom (juvenile novel) 1963

Jack Gantos
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (juvenile novel) 1998
Joey Pigza Loses Control (juvenile novel) 2000
What Would Joey Do? (juvenile novel) 2002

Karen Hesse
Just Juice [illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker] (juvenile novel) 1998

Deborah Kent
Belonging (young adult novel) 1978

Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon (juvenile novel) 1966

Mary Jane Kilner
Adventures of a Pincushion (juvenile fiction) 1787

Gerda Klein
The Blue Rose [photographs by Norma Holt] (picture book) 1974

M. J. McIntosh
Blind Alice (juvenile fiction) 1868

Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson
I Have a Sister, My Sister Is Deaf (juvenile novel) 1977

Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty (young adult novel) 1993

Kin PlattHey, Dummy (juvenile novel) 1971

Eleanor H. Porter
Pollyanna: The Glad Book [illustrations by Stockton Mulford] (juvenile novel) 1913

Howard Pyle
Otto of the Silver Hand (juvenile fiction) 1888

Marlene Fanta Shyer
Welcome Home, Jellybean (juvenile novel) 1978

Harriet Langsam Sobol
My Brother Steven Is Retarded (juvenile novel) 1977

Ivan Southall
Let the Balloon Go [illustrations by Ian Ribbons] (juvenile fiction) 1968

Johanna Spyri
Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre: Eine Geschichte fuer Kinder und auch fuer solche welche die Kinder lieb haben [Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children; translation by Louise Brooks; illustrations by Cecil Leslie] (juvenile novel) 1880

Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout
Whales to See The (juvenile novel) 1975

Janet Tashjian
Tru Confessions (young adult novel) 1997

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Farmer Boy [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile fiction) 1933
On the Banks of Plum Creek [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile fiction) 1937

Patricia Wrightson
I Own the Racecourse [illustrations by Margaret Horder] (juvenile fiction) 1968

Dikken Zwilgmeyer
Johnny Blossom (juvenile fiction) 1912


Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. "Assessing and Using Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled." In Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 38-72. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.

[In the following essay, Baskin and Harris offer an overview of how disabilities have historically been presented in children's literature and suggest methods of assessing and incorporating contemporary and classic examples of such texts into school curriculums.]

Our literary inheritance is strong and enduring, yet is constantly modified and reinterpreted in the cauldron of social change. Radical transformations in society caused by shifts in political, sociological, and social class positions have impact on the content, format, and style of contemporary literature. The posture of outgroups, for example, has profoundly changed. Now the tone of their writings is frequently more abrasive, strident, and demanding rather than obsequious. Their quest is both qualitative and quantitative, seeking greater visibility and more positive characterization. The plea for mere tolerance has been replaced by an insistence on equality of treatment in the literary context. Initial evidence of success for these groups can be seen in the outpouring of books concerning formerly socially marginal populations.

Juvenile literature, paralleling adult literary changes, has been profoundly affected by the new societal realities. Previously taboo content is now commonplace. Those topics once considered too sophisticated, emotionally devastating, complex, or exotic are now deemed appropriate for young readers. Furthermore, style and form have expanded from the traditional third person, expository, chronological mode to a variety of literary formats, including mixed sequence, first person presentations, absurdist, surrealistic, or impressionistic styles, and other forms common in adult writings.

Concurrent with this development is a new recognition of children's literature as a legitimate art form worthy of the attention of serious writers. Earlier, children's classics were often disparaged—even by their own creators—as frivolous entertainments. Although in the distant past, lesser talents were considered good enough to write for children, now there are many first-rate authors who view juvenile literature as the major forum for their creative efforts and some who move easily between writing for juvenile and adult audiences.

As these contemporary authors make more stringent artistic demands upon themselves, so they tend to make greater intellectual demands upon their young audiences. Serious writers perceive of themselves not as mere purveyors of entertainment or didactic messages, as in the past, but frequently as interpreters of the social order as well as shapers of a new consciousness.


Historically, children's stories were neither conceptualized nor evaluated in literary terms. Rather, they were thought of primarily as vehicles for reinforcing moral instruction or for providing academic information in palatable form. The bulk of the books produced for juvenile audiences exhorted, intimidated, cajoled, or threatened. Models of probity were contrasted with dire examples of the tragic consequences of misbehavior. Puritan literature warned of eternal damnation for what seem today to be relatively minor vices. Later generations of writers, commonly and extravagantly reflecting the work ethic, promised social and economic rewards for industriousness and cooperation with others. Still later, consideration, persistence, and diligence were extolled. Although mores of society, as reflected by authors, changed and their emphases altered, didactic intent persisted and even today permeates a large portion of writing for children.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of children's books in America, the desire to teach and to preach has overridden the need to produce good literature. The result has been a torrent of forgettable books that have found their well-deserved place in oblivion. Yet, during their period of popularity, these stories often reflected the conventional wisdom and today provide insights into contemporary attitudes and perceptions.

In those early books for children, of which we still have some record, disabled characters were rarely found. On those occasions when they were portrayed, they usually played restricted, particularized roles. Often they served as models of forbearance and humility or as rightfully punished malefactors. The onset of the disability was especially fertile ground for gleaning object lessons. If the disability were the result of an accident, then carelessness or misbehavior by the victim was the usual cause. In Adventures of a Pincushion,1 for example, a young girl who told a lie was kicked by a horse and crippled for life! The author hastened to assure the reader that cause and effect were at work in this calamity.

Although the humor and absurdity in this typical incident are apparent to modern audiences, the moral lesson in the story reflected contemporary beliefs. The idea that there is a physical marking or punishment as a natural and inevitable outcome for immoral behavior was explicitly stated in Kingsley's aside to the readers in The Water Babies: "… for you must know and believe that people's souls make their bodies, just as a snail makes its shell."2

Occasionally the handicapped were perceived as unfortunate victims rather than culprits to be punished. Young readers were invited to observe the poor crippled child, à la Tiny Tim, who, although having great burdens to bear, was unwaveringly kind, humble, and considerate—unlike certain ungrateful boys and girls who fail to appreciate their own good fortune. Typical of this presentation was an incident from a book called, apparently without sarcastic intent, Happy Home Stories. This little volume was published by the American Tract Society, a popular producer of many unenduring similar works.

When Charlie Reed was a year old, his nurse let him fall on the floor, and his back was so badly hurt that he could never walk without crutches. The poor fellow used to feel very sad, when he grew older, as he saw other boys running and jumping and playing as much as they pleased, while he had to be on his bed nearly all the time, and could only limp around a little with his crutches.

Charlie used to watch at the window every day for a little apple-girl, of whom he always bought an apple, and she felt so sorry for the lame boy that she saved her largest apple for him.

"You are rich and have all the money you want," she said to Charlie once.

"You are richer than I, for you can walk," answered Charlie.3

Juliana Horatia Ewing was one of the most celebrated authors of children's novels in the second half of the last century. Two of her stories dealing with disabled characters typify the attitudes of the day. They depict the exceptional person as a paragon of virtue, wonderfully patient, good-natured, and brave under any and all circumstances. The hero of The Story of a Short Life was crippled trying to save his dog's life. Although still young when he died as a result of his injuries, he was able to endure his suffering by imagining himself a soldier wounded in battle.4 In the story "The Blind Man and the Talking Dog" from Dandelion Clocks and Other Tales, the resigned and uncomplaining blind man was contrasted with the "selfish and imperious" mayor's son. The former was patient and undemanding, finding happiness in the warm sunshine, the few pennies dropped in his hat, and his dog's loyalty and affection, while riches and the love of his fair wife were insufficient to satisfy the greedy young man.5

The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak6 is still popular today. A fantasy, it presented the title character as one who, though exiled, isolated, and imprisoned, remained kind, gentle, loving, and forgiving. It was clear that his lameness made these qualities all the more praiseworthy. Heidi7 included in its cast of characters a blind grandmother, a lame girl, and a slow-learning boy. These characters were better developed, more credible, and less sentimentalized than Ewing's, but the improvement was only relative. Clara, the wealthy crippled girl, was taught to walk by Heidi. Although her first steps were painful, Clara's discomfort diminished by the third step, and buoyed by Heidi's cheerful determination and the therapeutic alpine air, she made an almost instantaneous recovery.

Another story from the last century, Otto of the Silver Hand,8 can still be found in libraries today. The treatment of disability was very different in this romantic, swashbuckling retelling of a violent old legend by a highly gifted writer. Otto's amputation was a deliberate and ruthless act of revenge. The villain selected a mutilation that was directed at Otto's father, symbolically dramatizing his intention to deny the passage of power from father to son. Otto's body was the battleground for the expression of conflict between opposing forces. Pyle could not resist a parting moral, bluntly stating that personal loss was preferable to brutal villainy: "Better a hand of silver, than a hand of iron."9

Two stories from the early days of the twentieth century, The Christmas Tree Forest10 and Johnny Blossom,11 used disabled characters to deliver sermons about unselfishness and concern for others. In the former novel, Grandfather Christmas left presents every year for children to choose for their friends. One day a stranger suggested that every one should choose gifts for him- or herself instead. Only one boy, Inge, rejected the idea and decided he would rather get presents to give to his sister, "the poor crippled child [who] could not go a step toward the forest."12 None of the other children was able to find gifts, but the noble Inge found plenty and soon "there are many toys piled up about the little cripple's chair."13

Johnny Blossom demonstrated his generosity by paying for an operation so that his grandmother's sight could be restored, providing spiritual comfort for a man with an injured back, and inviting a "crippled boy with big solemn eyes" and "Katerina the dwarf" to his party. Fortunately, there were enough disabled characters around to provide adequate expression for Johnny's goodness. These two books illustrate practices commonly used in such tales. The disabled person was known by his or her disability. Often, as in The Christmas Tree Forest or "The Blind Man and the Talking Dog," the handicapped character had no name; in other stories, such as Johnny Blossom, the disability formed part of the name, as, for example, when one character was always referred to as "Katerina the dwarf."


As the twentieth century progressed, a gradual and continuing improvement in realistic books for children was evident. Characters with handicaps began to emerge as believable people rather than pasteboard props. However, implications of disability were rarely examined in depth and fairy-tale solutions remained dominant. The disabled began to be depicted as having a secure and viable place in the family structure. Many of the stories provided warm and cozy portraits of home life. For example, Francis was a central character in The Cottage at Bantry Bay14 and also in the sequel, Francie on the Run.15 He had a severe limp of unspecified origin that did not in any way impede his adventurousness.

However, in these stories, descriptions of real problems associated with the disability are intermixed with totally unrealistic resolutions to problems. Francie expressed concern about how his leg would be when he was grown and whether it would affect how others would regard him. His mother assured him that "greatness comes from the brains and heart, not from the feet."16 This seems the kind of natural and supportive response a sensitive and loving mother might give. But, on another occasion, Francie and his brother discovered some of that buried treasure so elusive in reality and so common in children's books. It allowed them to pay for an operation to correct Francie's orthopedic problem and the author to find a convenient and happy ending for her story. In the sequel, Francie left the hospital where he had been for seven(!) months and successfully made his way home across Ireland by himself. Problems were beginning to be honestly stated, but resolutions often continued to be preposterous.

Probably the best-known disabled character from the first half of this century was Laura's sister, Mary, from such Laura Ingalls Wilder novels as Farmer Boy17 and On the Banks of Plum Creek.18 The perennially popular series was, above all, a tale of a loving and mutually supportive family. Mary's life, like that of her sister's and parents,' was filled with the crises of frontier living, in her case exacerbated by the problems of blindness. Mary never gave way to despair, nor lashed out and railed against a cruel and unjust fate, nor became bitter or withdrawn. Such common manifestations of human emotion were not a part of children's literature of the time, no matter what the provocation or subject matter. Most writers of the period apparently took seriously the advice given in a well-known manual entitled Writing for Children in which authors were enjoined to "make the characters live the lives of ordinary, healthy [emphasis added] human boys and girls."19

Although the dominant pattern of juvenile fiction presented a carefully laundered view of life, a new and growing trend, roughly coinciding with the onset of World War II, could be discerned. Perceptions of what children were like were changing. In education, for example, the image of the child as a passive recipient of the teacher's knowledge was changing to that of discoverer or even, on a modest scale, to that of decision maker. It followed naturally that if children were to be given the responsibility of making decisions, then it was essential that they have the requisite information on which to base suitable judgments.

The construct of childhood as a happy, carefree time was seen to have evolved more from nostalgia than derived from an honest, objective observation of young people. Illness, accidents, infirmity, and personal and social disruptions are facts of life. The prevailing attitude that such things were not fit topics for the young left children ill-equipped to cope with crises when they occurred. Some writers began to realize that efforts to protect children from knowledge of a threatening, unhappy, or capricious world, rather than providing security, left them unprepared and therefore vulnerable. As these psychological insights gained popular currency, books began to appear on such formerly forbidden subjects as divorce, death, institutionalization, racial discrimination, and disability. Nevertheless, the treatment of these issues remained romanticized and "happily ever after" continued to be the favored ending. The barriers were being breached, however, and the unnameable could at last be discussed. Gradually more honest and realistic presentations would appear.


One major change from post-World War II to the present was the increase of disabilities considered appropriate thematic material for young readers. Blindness and orthopedic conditions were the most frequently selected disabilities in early children's literature. In junior fiction, polio was the major cause of orthopedic problems and, as a fictional device, had great dramatic potential. It provided a character test, the resolution of which established the heroic credentials of the character. In essence, instead of a ritual slaying of a dragon, the satisfactory confrontation of the consequences of a feared viral agent would be substituted. Since the residual physical effects of polio could range from minimal crippling to near total paralysis, the writer could control the impact of the illness. By electing minimal disablements, the credibility of virtually unlimited achievement could be sustained.

Poliomyelitis was in fact a major crippler and its ubiquitous expression in the literature at that time reflected contemporary incidence and concern. Blindness, however, which is relatively rare, was represented in fiction far in excess of its actual occurrence. In the 1940s and 1950s other disorders were grossly underrepresented or totally absent. Stories about persons who manifested conditions of developmental disability, emotional dysfunction, deafness, or cardiac or neurological impairment were almost nonexistent.

There is no conclusive evidence to explain why certain functional disorders were popular and others were not. However, several factors are suggestive. Considerable historic precedent exists for the utilization of blind and lame characters in both adult and early children's fiction. Additionally, except for cerebral palsy, there appears to be a relationship between the visibility or obviousness of the condition and the likelihood of its presence in a story in which the author wishes to include disabled characters. Such overt manifestations of disability were readily comprehen- sible to readers and drew upon presumed sympathetic perceptions. Wheelchairs and guide dogs were conspicuous, clear signals that alerted the reader to a specific response set. (The recent movement away from concentration on highly visible disabilities to less apparent ones, such as deafness, asthma, emotional dysfunction, and so on, has created more demands on authors since it diminishes common obvious cues to youthful readers; writers must make more refined uses of dramatization, interaction, and characterization to elicit empathic reactions.)

Well-known contemporary figures often raised public consciousness about particular handicapping conditions, creating in the process a heightened interest and receptivity toward books on the subject. Public identification with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and awareness of his struggles to rise above his disabling condition provided a model to be replicated and emulated in children's fiction. Years later, the Kennedy family's association with mental retardation lent it "respectability" and soon thereafter fictional books on this topic found their way to the juvenile literary marketplace.


Beginning in the 1960s, there was an explosion of books on difficult subjects, ushering in a new climate wherein more complicated or subtle differences in human behavior or conditions could be explored. Although there are still underrepresented areas—speech problems, epilepsy, specific learning disabilities—this situation is gradually being redressed. Furthermore, fictional treatment of impairments has changed radically. The complexities of many problems, the unlikelihood of easy solutions, and the social conflict and abuse sustained by the involved characters and their families are being probed and scrutinized in detail. Moreover, there has been a shifting of focus to an internal perspective as the intricate, multiple ramifications of the involved character's life unfold.


The most complex, sophisticated level of literary experience is the esthetic. Educators ultimately want children to understand not only the literal meaning of fiction but also to appreciate how structure, symbolism, idea, and style enhance the beauty and meaning of a work of art. However, using literature for other than esthetic purposes is also a legitimate academic goal. Fiction can be used as a means of pleasurable presentation of information and as a vehicle for understanding oneself and society.

Major authors, such as Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Camus, were able to create impressive literary works that simultaneously made profound social statements. Yet writers of lesser renown have also shaped beliefs that have triggered social or political response. Despite an unimaginative plot, banal language, and stereotyped characterizations, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin so dramatized the plight of slaves that President Lincoln reportedly remarked upon meeting her, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war"20—an excessive claim that nevertheless acknowledged the impact her book had on enlisting public sentiment for emancipation. Thus, books of social protest, through their own momentum, brought into high relief certain egregious wrongs and generated energy for the initiation of social change.

Fiction has the capacity to translate vast societal abuse into individual terms. In this transformation, an author personalizes a problem, reducing it to comprehensible scope and enabling the reader to identify with the individual undergoing stress. Once that identification has been established, generalization to the affected group is facilitated. Through such techniques, novels may deliver both cognitive and affective messages.

But even information alone may generate affective spinoff. Learning the manual alphabet and using finger spelling as a communication tool enable the learner to realize that the motions are simple movements in a comprehensible standard code—motions that have as their base the familiar alphabet—and that all those rapid and apparently confusing movements are not an esoteric, unknowable choreography. In this manner, knowledge demystifies and, in the process, may act to show commonalities and ultimately to foster connectedness and identification. Fiction, however, has a powerful advantage over nonfictional formats in that its inherent drama highlights, illuminates, and directs the changing sensibilities of the reader, potentially on a profound emotional level.

Increasing the quantity of a child's knowledge is a comparatively easy task. Factual data and their interpretation are the central core of the academic experience. Hence, increasing one's store of knowledge is basically a cumulative act. The process of changing attitudes, however, may require the abandonment of comfortable and entrenched beliefs and their replacement by new or opposite formulations. Such long-held beliefs may be psychologically reassuring but, if stereotyped or based on faulty informa- tion, may ultimately be socially destructive as well as inimical to individual growth. The ongoing task of dislodging these biased ingrained assumptions, beliefs, and values is a formidable challenge.

Implicit in the recommendation to use fiction to foster attitudinal change is the belief that literature has the power to expand and deepen understanding of the human condition. Juvenile books have been suggested as effective social change agents by Huck, Arbuthnot, and others. It is almost a tenet of faith, as exemplified in the title Reading Ladders for Human Relations,21 that books have the potential for behavioral impact. There is widespread support for the use of books as tools for benign intervention in the campaign to change common social prejudices. Indeed, the conviction that books have a potent, whether good or nefarious, influence is virtually unanimous. Religious and political zealots and special-interest groups have engaged in extensive action to promote, censor, or eliminate books, clearly on the presumption of literature's ability to influence and shape attitudes or action. As Rosenblatt states:

The experience of literature, far from being for the reader a passive process of absorption is a form of intense personal activity…. Through books, the reader may explore his own nature, become aware of the potentialities for thought and feeling within himself, acquire clearer perspective, develop aims and a sense of direction.22

Furthermore, history reveals that adults have been especially sensitive to the malleability of children's minds and have designed didactic campaigns to mold behavior for a variety of causes. But the process of modifying attitudes and values is a subtle one. The assumption that a simple direct correlation exists between story message and subsequent reader behavior is naive. Nevertheless, literature supplements other factors in its ongoing incremental role in values clarification. As Frank reports:

an individual's course through life is not determined by one force but is the product of many. His choices of action, his response to situations, to experiences within the family and outside it grow out of what he was born with plus the many influences that play on him through his environment—and reading is one of these influences.23


Mildly and moderately disabled children are being mainstreamed into nonspecial schools in greater and greater numbers. The extent of their psychological and social integration will be mediated to a large extent by the attitudes of their nondisabled peers. Children with disabilities previously were excluded from regular classrooms because those environments were basically dysfunctional, unwelcoming, and unaccommodating. To return them to a setting containing the same inimical components could result in considerable psychological damage.

Many disabled adults, in describing their childhood, claim that coming to terms with their impairment was a minor issue compared with the more painful problems of isolation, overprotection, segregation, pity, or other similar rejecting or punitive behavior. Because of hospitalization, maladaptive schools, or similar factors restricting experience, significant and obvious academic differences between themselves and their peers often arose. Additionally, they felt physical atypicality had been a terrible burden in the many settings that inordinately valued physical beauty or motor skills. The inhospitable psychological climate that resulted inhibited personal growth and social acceptance and added an often intolerable burden to whatever limitations their impairment caused.

Obviously, considerable care must be taken to avoid the repetition of such mistakes. Those educators actively concerned with social as well as physical integration of exceptional children have concluded that adapted physical plants and curricula are insufficient since they deal only with externals and do not alter the psychological climate. Sociometric studies have indicated that while children with special needs might be able to function academically in such modified circumstances, their acceptance and social adjustment are frequently inadequate, and, without intervention, these children tend to be rejected or excluded from desirable social constellations of their peers. Studies have shown that attempts to reduce rejecting behaviors by proximity alone or information alone also tend to be unsuccessful. However, when contact is sensitively arranged and is buttressed by appropriate cognitive and affective understanding, the probability of acceptance is enhanced. That is, as positive, direct personal encounters are structured and information that normalizes and clarifies is internalized, rejection decreases.

Problems arise from lack of knowledge about what is appropriate behavior in contacts between a disabled and a nondisabled child, since in many instances the latter have had little or no exposure to play or academic activities or even indirect contact with affected peers. In the absence of role models (an inevitable consequence of exclusion), unaffected youngsters are unsure not only of possible actions to take but of the receptivity of their behavior once that choice is made. A further concern involves the response of nonaffected peers. If children fear that the isolation handicapped youngsters endure is contagious, then even though they may feel guilty about not becoming involved, avoidance may seem preferable. In addition, confusion about whether to offer assistance to a slow-moving child in a wheelchair or whether to invite a blind classmate to parties or outings is often unsettling.

Although these concerns may seem trivial, it is just such mundane aspects of social exchange that function to foster relationships. Through the presentations of like situations in fictional settings, young readers can vicariously explore a whole array of alternatives and glean some insight both into the process and value of social exchange with disabled peers.

The behavior of handicapped children is often subject to misinterpretation. Lack of response to social overtures by a disabled individual is often interpreted as ineptness or rejection, when in reality it may be the result of misunderstanding or blocked communication. Non-disabled children often assume that the visible aspect of an impairment is its totality, and base their expectations on their observations. In truth, the most significant components may be invisible, and this lack of understanding can form a barrier to building friendships.


Literature can have both preparatory and sustaining functions in the process of providing knowledge and altering attitudes toward the handicapped. One major problem that touches on the role of a library in a free society needs clarification in this regard. The handicapped join many special-interest groups that clamor for favorable representation in books. But calling for literary manipulations is a dangerous game. The analogy to politics is pertinent. Blatant attempts to merchandise political candidates through selling their imagined virtues and ignoring issues have made many citizens angry about the packaging of those held up for public adulation.

Implicit in such personality manipulations are the legitimizing of Madison Avenue techniques in the remaking of human images. While the intent may be either sincere or self-serving, the process itself is corrupting. As an image campaign is conceptualized, values seen as positive are elevated and inflated and those perceived as derogatory are ignored or grossly minimized. These actions thus falsify the human so treated: The individual becomes a product and the act degenerates into propaganda. Inevitably, the humanity of the person is reduced and the astute consumer, angry at the hard sell and the presumption of his or her ready pliability, resents this approach.

Many advocates of outgroups assert that the public must be saturated with models that reflect prodigious accomplishments or quintessential goodness—models that are antidotes to the ubiquitous stereotypes found in many cultural forms. This posture frequently surfaces in children's literature where the focal character is so idealized that resemblance to an actual person vanishes. The result is a packaged item, like a gas-ripened tomato, superficially attractive in its untroubled perfection, but without taste, substance, or relation to its real counterpart.

As a corollary to including exclusively favorable depictions, special-interest groups also insist that unfavorable portrayals be eliminated from holdings or be actively boycotted in future purchases. If this were allowed, then the right to free access to information and interpretation would be endangered. Adhering to such demands would not only place intolerable burdens on libraries but could be self-defeating as well. Clearly, different reviewers reading the same book might come to diametrically opposed conclusions as to whether or not the depiction was favorable. Moreover, permitting this kind of censorship, no matter how noble the intent, opens the way to continuous review by any agency or individual vociferous enough to command a hearing. While the job of countering misinformation and prejudice may be subject to subversion by some of the holdings of the library, restraints to free access are clearly intolerable.


While it is not the function of libraries to actively promote selected social causes, educators can deliberately and effectively use carefully chosen library holdings to further mainstreaming goals. It is therefore essential that a wide spectrum of books that offer insight into the problems of the disabled be made available and aggressively promoted. When books are used to facilitate the integration process, much care must be taken in their selection. All books about disability or that contain disabled characters cannot automatically be presumed useful; some even may be counterproductive. Occasionally, these works have inaccuracies that destroy or seriously diminish their potential effectiveness.


One of the first obligations of a writer is the presentation of truth. This is a particularly difficult task in this field since mythology, a strong sense of mission, or moral outrage often becloud the author's vision. Nevertheless, unless a sizable portion of literature deals honestly with these problems and issues, this absence denies identity, even existence, and reduces the handicapped reader to a feeling of invisibility. The nonhandicapped reader, if exposed to inaccurate writing, may misperceive the disabled and behave inappropriately when confronted with the real-life equivalent. Readers' literary experiences should not conflict with accurate perceptions of the real world. If they do, children learn to mistrust the literary message as distorting or to devalue their own observations. Accuracy in relation to specifics and to overall situations is a significant criterion in writing about this population.

In assessing this genre, the following questions should be posed: Is the nomenclature accurate? If the author is purposely vague, does this detract from the description or development of the character? Is the description of the handicapping condition consistent with medical or psychological practice? Are the accoutrements and paraphernalia associated with the disability correctly described and utilized? Has the author ignored critical aspects of the disability or distorted them in any way? Are the social, psychological, and emotional ramifications of exceptionality developed in a credible manner? Are the genesis, current conditions, and prognoses harmonious with reasonable expectations? Is the resolution of the story dependent on improbable events or illogical behavior on the part of characters? Is the vocabulary consonant with age, developmental level, or situation of the speaker? In summary, do the parts of the structure, as well as the final impression generated by the story, contribute to an accurate perception by the reader?

In those books that are unsatisfactory because of misinformation, errors seem to be of three major types: those that incorrectly describe symptomatology, treatment, or prognosis; those that misrepresent societal conditions by distortion or omission; and those that describe highly improbable human behavior by either the handicapped or other characters in response to disabling conditions.

Alan's sister in Hey, Dummy24 is referred to as autistic. From descriptions of her behavior, the label is inappropriate. Although inaccurate, this error is trivial in terms of its significance in the story. However, in He Is Your Brother,25 Lawrence, the "autistic" child, is a major character and flaws in his presentation are critical. An assessment more in keeping with his actions would be that of a severely conduct-disturbed child who is able to cloak himself in autisticlike behavior as a means of manipulating his environment. A further incongruity concerns this six-year-old's ability to play spontaneously and without instruction "the slow movement from the Dvorak." Although some autistic children have outstanding musical ability, the episode described is unbelievable.

Errors appearing in other works are often of central import, creating faulty impressions in the minds of unknowledgeable readers. Some learning-disabled children exhibit writing reversals that generally involve confusion of individual words, such as reading "saw" for "was," or individual letters, such as "d" for "b." The kind of reversal exemplified in the title Whales to See The26 is so unlikely as to be unique and gives a distorted impression of this aspect of the behavior of learning-disabled children.

Occasionally, the disparity between the identified disorder and its manifestation in a fictional character is so incongruent as to grossly subvert understanding. Dawn, the severely retarded child in The Fortune Cake,27 is able to write a 99-word message—a feat far beyond the abilities of such children. Anne, Cathy's stepsister, is diagnosed, described, and placed in a school for mentally retarded children in Cathy at the Crossroads.28 In the sequel, Cathy's Secret Kingdom,29 this label is retroactively altered to emotional dysfunction. The change in labels blurs the distinction between two different disorders.

Rehabilitative misrepresentation concerning faulty descriptions of therapeutic intervention is seen in Whales to See The.30 The strong impression that heavy daily drug dosage is standard therapy for all learning-disabled children is given in this novel. Such an impression is erroneous. One of the most controversial techniques for treatment of developmentally disabled children is that in which patterning procedures are employed. The Deep Search31 and Listen, Lissa!32 hint at its remediative success with children exhibiting retarded behavior. To suggest these questionable therapies in juvenile literature seems inappropriate when the results claimed by practitioners are presently questioned by major researchers in the professional community.

Spontaneous cure is a frequently used device for resolution of problems created by disability. The idea that shock or trauma is a remedy for physical or psychological impairments does not seem to diminish in popularity in fictional works despite its lack of prevalence in reality. Edward, in Key of Gold, is crippled as the result of polio. His clairvoyant doctor predicts that a shock would "make him forget himself some day and he will begin to walk involuntarily."33 Needless to say, Edward recovers in just this manner. In Pablito's New Feet,34 the central character's sudden spontaneous ability to walk, despite months of futile therapy, provides an example of both deficient medical knowledge and slipshod plot structure. In Wisdom to Know,35 a woman who has been committed to a mental institution for many years begins an amazingly speedy recovery after hearing a song that she had written being played on the piano. This kind of instant rehabilitation, more commonly reported by writers than psychiatrists or physicians, has more dramatic than medical viability.

Miraculous cures, especially through divine intervention, present unique problems for the young reader. In A Certain Small Shepherd,36 a mute child's gift to a young woman who gives birth to an infant on Christmas Day results in the restoration of speech. In A Charm for Paco's Mother,37 a Mexican boy, who makes a pilgrimage to a shrine to pray for his blind mother, is delayed by the many acts of goodness he performs. He returns home disconsolate, convinced he has failed, only to find that in his absence a traveling American ophthalmologist has generously offered his mother free surgery. The author makes it abundantly clear that the mother has been "given" this reward for her son's Good Samaritan-like behavior. The bracketing of spontaneous remission or cure with payment for selfless behavior must inevitably suggest the converse—that those who remain uncured have not demonstrated their worthiness.

Social responses to disabled persons are often distorted in fiction for young readers. Frequently, institutions or social agencies described in these books are more reflective of wishful thinking than of reality. Lovingly decorated rooms, large, well-trained and totally devoted staffs, generous budgets, and provision of fresh flowers and similar amenities for retarded or emotionally dysfunctional residents of public institutions portray an apotheosized world only dreamed of by professional workers in the field, but endemic in children's books.

Whales to See The38 features a special educator with a sufficiently ample budget to allow the chartering of a boat to take her class to observe the migration of whales. The teacher in A Cry in the Wind39 apparently has no personal demands on his time whatsoever and is able to devote his leisure as well as his working hours to the welfare of his students. Undoubtedly, there are many dedicated teachers, social workers, and institutional attendants, but the quality and extent of selflessness displayed in children's books are truly mind-boggling.

Fairy godparents and their corporeal counterparts populate the world of children's stories. Waiting in the wings are numerous kindly benefactors with sacks of money eager to bestow their largess on deserving handicapped children. An unknown neighbor leaves a house to Tom's family in A Cry in the Wind;40 a wealthy rancher agrees to finance Tony's college education in Birkin;41 and a grateful royal stranger pays for Musa's surgery in Musa the Shoemaker.42 Except for a dwindling body of innocents, even preadolescents are skeptical about the orderliness and benevolence of a universe in which the just are so opportunely and fittingly rewarded.


Illustrations are particularly vulnerable to criticism of inaccuracy in that they frequently ignore, minimize, or show a partial or obscured view of the disability. In Mister O'Brien, Christopher wears a "big, thick black boot" on his right leg with a brace "supported by two iron rods and buckled around by three leather straps."43 The cover illustration, however, shows the boy with his impaired foot positioned behind the other and almost none of the elaborately described prosthesis is visible. Mr. O'Brien, an amputee, is positioned sufficiently far forward in the picture that, although shown to be on crutches, the cause is not evident. The heroine of The Shining Moment,44 a former beauty queen, spends virtually the entire book recovering from a disfiguring facial scar. Yet the dustcover shows an unblemished teenager. In Scarred, as the title hints, the central character's hellish existence stems from responses to the surgical scar from his cleft lip repair. Yet the jacket illustration presents an anomaly so minute as to be readily overlooked if the title did not point to its significance.45


Books concerning handicapped characters are subject to the same literary flaws as other works. A few are extraordinarily good, having strong characterizations, well-developed plots, good sense of time and place, and excellent language usage. Most are works of more modest quality and some are spectacularly inept. If all readers were sensitive and reflective about what they read, then only the highest quality novels might be recommended. But many youngsters are unready to meet the demands of these more sophisticated works and are comfortable only with simpler stories. Fortunately, within this category may be found some that have the power to affect and enlighten.

Librarians report that such a journeyman effort as Follow My Leader46 seems to provide an important sensitizing experience. Although the plot is fast-paced, some of the incidents are contrived, the characterization is flat, the dialogue weak, and the tone didactic. This old favorite has none of the subtlety or effective use of language of Bow Island47 or Dark Dreams.48 Yet the value of Garfield's book is undeniable. Students report being able to recall large sections of the story and their responses to it many years later.

The ideal book, of course, would combine excellent writing, wide appeal, and accurate, honest, and sympathetic portrayals of exceptional people. Such books are as rare in this field as in any other and some compromise will have to be made when selecting books about exceptional characters.


Of literary flaws, the most grievous is usually that of poor character development. Ginny and her teachers in Wheels for Ginny's Chariot,49 Rosellen of A Bright Star Falls,50 and Almena of Almena's Dogs,51 to name but a few, are so sweet and good as to be offensive. A more subtle problem is that of vague and insubstantial portrayals of severely disabled characters. The suicidal girl in A Time to Dance52 and Dawn in The Fortune Cake53 have no discernible personality. Almost nothing is known about who they are or how they feel about events; they exist primarily in their relationships with other nondisabled characters or as catalytic agents to explain, facilitate, or expedite the denouement. Uncontestably, it takes heightened skills to portray impaired characters so well that the world can be viewed through their eyes, but Twink in Touching,54 Alan in Hey, Dummy,55 and Joey in Dark Dreams56 emerge as knowable human beings.

Perhaps one of the most mystical approaches is that in which the disabled character is likened to a nonhuman creature. For example, in The Magic Moth,57 the life spirit of a dying child is transmuted into a fragile insect, an attempt at conceptualization, however lyrical, that reduces the believability of the deceased girl. By contrast, another author, sensitive to the demeaning quality of such a comparison, uses it as a metaphor for the clumsy, pitying behavior the heroine is subjected to. In the excellent novel, The Trembling Years,58 a clergyman, attempting to be kind, calls attention to Kathy by describing her to the congregation as "a bird with a broken wing." This episode is intended to epitomize the humiliation she endures in a sentimental but insensitive society.

The disabled person often plays a symbolic role in children's books. Certainly this is a legitimate literary usage, but one that, if not handled with great skill, can reduce the human dimensions of the designated character. This technique in the hands of a talented writer is capable both of illuminating a social message and simultaneously dramatizing the implications of impairment. Tall Boy, one of the central characters in Sing Down the Moon,59 is handicapped. The Indian's arm, wounded and rendered impotent in a fight to protect his future wife, symbolizes the destruction of the American Indian. Garfield uses a visually impaired judge to symbolize blind justice in Smith.60 In an ironic use of symbolism, the author of The Hayburners61 movingly develops the concept that being a loser is a matter of circumstance and opportunity. As a symbol, Joey represents the lost chances of other retarded individuals who have been swindled out of their future by a society that has labeled them "hayburners." Far from being a loser, Joey demonstrates those qualities that define a humane person.


Didactic books for children find their full flowering in works about handicapped characters. A common fatal literary defect is the excessively obvious superimposition of a cumbersome message on the story. Rosen has succinctly dealt with the difficulty of deliberately fostering the writing of books for the express purpose of raising consciousness or altering attitudes. Her comments, written from the viewpoint of the women's movement, apply equally to all "minority" literature. In discussing role-model books, she avers this "has meant a call to tract writing sweetened with fictional effects. These are the hardest to talk about without seeming to turn against what is so bravely meant. But the truth is, fiction dies under the duress of ideology."62 Such juvenile message books as The Light63 and Land of Silence64 attest to the truth of her assertions.

Some books are undisguised efforts to promote specific social causes. Blatter, in discussing her novel Cap and Candle,65 asserts that her intention was to write a book that would recruit women to work as nurses in Turkey. She efficiently pursues this aim, providing much professional information in the course of the story. Unfortunately, literary goals are secondary to her missionary objective. Similarly, The Road to Agra66 strings together a series of adventures about a blind girl and her sighted brother's attempts to obtain medical help for her. Although the story paints a graphic picture of poverty in India, its main intent, strongly underscored by the ending, appears to be an explanation and endorsement of the work of the World Health Organization.


The overwhelming majority of the books reported here are straight, chronological, omniscient narratives. Humor is rarely used, but its appearance in Spectacles,67Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!,68 and Ox Goes North69 illustrates the premise that serious treatment need not necessarily preclude wit. One effort at humor seems in extremely poor taste. The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues70 uses rather obvious and not very clever puns in an unsuccessful attempt to vitalize an exploitive story line.


The issue of the emotional content or tone of these books is a ticklish one. Frank characterizes literature about the handicapped as "infused with emotions which call for tears and lamentations." She adds that the compassion that books call forth should be "informed rather than sentimental, and strengthening rather than resigned."71 Yet compassion is not as desirable a reaction as empathy. The latter focuses on acceptability based on knowledge and closeness, while the former concentrates on the suffering aspects of the situation as though they were the primary response stimulus.

Although a segment of the literary effort in children's literature encompasses writing that is suffused with emotionalism, the advent of candor and realism in this area has made many radical changes in the content and methods that writers have utilized. Just as sentimental, unwarrantedly optimistic, and romanticized books are limited in value, so are those that present a picture of unrelieved despair or cruelty. Bettelheim72 and Karl73 insist that children must be offered some element of hope, some ray of light in their books. Narratives such as Fly Away Paul74 or Scarred75 are so suffused with brutality and deceit that the reader is repelled and overwhelmed, feeling it is useless to protest or resist such a pitiless and relentless fate. As Frank observes:

In the recent trend toward presenting realism in books for young people, some have offered, in the name of "reality" sheer ugliness and evil, unrelieved by any resolution. The reassurance that good does exist, and can overcome evil, is a basic need for all of us, but especially for the young people who cannot yet draw on their own experiences to reinforce their faith in the goodness of life. A book in which the boy or girl protagonist is so emotionally disturbed as to have lost touch with truth, with all the adults so evil or so uncaring as to offer neither hope nor charity, can hardly provide a healthy reading experience for the young.76

Books such as Sleep Two, Three, Four!,77The Planet of Junior Brown,78 and Slake's Limbo,79 which examine serious problems and contain unsettling elements, nevertheless conclude on a note of hope for some presumed future happiness or betterment.

The new realism has spawned another problem that requires particular attention. Violence has assumed pandemic proportions, and in books about the disabled this hostility is most frequently directed against characters with impairments. Books containing such elements cannot be dismissed for that reason alone. Hey, Dummy80 is replete with instances of physical and psychological violence, yet the author causes the reader to react angrily to the pain-imposing aspects of society represented in the story. In this case, the violence is purposeful, instructive, and essential to underscore the broad social implications of the story.

There are some superficial similarities between Hey, Dummy and Whales to See The.81 Both contain cruelty to handicapped children and feature an educator who inadvertently sets in motion the action that will lead to the tragic denouement. But there are critical differences in the treatment of characters and the use of violent episodes that result in differing reader responses. Ironically, even though the first-named novel involves a killing and the psychological ruin of the main character, it offers more hope than the latter, which includes an aborted, almost casual suicide and mindless, near-sadistic deception. In Whales to See The, neither the teacher nor the learning-disabled children are sufficiently developed to evoke strong reader identification or even concern. The special children are casually and gratuitously humiliated. The victims seem almost peripheral to the authors', hence the reader's, interest, since they display little dimensionality. There is no compelling sense of literary inevitability to the shocking surprise ending, which, while chillingly clever, provides no guidance for reader interpretation. Although the mature reader is aghast at the abuse of these children, condemnation stems from a value system that is external to the story. The authors' pious endorsement of the whales' benevolent social structure is totally vitiated by the amoral conclusion.

The brutality displayed in A Single Light82 involves the persecution of a deaf-mute girl and the stoning to death of a crippled man. There is a sense of inevitability in these deeds that simulate sacrificial behaviors, since it is in the aftermath of their savage actions that enlightenment comes to their perpetrators. This same exploitive use of violence is seen in Dorp Dead.83 Egoff's defense of this aspect of the book shows questionable logic: "Brutality … is actually inseparable from the realization of love and personal fulfillment of the young protagonist, Gilly: had he not been the victim of a sadistic adult, he would have become entrapped in a cage of self-alienation."84 To link brutality and love, presuming the latter can be a consequence of the former, is to deny mountains of evidence that demonstrate that behavior is modeled and mirrored. The victims of child abuse become the next generation of child beaters—a tragic heritage demonstrating incontrovertibly that brutality brutalizes both abuser and victim. The presumption that being alienated is demonstrably worse than being the victim of a homicidal sadist is a shaky one at best. Those who escape from childhood oppression frequently discover that they have not been unmarked and often carry corrupting scars throughout their lifetimes.

It would be unreasonable to condemn books solely on the basis that they contain elements of violence. The purpose and effect of such actions must be assessed. Life is not free of violence. To ignore or deny this fact is deceptive as well as dishonest. The division between what is or what is not an acceptable depiction pivots precisely on whether violence is used in an exploitive, sensual, titillating manner or as a means to illuminate the iniquitous aspects of individual and collective behavior. Authors are attracted to the use of violence because its attention-getting power ensures an audience. Its appearance in books about the disabled is not surprising because of the common perception of the handicapped person as victim. Books that perpetuate this linkage must be closely examined. If the presentation of violence sheds light, either on aspects of the reader's own nature or on corrosive elements in society, then it serves a valid purpose.


In recent years, some critics have evaluated books exclusively in terms of what messages they deliver about women, various ethnic groups, or other minorities. Books featuring disabled characters are not free from sexist, racist, or negative portrayals of members of special groups. For example, the title character in No Tears for Rainey85 is discouraged from pursuing her interest in chemistry. She is told cooking is more suitable and, after all, much like chemistry. This offensive message, probably overlooked at the time the book was published, is now seen as intolerable. Yet, despite this and similar sexist incidents, the book clarifies some important aspects of mental disorders, particularly problems related to reincorporating into the family structure a member who has been institutionalized.

Brave Companions86 concerns a young soldier blinded in the Pacific in World War II. This novel presents substantive information about the practical and psychological problems attendant upon adjustment to blindness. However, its virulent racial slurs toward the Japanese people radically diminish its usefulness.

Few books can satisfy every special-interest group—nor should they be expected to—but some messages are so destructive of humane values that endorsement is impossible. This problem is extremely complex and involves books in which objectionable comments or situations may be trivial as well as others in which offensive components are too qualitatively or quantitatively important to be ignored. Examination must be broad-gauged—with careful appraisal of the treatment of the disabled but awareness of episodes or dialogue that misinforms or diminishes other groups. The majority of children's books written before 1970 are sexist to some degree, but their elimination would consign to oblivion many otherwise valid books. As the only viable alternative to retroactive censorship, it may be necessary to deliberately help children understand attitudes that emerge from and reflect a specific historic context or perception.

Many books combine positive social attitudes toward various outgroups. The pairing of blackness and blindness, as previously noted, often yields statements supportive of both populations. However, in some instances, it is a disabled character who is cast in the role of a villain. An author may exploit latent prejudice against the handicapped in an effort to show, by contrast, the good qualities of another abused social group. The hero of Sticks and Stones87 is almost destroyed by accusations of homosexuality. The spoiler in the book is a lonely slow learner, another outsider. The book's intent, to affirm the right of people to be free from persecution regardless of sexual predilections, ironically casts a member of another maligned population into the role of offender.


Included in the collection of books dealing with the disabled is a special category herein classified as quasi-fiction. This is an amorphous grouping consisting of books that are neither strictly fiction nor nonfiction but that contain elements of each. Such works are primarily extended instructional messages delivered through the medium of a story. Most often they embody generous amounts of specific cognitive information, but recent titles seem more interested in promoting attitudinal changes than in presenting facts or explanations. About Handicaps88 is really two books in one. The story addressed to primary-age children ostensibly concerns a young child who learns to be friends with a boy who has cerebral palsy. Explanatory notes, which comprise the "other" book (some of which appear in smaller type on the same pages as the child's text), are addressed to adults and interpret the unfolding events. Using the device of a contrived and unsubtle story line, commonly held negative attitudes toward disabilities are expressed and shown to be without validity. It is an impressively effective and moving work despite its consciously didactic intent.

Thus, quasi-fiction as a category should not be presumed to indicate works of inferior quality. This coined term merely represents a grey area in terms of classification and includes under this rubric books ranging from the truly abysmal to those excellent in conceptualization and realization.

Works of quasi-fiction addressed to young readers often encounter two problems whose resolution is generally unsatisfactory. Those stories about disabilities that have little or no visible manifestations are difficult to present meaningfully in picture books. Claims are made of exceptionality for those who give no outward discernible sign of deviation. In effect, the child reader is asked to accept the author's designation on faith without tangible evidence to support the assertion. Another separate but related obstacle is that of finding terminology both accurate and comprehensible. Too frequently such works are weighted down with a technical vocabulary having no real meaning to the neophyte reader.

Characters who have leg braces or hearing aids can readily be identified as people with special problems and needs. But the child in One Little Girl89 is retarded and the boy in Please Don't Say Hello90 is autistic, and their portrayals are complicated by the invisibility of the respective impairments. Assuming a target audience of children in the early school years, as the format would indicate, these authors have the delicate task of presenting nonvisible concepts in the kinds of concrete, specific terms young readers can comprehend. Authors must simplify complex material without distorting it. In terms of its cognitive goals, Please Don't Say Hello fails in that the reader has little better comprehension of autism after finishing the book than before. The bizarre conduct seems as unreasonable and arbitrary as ever. Yet, two points are made clear: The seemingly inexplicable behavior of the autistic child is neither deliberately antisocial nor culpable and the proper response to such a child is patience and tolerance.

Books like Mom! I Need Glasses91 and Katie's Magic Glasses92 are direct quasi-fictional homilies stressing the necessity of good vision and simultaneously explaining how glasses can help to achieve that vital goal. These slim books are replete with information about the physiology of the eye and the visual process. They end happily as their newly bespectacled heroines carry on a more functional life. Authors, here too, have a conflict between the level of the intended audience and the complexity of the material they wish to present. For example:

"Ring the bell and walk in." Susan read the sign on the green door. Inside the waiting room sat a young lady in a white a white uniform. "You must be Susan Monti," she said. "And this is your mother." "That's right," said Mrs. Monti.93

Since Susan is seven and a half and the above quoted short, choppy sentences are typical of primers, the target audience is certainly beginning readers. Despite this, the author includes words like "pertinent," "shatterproof," "prescription," and "elastic." Furthermore, there are explanations of the function of the eye, refraction, and muscle change—topics well beyond the understanding and, probably, the interest of these children. Such books are generally considered good for children, a quality almost certain to ensure their avoidance. The cheery, virtuous titles and unwaveringly tractable heroines are a dead giveaway to their obvious didactic nature.

While Mom! I Need Glasses and Katie's Magic Glasses are very close to nonfiction, two others that deal with the same subject are slightly more infused with fictional structure. The Cowboy Surprise94 is a simple, not particularly creative story that suggests that if cowboys and Indians wear glasses, such devices can't be all bad. Farther along the spectrum toward an authentic story is Spectacles,95 which presents a perfectly charming, recalcitrant heroine who is finally persuaded of the glamorous potential of glasses in this amusing and cleverly illustrated tale.


Fortunately, as mainstreaming accelerates the need for more material about the handicapped, publishers are responding with a wide array of books: fiction, quasi-fiction and nonfiction now explore relatively untouched topics relating to disability and widen the choices available to the older adolescent as well as to the very young child. In selecting a book for a particular situation, more needs to be known about it than just the disability label and the appropriate age level of the prospective readers. A multitude of factors, including theme, tone, style, attitudes, and the presence or absence of such components as purposeless violence, social biases and peripheral messages, would affect its suitability.

Considering the quality, scope, and variety of novels containing handicapped characters, a simple listing of books divided into age and disability categories is therefore insufficient since any single work may exhibit positive, negative, neutral, or mixed utility. The mere presence of a disabled character in a book does not ipso facto signify that that title should be included on a recommended list about the handicapped. Indeed, many bibliographies contain entries that vary astonishingly in quality, apparently included on the assumption that any book about the handicapped is informative. Unless there is a disclaimer or accompanying critical annotation for each novel listed, the user of such a roster might reasonably expect that such inclusion implies endorsement. The Bright High Flyer,96Old Con and Patrick,97 and The Trembling Years98 all contain characters who have had polio, yet the latter is light-years away from the first two in informational accuracy, sensitivity, and literary quality.


Abbreviated reviews tend to focus exclusively on plot—rarely the most salient element in determining utility. On the contrary, the decision to select a book may hinge on the treatment, values, or attitudes that the author generates, topics that the one-line review either omits or reduces to a precis so emaciated that it might better have been omitted. Reviews, particularly in this sensitive area, must be quantitatively extensive, their scope permitting adequate analysis of both surface and latent qualities.

Criticism of children's literature is a generally toothless affair, eschewing stringent standards for simple commentaries on illustrations, content, or style. As Trease complains, "criticism has adopted the habit … of being uniformly laudatory and approving."99 This fault is serious when particularized knowledge and informed judgments are urgently needed. If critical or analytical comments are not made about works that evoke pity, purvey misinformation, present faulty models, or otherwise endorse basically inadequate material, critics are abdicating their professional responsibility.

Reviews of children's books containing disabled characters are subject to two major failings. Some reviewers may see these books from limited perspectives. Either they concentrate on literary components, overlooking medical, psychological, or social aspects of impairment, or they focus on the information-transmitting potential of the story, unconcerned with traditional literary considerations. On the one hand, well-written, totally erroneous books may be endorsed; on the other, informative, inane potboilers may be promoted.

Despite Heins' dictum that "a children's book deserves to be probed as much as an adult book for general questions of diction, structure, significance of detail and literary integrity,"100 modest examples of literary accomplishment are often welcomed and proliferate in this subset of children's fiction. An aura of sentimentality distorts perception of books about disability, thus precluding objective evaluation. Even worse, Schuman charges that reviewers, children's editors, and librarians get carried away in chronic spasms of enthusiasm, and consequently are frequently guilty of the "highly recommended" syndrome. She suggests that such individuals "take a cue from the general consumer movement, which is calling for advice and warnings, as well as recommendations."101 Nesbitt, concurring, sees this in a larger framework:

Creative literature … should … call forth creative criticism…. Criticism may manifest itself in various forms. In the form of the book review, it should serve a utilitarian as well as a stimulating purpose…. If criticism is to have the effect … of convinced acceptance of children's literature as an integral and significant part of the total body of literature of any country, then it must not only, in Arnold's words, "learn to know and propagate the best," it must also learn to know and discourage the worst. Of equal importance is the discernment of positive versus negative qualities in a book, the pinpointing of the positive and the negative, and the relationship between them. For it is true that a book may have weaknesses but may at the same time accomplish something so positive, so worthwhile, so constructive as to negative [sic] its faults.102

Some critics appear to feel that any book about a person with special needs serves an important social goal, and therefore critical analysis is bypassed. Too often these well-meaning efforts, bland and uninteresting as oleo, are described as "a heartwarming story" or one that "serves as an inspiration to those similarly afflicted."

The practice of recommending books about disabled characters to children having similar impairments should be carried out with extreme caution. Children want and need to see themselves and their own special problems reflected in their literature. But when books are recommended on the basis of the similarity between a fictional character and the intended reader, the person suggesting the book is linking it to the reader primarily on the basis of the identified attribute. That is, of the multitude of qualities of an individual, the one singled out for recognition in this instance is the disability. Ralph Ellison vividly described the pain of invisibility,103 and for too long many disabled children have been invisible, hidden from public view in special institutions and missing from representation in cultural phenomena. This absence has resulted in a lack of role models upon whom the handicapped youngster can pattern his or her behavior and aspirations.

The disabled, unlike the nondisabled, know they are more than their guide dog or their wheelchair. Therefore, their role models could be individuals who share, for example, vocational or avocational interests, but who do not necessarily share an identical impairment. While reading books about disabled heroes or heroines is of value, restriction to only these models is confining. Sutherland, in her provocative article "On the Need of the Severely Handicapped to Feel That They Are Human," has eloquently testified to the insights she gained about herself as a result of reading "books which deal with the entire range of human experience," and not just those recommended by her parents and teachers, which endorsed the "feeling that I was mentally different from most other people." She adds: "The young, severely handicapped person desperately searches for a normal person who feels the way he does about life. His search is so intensive that he is most apt to identify himself, though the image is vastly distorted, with whomever he is reading about."104


Children's images of themselves are composed in large measure of the cumulative, reflected perceptions of others. When the disabled child is perceived of as more than his inabilities or incapacities, as someone similar in many ways to other students, then companionship, affection, and other social and emotional interactions are distinct possibilities. While special children need role models, a more urgent necessity is greater acceptance by their peers. The climate developed by contact and exposure to new ideas can reduce the inflated and distorted meanings frequently superimposed on the disability. Thus, books that focus on handicapped characters should be used primarily with the nonimpaired as facilitators or interpreters of attitudes and information.

Clearly, literature alone will not transform rejecting children into accepting ones, but it can be a powerful aid in altering those perceptions that impede integration and in structuring understandings that will foster it. As Jerzy Kosinski observed, fiction offers "new insights into the tides and drifts of one's own life. The reader is tempted to venture beyond a text, to contemplate his own life in light of the book's personalized meanings."105 It is precisely in transferring insights available in literature to parallels in the reader's own life where most assistance and guidance must be provided.

If books are to be used effectively for the integration of exceptional children, then a deliberate, concerted program needs development. The optimal time to begin building positive attitudes is in early childhood before stereotypes have crystallized. Reading aloud, discussion, and role playing should all start in the primary grades. Since young children are willing, sometimes eager, to hear the same story several times, various aspects of a single book can be examined on different occasions. Children need time to digest ideas, to try them out, and to test them over extended periods. Immediate positive response will scarcely be the product of a single story-reading session. Teachers, librarians, and parents must allow time for understanding to flourish, but such enlightenment must be planned and not trusted to appear spontaneously.

Books on the identical disability and for the same age group may serve different purposes. Howie Helps Himself,106 for instance, is a story about how a child with cerebral palsy learns to use his wheelchair independently. The things Howie can and cannot do, his frustrations and pleasures, his means for learning to compensate for his disability, his problems of lone- liness and dependence, his instructional and therapeutic paraphernalia and apparatuses, his classroom structure, his difficulties with muscle control and mobility—all are topics discussed in the text. As such, this book is very useful in providing the kind of information that can make the disorder seem less threatening to the non-disabled child.

Another book on the same topic, About Handicaps,107 zeroes in on the response of a fully functioning child to one who has cerebral palsy. This particular perspective has utility in different ways. By examining the attitudes of a nondisabled child and his view of the disability as a danger to himself, this book provides a model for readers to work through their possible fears and aversions. Through Howie Helps Himself, they learn that handicapped children are very like themselves in the things that are most important and they begin to understand some of their specific problems. In About Handicaps they can learn that their worries are not unique or wicked and that they can confront their fears and through this heuristic experience successfully overcome them.

When children are mature enough to talk about these problems, they may still be too unskilled to read these books or comprehend or internalize the implications unaided. Adults can readily lead discussion toward desired goals, asking children to draw parallels from their own lives and to express their feelings about the characters and events. Each book may fulfill a different function. Howie Helps Himself focuses on the adaptations of a disabled child and About Handicaps examines the feelings an unimpaired child has about disabled persons. If the adult can identify the approach that is most needed by the listeners, then the appropriate book can be chosen.

It should be noted that an absolute correlation between a disability a child exhibits and that discussed in a particular book need not exist for the book to be effective. In some instances it might be advisable to select a book with a superficially unrelated disability in order to avoid too obvious attention to a particular child. The problem About Handicaps deals with is social rejection of handicapped persons. Avoidance and isolation are social problems often experienced by blind, deaf, retarded, and physically handicapped children. The resultant loneliness and unhappiness can be felt by all children. Thus the book can be used to explore the consequences of rejection rather than the specific problems of a cerebral-palsied child.

As they grow older, if children and youth continue to be read to, then consideration should be given to the role played by disabled characters in the stories used. Books that promote empathic responses to the handicapped can readily be included. Older students may need guidance in interpreting what they have read since their perception is often selective and self-serving. Misinterpretations and misunderstandings are commonplace, and the adult reader should take the opportunity to go deeply into the story, responding to questions, clarifying literal misperceptions, and exploring inferential aspects as well.

Some books dealing with exceptional characters can be read aloud in their entirety. Twyla,108A Dance to Still Music,109Ransom,110 and The Hayburners,111 for instance, have enough dramatic tension and excellent writing to sustain interest in adolescent listeners. Occasionally, the educator may want to deal with just one aspect of a story; then single chapters or segments can be read in isolation. The ramifications of a character's behavior, other options that might have been chosen, and the implications of such choices can be discussed or role-played. Comparisons with real-life situations can be drawn and suggestions for specific behavioral changes can be projected.

Every worthwhile book about disability cannot be the object of an academic exercise or the subject of library story hours. Children need to be encouraged to include books on this topic in their recreational reading. Appropriate works can easily be included on recommended reading lists and subject bibliographies. Children who are disconsolate when all the Helen Keller biographies have been checked out may be guided to fiction that features blind or deaf heroines of their own age.

Books that not only present positive attitudes toward the disabled but that also provide good historic information and a sense of life in former times are natural supplements to the study of history. For example, Johnny Tremain,112 an exceptionally well-researched book, is set in America in Revolutionary times. From the story, the reader gets a sense of the character and political importance of some of the founding fathers. The puritanical perception of disability as a punishment for sin is painfully dramatized, an historic fact also worth studying. Beyond this, the daily life of the citizens, the religious beliefs and practices, and some major political events are revealed through the channel of an exciting story.

Wings113 is a marvelous work of social history. Set in the late 1920s, it evokes the bohemian world then emerging—the romantic, daring glamor of early planes and flyers and the impact of the film industry on the fantasy life and recreational habits of the time. No Promises in the Wind114 recreates not only the economic impact of the Great Depression but also its social cost to the nation. Much that is eliminated from juvenile histories and social studies texts is put forth in this powerful and compelling novel.

The attitudes toward the disabled in each of the above works are honest and realistic. The inclusion of these and similar books in social studies curricula could provide an indirect but valuable reinforcement for attitudes of acceptance for handicapped persons.

Children have a multitude of interests and are often eager to read books on their current passions. There are several excellent romances, sports stories, or books on hobbies containing characters with special needs that can be promoted as recreational reading for this audience. On the Outside Looking In115 is an easy-to-read juvenile romance. The central male character is an amputee. His doubts about his self-worth and his consequent defensive behavior realistically reflect the basic concern faced by people in like situations.

For young readers who are sports enthusiasts, Run with the Ring116 and Dead End Bluff117 are two books that might be suggested. The former concerns a blind track star who is also a ham radio operator; the latter is about a blind swimmer. Both books may surprise youngsters who perceive of blindness as an ineffably debilitating disorder. The accent in each is heavily on the achievement possibilities of blind adolescents and their athletic capabilities. The problems are greatly simplified and their solutions facile but they are nonetheless useful introductions to what might otherwise be a little known aspect of human experience and achievement.

As a supplement to the study of acoustics, it would not be inappropriate for the science instructor to suggest books like A Dance to Still Music,118 which dramatizes the ramifications of hearing loss. Teachers of health courses might well recommend The Trembling Years119 and those teaching geography of, say, Australia, would find that The Bates Family120 could contribute enormously to an awareness of how that environment shapes lives. Classes in value clarification would have much substantive content to deal with by analyzing Ben and Annie121 or A Sporting Proposition.122 Teachers of English, exploring such literary elements as symbolism and imagery, could study Dark Dreams123 or The Transfigured Hart.124

These suggestions for school use are attractive since they approach the topic of handicaps in subtle ways. Currently, teachers, particularly at the elementary level, are including a curriculum unit that focuses entirely on the handicapped. For these instructors, related fictional works can be an invaluable aid.

In sum, no claim is made that literature should be the only agency or even the premier mechanism to change the social climate. Nevertheless, books have unique attributes that have been largely ignored in the campaign strategy of those who are concerned with making the school and the neighborhood conducive to the social growth of the child with special needs. Because literature affects people at a deep emotional level, it is uniquely suited for this sensitizing purpose.

One of the critical junctures children with serious disabilities have to confront is a transition period in which other children become accustomed to their manifested difference and begin to relate to them as people. Heisler relates the story of a mother of a ten-year-old cerebral-palsied boy who observed her son on the playground one day and was dismayed to observe that he was being taunted by a group of strange boys. She restrained her impulse to rush in protectively. When Ken, her son, joined her a little later, she asked him: "Why did you stay with those boys when they were treating you like that?" Ken replied simply, "I was giving them time to get used to me."125 It is hoped that wide exposure to sensitizing reading materials will effectively reduce the "orientation" time that exceptional children must often endure.


1. Mary Jane Kilner, Adventures of a Pincushion (Worcester, England: Isaiah Thomas, 1788).

2. Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (London: Macmillan, 1863), p. 54.

3. American Tract Society, Happy Home Stories (New York: American Tract Society, 1885), p. 44.

4. Juliana Horatia Ewing, The Story of a Short Life (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1885).

5. Juliana Horatia Ewing, "The Blind Man and the Talking Dog," in Dandelion Clocks and Other Tales (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1887?).

6. Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak (London: Daldy, Isbister, 1875).

7. Johanna Spyri, Heidi (Boston: Ginn, 1899).

8. Howard Pyle, Otto of the Silver Hand (New York: Scribners, 1888).

9. Ibid., p. 192.

10. Raymond M. Alden, The Christmas Tree Forest (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1906).

11. Dikken Zwilgmeyer, Johnny Blossom (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1912).

12. Alden, The Christmas Tree Forest, unpaged.

13. Ibid.

14. Hilda Van Stockum, The Cottage at Bantry Bay (New York: Viking, 1938).

15. Hilda Van Stockum, Francie on the Run (New York: Viking, 1939).

16. Van Stockum, The Cottage at Bantry Bay, p. 154.

17. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy (New York: Harper & Row, 1933).

18. Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek (New York: Harper & Row, 1937).

19. Arthur Groom, Writing for Children, cited in Tales Out of School, by Geoffrey Trease, 2nd ed. (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1964), p. 110.

20. Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 203.

21. Muriel Estelle Crosby, ed., Reading Ladders for Human Relations, 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1963).

22. Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1938), p. vi.

23. Josette Frank, Your Child's Reading Today, rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969), p. 143.

24. Kin Platt, Hey, Dummy.

25. Richard Parker, He Is Your Brother.

26. Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, Whales to See The.

27. Hope Dahle Jordan, The Fortune Cake.

28. Nancy W. Faber, Cathy at the Crossroads.

29. Nancy W. Faber, Cathy's Secret Kingdom.

30. Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, Whales to See The.

31. Theodora Koob, The Deep Search.

32. Earlene W. Luis and Barbara F. Millar, Listen, Lissa!.

33. Cora Cheney, Key of Gold, p. 92.

34. Dawn Thomas, Pablito's New Feet.

35. Regina J. Woody, Wisdom to Know.

36. Rebecca Caudill, A Certain Small Shepherd.

37. Louise A. Stinetorf, A Charm for Paco's Mother.

38. Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, Whales to See The.

39. L. Dean Carper, A Cry in the Wind.

40. Ibid.

41. Joan Phipson, Birkin.

42. Louise A. Stinetorf, Musa the Shoemaker.

43. Prudence Andrew, Mister O'Brien, p. 7.

44. Mildred Lawrence, The Shining Moment.

45. Bruce Lowery, Scarred.

46. James B. Garfield, Follow My Leader.

47. Bo Carpelan, Bow Island.

48. C. L. Rinaldo, Dark Dreams.

49. Earlene W. Luis and Barbara F. Millar, Wheels for Ginny's Chariot.

50. Lenora Mattingly Weber, A Bright Star Falls.

51. Regina J. Woody, Almena's Dogs.

52. Regina J. Woody, A Time to Dance.

53. Hope Dahle Jordan, The Fortune Cake.

54. John Neufeld, Touching.

55. Kin Platt, Hey, Dummy.

56. C. L. Rinaldo, Dark Dreams.

57. Virginia Lee, The Magic Moth.

58. Elsie Oakes Barber, The Trembling Years.

59. Scott O'Dell, Sing Down the Moon.

60. Leon Garfield, Smith.

61. Gene Smith, The Hayburners.

62. Norma Rosen, "Who's Afraid of Erica Jong," New York Times Magazine, July 28, 1974, p. 50.

63. Jany Saint-Marcoux, The Light.

64. Anna Rose Wright, Land of Silence.

65. Dorothy Blatter, Cap and Candle.

66. Aimée Sommerfelt, The Road to Agra.

67. Ellen Raskin, Spectacles.

68. M. E. Kerr, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!

69. John Ney, Ox Goes North: More Trouble for the Kid at the Top.

70. Ellen Raskin, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.

71. Frank, Your Child's Reading Today, p. 136.

72. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1976).

73. Jean Karl, From Childhood to Childhood—Children's Books and Their Creators (New York: John Day, 1963).

74. Peter Davies, Fly Away Paul.

75. Bruce Lowery, Scarred.

76. Frank, Your Child's Reading Today, p. 127.

77. John Neufeld, Sleep Two, Three, Four!.

78. Virginia Hamilton, The Planet of Junior Brown.

79. Felice Holman, Slake's Limbo.

80. Kin Platt, Hey, Dummy.

81. Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, Whales to See The.

82. Maia Wojciechowska, A Single Light.

83. Julia Cunningham, Dorp Dead.

84. Sheila Egoff, "Precepts and Pleasures," in Only Connect, ed. by Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 440.

85. Lila Perl, No Tears for Rainey.

86. Ruth Adams Knight, Brave Companions.

87. Lynn Hall, Sticks and Stones.

88. Sara Bonnett Stein, About Handicaps.

89. Joan Fassler, One Little Girl.

90. Phyllis Gold, Please Don't Say Hello.

91. Angelika Wolff, Mom! I Need Glasses.

92. Jane Goodsell, Katie's Magic Glasses.

93. Angelika Wolff, Mom! I Need Glasses, unpaged.

94. William Wise, The Cowboy Surprise.

95. Ellen Raskin, Spectacles.

96. Margaret J. Baker, The Bright High Flyer.

97. Ruth Sawyer, Old Con and Patrick.

98. Elsie Oakes Barber, The Trembling Years.

99. Geoffrey Trease, Tales Out of School, 2nd ed. (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1964), p. 166.

100. Paul Heins, "Coming to Terms with Criticism," Horn Book 46 (August 1970), p. 370.

101. Patricia Schuman, "Concerned Criticisms or Casual Drop Outs," in Issues in Children's Book Selection (New York: Bowker, 1973), p. 196.

102. Elizabeth Nesbitt, "The Critic and Children's Literature," in A Critical Approach to Children's Literature, ed. by Sara I. Fenwick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 121.

103. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1952).

104. Prudence Sutherland, "On the Need of the Severely Handicapped to Feel That They Are Human," in The Special Child and the Library, ed. by Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976), p. 151.

105. Jerzy Kosinski, quoted in The Plug-in Drug; Television, Children and the Family by Marie Winn (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 64.

106. Joan Fassler, Howie Helps Himself.

107. Sara Bonnett Stein, About Handicaps.

108. Pamela Walker, Twyla.

109. Barbara Corcoran, A Dance to Still Music.

110. Lois Duncan, Ransom.

111. Gene Smith, The Hayburners.

112. Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain.

113. Adrienne Richard, Wings.

114. Irene Hunt, No Promises in the Wind.

115. Joan Oppenheimer, On the Outside Looking In.

116. Kathryn Vinson, Run with the Ring.

117. Elizabeth Witheridge, Dead End Bluff.

118. Barbara Corcoran, A Dance to Still Music.

119. Elsie Oakes Barber, The Trembling Years.

120. Reginald Ottley, The Bates Family.

121. Joan Tate, Ben and Annie.

122. James Aldridge, A Sporting Proposition.

123. C. L. Rinaldo, Dark Dreams.

124. Jane Yolen, The Transfigured Hart.

125. Verda Heisler, A Handicapped Child in the Family (New York: Grune and Stratton, 1972), p. 111.

Ellen Rubin and Emily Strauss Watson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Rubin, Ellen, and Emily Strauss Watson. "Disability Bias in Children's Literature." Lion and the Unicorn 11, no. 1 (1987): 60-7.

[In the following essay, Rubin and Watson examine how "handicapism"—literary stereotypes about persons with physical or mental handicaps—affects the portrayal of characters with disabilities in children's literature.]

Our article will address a subject that is somewhat less recognized than others usually discussed in the forum of minority issues in children's literature—namely disability bias. By disability bias, we refer to the attitudes and practices that lead to unequal and unjust portrayals of people with disabilities in children's literature. Some writers and publishers have taken steps to eliminate racial and ethnic stereotypes from children's literature as well as removing the limiting effects of sex role stereotyping. Several have tried to eliminate negative images regarding age and class. Educators have come to realize that these kinds of biases limit the growth and development of children. What for the most part has gone unrecognized is that bias and stereotyping on the basis of disability also limit children's potential, and, therefore, this too needs to be addressed from the perspective of writers and publishers, and through a comprehensive re-evaluation of the language and literary style of children's literature.

In 1977, The Council for Interracial Books for Children published a landmark issue of their Bulletin on "Handicapism." In it, Douglas Biklen and Robert Bogdan presented an analysis of children's literature as it relates to the portrayal of people with disabilities. In this piece, the authors describe 10 common stereotypes associated with the portrayal of people with disabilities. (Note: The eleventh stereotype is one that the current authors have commonly noted but was not included in the Biklen and Bogdan piece.) The stereotypes cited were:

1. Person with a disability portrayed as pitiable and pathetic. This image is one widely touted and perpetuated by charity drives and telethons. It is also a stereotype that widely exists in classical as well as modern children's literature. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol is such an example.

2. Person with a disability as the object of violence. Since a "handicapped person" must be incapable of defending his/her own self, we become perfect ploys or victims of crime. Of Mice and Men shows an example of this stereotype.

3. Person with a disability as sinister and/or evil. This may be the most historically prevalent stereotype ranging from fairy tales with stooped witches who use canes to hunched-back kings. Captain Hook in Peter Pan is a classic example.

4. Person with a disability used as "atmosphere." Basically undeveloped as characters, persons with disabilities are often peripheral to the main action, perhaps as a blind musician or amputee beggar. The mentally retarded brother in Betsy Byar's Summer of the Swans serves merely as such a prop.

5. Person with a disability as "super crip." All too often, in order to be accepted both in children's literature and in real life, people with disabilities are put in positions of being over-achievers. Thus, people with disabilities are thought to be endowed with super powers, ranging from the paraplegic detective, Ironside, to social activist, Helen Keller.

6. Person with a disability as laughable. Just as there are ethnic jokes, so too have the media and children's literature made frequent use of this ploy as a gimmick to facilitate the plot. For example, the person who is visually impaired becomes the brunt of many jokes and pranks. This is a particularly insensitive portrayal of people with disabilities.

7. Person with a disability as his/her own—and only—worst enemy. This is the popular portrayal of the self-pitying person with a disability who could "make it" if only he or she would shed a cloak of bitterness. Such portrayals deny the reality of archi- tectural, communicational, and attitudinal barriers which legitimately interfere with the true acceptance. Clara in Heidi is such an example.

8. Person with a disability as a burden. Burdens imply something to be gotten rid of, hence portraying people with disabilities as burdens in society objectifies, dehumanizes, and negates the values and contributions of people with disabilities. A prime example in this category is Laura in A Glass Menagerie.

9. Person with a disability as asexual. Simply stated, people with disabilities are very rarely presented in caring or love relationships. Flowers for Algernon clearly suggests this.

10. Person with a disability as incapable of fully participating in everyday life. Until recently, the notion that people with disabilities can contribute to everyday life, be it as functional members of the work force or in families, was not prevalent or pervasive. Differences, rather than commonalities, may make for more "exciting" story lines, but they do little to break down barriers or increase awareness of the abilities and values of people with disabilities. The play Whose Life Is It Anyway? clearly analyzes this issue.

11. Person with a disability as being isolated from disabled and nondisabled peers. Too often, both in pictures and text, people with disabilities are depicted as alone and/or loners. Such stereotypic representations become self-perpetuating as in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Literary style and language play a large role in perpetuating disability bias—just as they do in sex and race bias. Drawing a parallel from sexist and racist language, "handicapist language" has a similarly damaging effect on self image but is just now beginning to be recognized by the public in general and writers in particular. Our choice of words is reflective of personal and societal attitudes and prejudices. What do you think of when you hear the words "confined"? A bird in a cage? A prisoner? If this is the case, how can we continue to use the term to describe a person who is a wheelchair user? For a person with a mobility impairment, a wheelchair is anything but confining. Quite the contrary, the wheelchair provides freedom of movement which may otherwise not be possible. The word "invalid" means "not valid" and the word "crippled" which comes from the word "creep" are two examples of the negative images that we must begin to examine and eliminate. The word "handicapped" is believed to be derived from a begging term, "cap-in-hand"—an image that arouses pity rather than respect—and yet, it is this term that the U.S. Government chooses to use throughout its system. A more subtle example of bias in language would be to refer to a person as a "handicapped person." The expression "handicapped person" does two things: (1) it perpetuates the use of the word "handicapped" which conveys a sense of neediness and dependence that disability rights activists have worked hard to dispel; and (2) it continues to make the "handicap" the factor of prime importance about the person. The term "person with a disability" is the preferred term of the disability rights movement as it acknowledges the disability as being secondary to the person.

Due to the tireless work of disability rights advocates, some important legislation has been passed. In 1972, in amendments to the Economic Opportunities Act, Congress mandated that at least 10% of the children enrolled in Head Start programs have disabilities encompassing orthopedic, speech, hearing, visual, intellectual, or emotional impairments ranging from mild to severe. In 1972, a major piece of legislation for people with disabilities was passed—Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all federally financed and assisted programs. In 1975, Public Law 94-142, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, was passed. This law declares that all children with disabilities are entitled to a "free, appropriate education" in the "least restrictive environment."

Adults and children with disabilities are entering the mainstream of society in unprecedented numbers. Increases in the accessibility of transportation, public buildings, and work sites have meant that many adults who are disabled can now actively participate in the social, political, and economic life of the society; however, only a limited number of children's books reflect these changes. What follows are brief comparisons of positive and negative portrayals of adults and children with disabilities as presented in children's literature. In each case, we will begin with the positive portrayal.



Darlene by Eloise Greenfield tells the story of a young child's afternoon stay with her uncle and cousin. Initially, Darlene's main concern is to return home, but by the time her mother returns, Darlene, in typical early childhood fashion, decides that she no longer wants to go home. Darlene is clearly shown as an active, independent child who can and does fully participate with her family. The fact that Darlene is a wheelchair user is peripheral to the plot. Other assets of this delightful book include a positive portrayal of a Black family, including a male caregiver.

On the other hand, in Nick Joins In by Joe Lasker, we find a young child with a disability who is mainstreamed in school, but almost always depicted as isolated from his classmates. Additionally, the story only hints at complete peer acceptance after Nick has "saved the day." Nick's disability is a pivotal focus in what is an otherwise unremarkable story.


While Making Room for Uncle Joe by Ada B. Litchfield begins on an almost negative note, the beauty of this book lies in the changes that take place as a result of positive interaction with Uncle Joe. Joe's family soon learns to appreciate the fact that Joe can actively participate and contribute to family life. Joe, too, benefits from being a part of a family by learning to accept and share household responsibilities and chores. When Joe is given an opportunity to move into a group home, the entire family reaches the decision that Joe should not move out.

In Copycat Sam by Alfred T. Stefanik, Sam is clearly shown as pitiable, pathetic, laughable, burdensome, and incapable of fully participating or interacting with peers. No explanation is given about Down's Syndrome and the common interests and ties that link nondisabled and disabled children. In addition, the illustrations portray Sam in the most stereotypic, offensive manner possible providing further discouragement for any child to learn about or interact with mentally retarded children.


Through Grandpa's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan is a warm, sensitive story of a relationship between grandfather and grandson. Because of this positive relationship, Grandpa is able to enhance John's understanding of blindness. Grandpa is depicted as an independent, active member of the family. While most persons with visual impairment use some form of mobility aid, the absence of such an aid used by Grandpa presents a somewhat atypical picture; nevertheless, Grandpa does present a positive image of an older person with a disability.

My Mother Is Blind by Margaret Reuter deals with the onset of disability and how it affects the family. While the mother is able to resume household chores, no other aspect of her personality and lifestyle is presented. Undoubtedly, adjustment to a newly acquired disability is difficult, yet there is little justification in portraying this family as so saddened by "the loss."



Silent Dancer by Bruce Hlibok tells the story of Nancy who is deaf and studying ballet. The book, written by Nancy's brother (who is also deaf), shows how first-hand knowledge contributes to a bias-free story. In addition, the non-traditional portrayal of a person who is deaf as a dancer adds an unexpected and welcome dimension to breaking down barriers.

Another book which portrays a woman who is deaf in a nontraditional manner is The Fastest Woman on Earth by Alida Thacher; however, major flaws exist in this book. As a well-known stunt woman, Kitty O'Neill might be considered an excellent role model for the deaf community; however, O'Neill has never learned sign language and consequently cannot communicate directly with others who are deaf. By limiting herself to oral communication, O'Neill has chosen to isolate herself from the very community for which she serves as a role model.


Between Friends by Sheila Garrique is what this story is all about. Jill moves into a new neighborhood only to find that all of the kids except one have left for the summer. Brought together while walking dogs, Jill meets DeeDee, a teenager who has Down's Syndrome. Jill and DeeDee find that they have much in common and enjoy each other's company; however, come autumn when school begins, Jill finds that the neighborhood kids do not understand what she sees in DeeDee. It is through her friendship with DeeDee and others that Jill learns the importance of loyalty.

Circle of Giving by Ellen Howard is also a story about friendship. Unfortunately, this friendship is based on pity. Marguerite's own isolation in a new community draws her to Francine, a child who has cerebral palsy. Marguerite is also drawn to the fact that Francine is "simply, horribly fascinatingly different from everyone we knew." Indeed, such are the qualities on which all true friendships are based! The story portrays Francine as a burden to her family and society, incapable of fully participating in society, and isolated from her peers. In short, although this story is set in the 1920s, it is recently published and written and there is simply no excuse for its sexist, racist, and handicapist language.



Belonging by Debra Kent describes a teenager's rite of passage through adolescence. The fact that this teenager is blind is neither minimized nor unduly emphasized. All of the interactions Meg encounters are real, both in terms of the resolution of the conflict to belong as well as the desire to value one's own uniqueness. The particular sensitivity to the depiction of someone who is blind is due to the author's first-hand knowledge of blindness.

Summer Dreams by Barbara Conklin also deals with relationships; however, in this story, it is a child who is blind who serves as the vehicle by which two teenagers are brought together. The relationship between the two teens is stereotypic with Steve wanting to be a doctor and Katie a teacher. The child, Michael, is portrayed as one-dimensional with blindness being blamed for his behavior problems. Michael is clearly a burden to his family and isolated from his peers. In short, Michael's participation is limited by his father, caretakers, and society at large.


As the title implies, Run, Don't Walk, by Harriet Switz, takes a proactive approach to disability rights—something that is truly unique to children's literature. This book tells how the paths of two teenagers who are wheelchair users cross as they struggle to overcome personal, social, and political barriers. Samantha and Johnny are portrayed as active, independent, contributing members of society. Although Samantha is initially presented as her own worst enemy, readers will enjoy seeing her growth as the plot unfolds. Also unique to this book is the direct, unsentimental presentation of Johnny and Samantha's sexuality. The author is to be commended for her sensitivity toward the many issues affecting teenagers, disabled or nondisabled.

The Promise of Moonstone by Pat Engebrecht is not promising. In fact, it is sexist, racist, and most of all, handicapist. Kristina's mother, Anna, has become paralyzed as a result of a swimming accident and is now clearly a burden on her family—to the point where Anna herself contemplates suicide. Kristina is so concerned with getting her mother to walk again that her own personal growth and relationships suffer. Rather than focus on accepting and coping with a disability, this author has clearly chosen to reinforce the misplaced hope and energy of a newly disabled person and her family towards searching for a magical cure.

Bias in books cannot be dismissed as insignificant. It affects the reader's self-image, philosophy of life, interpersonal sensitivity, and opinions towards different minority groups and social problems. Conversely, nonbiased materials have a positive effect on attitudes, self-perceptions, and future options. Therefore, it is essential that readers as well as writers become aware of the implications of bias and the need to take an active role to ensure that stereotypes are not perpetuated.

Selected Bibliography

Biklen, Douglas and Robert Bogdan. "Media Portrayals of Disabled People: A Study in Stereotypes," Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8.6 & 7 (1977).

Conklin, Barbara. Summer Dreams. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Engebrecht, Pat. The Promise of Moonstone, Beaufort, 1983.

Garrigue, Sheila. Between Friends. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1978.

Greenfield, Eloise. Darlene. New York: Methuen, 1980.

Hlibok, Bruce. Silent Dancer. New York: Messner, 1981.

Howard, Ellen. Circle of Giving. New York: Atheneum, 1984.

Kent, Deborah. Belonging. New York: Dial, 1978.

Lasker, Joe. Nick Joins In. Chicago: Whitman, 1980.

Litchfield, Ada B. Making Room for Uncle Joe. Chicago: Whitman, 1984.

MacLachlan, Patricia. Through Grandpa's Eyes. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Reuter, Margaret. My Mother Is Blind. San Francisco: Children's Press, 1979.

Savitz, Harriet May. Run, Don't Walk. New York: Franklin Watts, 1979.

Stefanik, Alfred T. Copycat Sam: Developing Ties with a Special Child. New York: Human Sciences, 1982.

Thacher, Alida. The Fastest Woman on Earth. Milwaukee: Raintree, 1980.


Mara Sapon-Shevin (essay date March 1982)

SOURCE: Sapon-Shevin, Mara. "Mentally Retarded Characters in Children's Literature." Children's Literature in Education 13, no. 1 (March 1982): 19-31.

[In the following essay, Sapon-Shevin offers an overview of how children's literature portrays mental handicaps, noting how certain examples of such texts can be used to educate young readers about mental impairments.]

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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Claudia Mills (essay date September-October 2002)

SOURCE: Mills, Claudia. "The Portrayal of Mental Disability in Children's Literature: An Ethical Appraisal." Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 531-42.

[In the following essay, Mills studies how children's literature documents mental disabilities, offering examples of both positive and negative characteristics that children's authors often associate with mentally-disabled characters.]

I will begin with what may be a controversial thesis: all literature expresses values and must be judged at least in part on the values it expresses. This is not the only or even the major criterion on which a book for children, or for adults, should be judged, but it is one important dimension of any work of fiction.

In his wonderful book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth, distinguished service professor of English at the University of Chicago, leads a revival of ethical criticism of fiction, both urging "professional critics to abandon their theoretical neutrality" and spurring "the general reader to view ethical judgments of narrative not only as highly important but as more complicated than they appear to be in most accounts." Booth's arguments may strike a particularly responsive chord with critics of children's literature, for, even as we disdain heavy-handed didacticism, we also find it difficult to avoid conceding that at least one (perhaps unintended) function of a children's book is to shape the evolving moral character of its readers. Thus critics of children's literature may more easily endorse Booth's claim that "all works do teach or at least try to … and that no reading can be considered responsible that ignores the challenge of a work's fixed norms."

Of course, some may question whether ethical appraisal of literature is indeed appropriate. Isn't literature, isn't all art, immune from moral criticism? Art is art, the critic may argue, and should be judged only in aesthetic terms, not in terms of the values it seeks to convey. My response here is that there is no realm of life, and no professional undertaking, that is immune from ethical inspection. We have no more reason to exempt the writer from ordinary moral evaluation in carrying out her professional role than the doctor, the lawyer, the politician, the journalist. The author, like any human being, can be held accountable if she makes the world a worse rather than a better place. And the moral values expressed by a work cannot be separated from its aesthetic quality as a whole; what a work says is at least as important in judging its overall aesthetic quality as how the work says it.

This is not to say that the writing of fiction for any audience, including for an audience of children, should be driven by the author's zeal to teach a moral lesson. I am sympathetic to those authors for children who claim that they write only to tell a story, not to preach a sermon, and certainly not to change the world. As the quip goes, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Fiction that is too narrowly focused on any mission of teaching or shaping readers is likely to be aesthetically flawed for that very reason. Brenda Ueland, in her lively 1938 manual on writing, If You Want to Write, cautions aspiring writers against the dangers of message-driven writing: "If you want to say that Fascism is terrible, don't write a novel to prove it, for readers will feel: ‘These are not real people in this book but a lot of conversing types, pushed about to prove that Fascism is terrible.’" Instead, Ueland says, it would be more effective "to write straight, honest exposition and tell just why Fascism is terrible. For in fiction, Chekhov said, you can pose a question (about poverty, morality, or whatever it is) but you must not answer it. As soon as you answer it the readers know you are lying, i.e., forcing your characters to prove something." Ueland is right to warn against literature written expressly (and clumsily) to prove a point. But I am arguing nonetheless that writers of books for young readers, and for all readers, need to have some sensitivity regarding what values emerge from the stories they feel compelled to tell. And those who judge literature for young readers need to be appropriately sensitive here as well.

I also want to say that I am not in any way endorsing censorship; I am not suggesting that books that fail to exhibit the "right" values should not be given to children. I have shared with my own two sons books (such as The Bobbsey Twins Keeping House) that I adored as a child but that I now recognize as exhibiting values of racism and sexism that I deplore. (We then talk about these values together.) I am arguing only that the values that a work expresses are one dimension on which a book should be critically evaluated.

This act of evaluation is more complex than it may seem. Sometimes the expression of values in a work of literature is deliberate and overt on the part of its author, as it has been in so much dismally didactic fiction throughout the history of children's literature; other times, to determine the values that a work expresses requires considerable analysis on the part of a community of readers, with lively debate over exactly what these values should be taken to be. And still other times, the deliberate and overt values that an author tries to express in a work may be contradicted or undermined by competing values that emerge from the work without the author's conscious intent.

Moreover, that a book contains a main character, or even a narrator, who expresses certain values is not enough for us to say that these are the values expressed by the work as a whole. Booth offers a helpful distinction between what he calls a work's "implied author" and either its immediate narrator or its "flesh-and-blood author," the real human being who is responsible for its creation. The implied author is the source of "whatever values or norms" the work as a whole implies. So, for example, while the narrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Huck himself—is openly racist, the implied author of the work is arguably making a searing criticism of racism. The flesh-and-blood author of the work is Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens, whose "real" attitude toward racism can be uncovered only by complex biographical and historical investigation.

I want to use as an example of ethical appraisal of literature an analysis of the portrayal of mental disability in a range of children's books published over the last 150 years to see what values toward mental disability these books express and to ask whether these are values we want to share with children today. Let me say one last time that I am not asking whether these are books we want to share with children today, for there may be considerable value in sharing books that express problematic values, if these are the subject of ongoing dialogue among readers. I do believe that there are real dangers if ethically problematic books are shared uncritically with children, but censorship arguably poses greater dangers still.

The most problematic books, judged only in terms of their portrayal of mental disability, are those that themselves express and uncritically endorse demeaning attitudes toward mental disability—where these are values implied by the work as a whole, by the implied author, to use Booth's terminology.

Consider Stepsister Sally, by Helen F. Daringer, published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1952. When Sally goes to live with her remarried father's new family, she also must attend a new school. The principal automatically assigns Sally to "a less advanced group," on the grounds that "Sally had come from a smaller town, and the work here would be more difficult. She must not think she was being demoted." But of course Sally does think she is being demoted, "for no matter what the principal said, being assigned to a slow group is the same as being put back…. She didn't see how she could ever hold up her head again." When her new stepsister, Dorothy, finds out that Sally has been assigned to Miss Clancey's room, "there was a perceptible tinge of something akin to scorn in her manner…. ‘Why, Miss Clancey teaches the dumb-bells.’"

A reader familiar with more recent children's fiction exploring mental disability would at this point expect Sally and Dorothy to learn to overcome their prejudice against slower learners; although the characters themselves express prejudice against slow learners, the implied author of the work would in the course of the story offer a contrasting viewpoint, ultimately vindicated in the story's conclusion. Sally's temporary sojourn in the slow group will have her emerge more sympathetic to those different from her, with a new understanding of their problems and of her ultimate kinship with individuals of all different kinds of intelligence. This does not happen in Stepsister Sally. Instead, the children in the slow group are disruptive, devious, and dirty. It is indeed terrible to "have to stay on in the same class with Angelina who used your pencils and broke the points, and borrowed your paper and didn't pay it back, and copied your answers and didn't wash her neck clean. It was a prospect too drear to be faced with equanimity." Finally, Sally's father rouses himself enough to remember his fatherly duties, talks to the teacher to explain the mistake in Sally's class assignment, and Sally is promoted to the advanced class, to the great chagrin of Angelina. The linkage Sally has drawn between mental disability, moral turpitude, and poor hygiene is left unchallenged. Slow learners just are dirty and dishonest; one wouldn't want to be one, or to be in any way associated with one.

The identification of low intelligence with poor moral character has not been uncommon in children's fiction. In Enid Blyton's Island of Adventure, published in 1944, the first of her wildly popular "adventure" series, slow-witted Jo-Jo is both the target of many jokes perpetrated by fun-loving Jack, Philip, Dinah, and Lucy-Ann and also emerges as the villain of the piece, in cahoots with the murderous smugglers he assists from his position as the "sullen servant" at Craggy-Tops. Jo-Jo is also black. Race prejudice here is clearly intertwined with prejudice against mental disability, both endorsed uncritically and seemingly unconsciously by the implied author of the text. At one point in the story, the children have made a promise to their adult co-conspirator, Bill Smugs, not to sail to the "Isle of Gloom" in his boat. It is a great point of honor to these British schoolchildren that they never break promises. Jack, in fact, "had never broken a promise in his life." So they honorably keep their promise to Bill by stealing Jo-Jo's boat instead, satisfied that the promise was kept and that they have behaved with the greatest moral propriety. While Bill is shown to be critical of the children for violating the spirit of their promise, if not the letter (his concern was not their use of his boat, but their courting danger on the Isle of Gloom), there is no explicit or implicit concern anywhere about the children's treatment of Jo-Jo. Crimes against a slow-witted black man, it turns out, simply do not count.

The Island of Adventure was first published almost six decades ago. One might assume that its attitudes toward mental disability would be an artifact of a now-distant time, absent from children's books published today. This is not so. In Harry Potter, we see Blyton's triad of stupid, bad, and black replaced with Rowling's triad of stupid, bad, and fat. Harry's cousin Dudley Dursley is consistently portrayed in all the Harry Potter books as extremely slow, as well as very heavy, and, of course, hopelessly spoiled and vindictive toward Harry. Much of the humor in the Dursley family scenes targets Dudley's weight and low level of intelligence. Here is a sample of some humor concerning Dudley's mental slowness. Dudley is upset that he has received only thirty-seven birthday presents, one fewer than the previous year. His parents then offer to buy him another two presents on his birthday outing: "‘How's that, popkin? Two more presents. Is that all right?’ Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work. Finally he said slowly, ‘So I'll have thirty … thirty …’ ‘Thirty-nine, sweetums,’ said Aunt Petunia." Dudley's friends are likewise "all big and stupid, but as Dudley was the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he was the leader."

Now, the text may be read as suggesting that some of Dudley's "stupidity" comes from his laziness and unwillingness to exert effort at anything but eating, breaking his toys, and tormenting Harry; just as his obesity is portrayed as a direct result of his parents' overindulging him with sweets. But in a work that also suggests that people are either born Muggles or wizards, with powers largely out of their own willed control, Dudley's lack of intelligence is also depicted as just the way he is: Muggle not wizard, dumb not smart, fat not thin. What is most problematic is that the reader is invited to laugh at Dudley's weight and mental slowness as funny in themselves. And both are linked with his brutish meanness toward Harry, our hero.

Some books explicitly, even preachily, present positive attitudes toward mental disability, yet go on to undermine these attitudes in other subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways. Indeed, even if the preachy attitudes were not subsequently undermined, the very earnestness of the preaching might arouse suspicions in an alert reader. "Why is this author trying so hard to convince me that mental disability is not so terrible? Is it because deep down she feels the need to convince herself?"

The example I've chosen is Louisa May Alcott's Little Men and Jo's Boys. Among the pupils in the experimental boarding school that Jo founds with her husband, Professor Bhaer, is Billy Ward, identified by Alcott as "what the Scotch tenderly call an ‘innocent.’" Although "thirteen years old, he was like a child of six": "Quite docile and harmless was Billy, and it was pitiful to see how hard he tried to learn…. Mr. Bhaer had infinite patience with him, and kept on in spite of the apparent hopelessness of the task, not caring for book lessons, but trying gently to clear away the mists from the darkened mind, and give it back intelligence enough to make the boy less a burden and an affliction. Mrs. Bhaer strengthened his health by every aid she could invent, and the boys all pitied and were kind to him." Note that even as Alcott is attempting to paint a sympathetic portrait of Billy, she labels him as a "burden and affliction"—whether to himself or to others is unclear.

Later in the book, in a chapter portraying each boy's small garden, Billy is shown as a happy participant in this aspect of life at Plumfield. In his garden patch, he plants buttons and is lucky enough to harvest a crop of oranges, hung on the bare branches of a dead tree by a kindly servant: "Billy was delighted with his crop; and no one spoiled his pleasure in the little miracle which pity wrought for him, by making withered branches bear strange fruit." This unexpected harvest could be read as a parable of the special blessings brought by an "innocent" child, whose "withered" life yields fruit that is strange, but nonetheless sweet.

But this message is undercut in the sequel, Jo's Boys, in which we find out in the first chapter that "poor little Dick [a hump-backed boy] was dead, so was Billy; and no one could mourn for them, since life would never be happy, afflicted as they were in mind and body." This sentence can be read only as a dismissal of the value of the lives of both the humpbacked child and the mentally disabled child, as an assessment that the lives of such children are not worth living. The claim that Billy would never be happy seems a flimsy pretense for failing to mourn his passing, as he was shown to be quite capable of happiness throughout Little Men, as pleased with his own harvest of oranges-from-buttons as any of the other boys were with their cash crops grown for market. The explicit statement of the positive value of Billy's life in the first book is contradicted by Alcott's relief in killing him off in the sequel.

In more recent fiction treating serious mental disability (published over the past few decades), authors seem almost to be collectively atoning for Alcott's refusal to mourn the death of Billy Ward, for perhaps the single most common plot element in these books is the desperate search for a retarded person who is lost and then joyfully found again. Books featuring the plot element of a lost-and-found mentally retarded character include Betsy Byars's Newbery-winning Summer of the Swans, Barbara O'Connor's Me and Rupert Goody, Karen Hesse's Wish on a Unicorn, and Katherine Paterson's Preacher's Boy. As the stories accumulate, the persistent pattern seems to show a literature intent upon insisting, contrary to Alcott, that the loss of a mentally disabled child is to be mourned every bit as much as the loss of a more intelligent sibling.

I recently read a magazine account of a real-life family in which the "normal" child was the victim of a fatal drunk-driving accident, leaving unscathed her Down syndrome sibling. The parents reported that many obtuse but well-meaning friends couldn't refrain from commenting, "If only it had been the other way around." By contrast, the parents insisted, believably, that both children were equally precious to them. This is the note sounded in these books.

When Charlie comes home again in The Summer of the Swans, Aunt Willie gasps, "I tell you this has been the blackest day of my life … and I include every day I have been on earth. Charlie, my Charlie, let me look at you. Oh, you are a sight." To a neighbor she says, "May you never lose your Bobby, that's all I got to say. May you never lose your Bobby, may none of you ever lose anybody in the woods or in the mine or anywhere." The loss of Charlie is equated with the loss of any cherished child.

A variation on the theme of the lost-and-found retarded character is the story of a protagonist who must make a choice between living with his or her retarded relative or living a more "normal" life elsewhere. In My Louisiana Sky, by Kimberly Willis Holt, Tiger must choose between staying with her mentally "slow" parents after the death of her grandmother, who has served as parent to all three of them, or going off to live in Baton Rouge with her sophisticated aunt Dorie Kay. In Randy Powell's Tribute to Another Dead Rock Star, Grady Grennan chooses to live with his retarded half-brother, Louie, rather than spend a year studying abroad in Europe. Welcome Home, Jellybean, by Marlene Fanta Shyer, the story of a severely retarded child returning home after a long stay in a semi-abusive institution, offers Neil the choice between living with his father, who has moved out when he can no longer bear the strain of life with Neil's sister, Gerri, or staying at home with his mother and Gerri. In each case, the protagonist chooses to stay with his or her retarded relative. The ethical principle implicit here is that the mentally disabled have equal value with the non-disabled—indeed, in these cases, they may prove the better choice.

Another frequently expressed, ethically charged message in most of these books is the realization of a commonality, a common humanness, shared between the mentally disabled child and the other characters of the novel. In The Summer of the Swans, Sara's epiphany comes when she ceases to see herself or Charlie or her absent father as unique in some painful and isolating way, but begins to see them all as engaged in a common journey to overcome the difficulties that life places in everybody's path: "She suddenly saw life as a series of huge, uneven steps, and she saw herself on the steps … and she had just taken an enormous step up out of the shadows, and she was standing, waiting, and there were other steps in front of her, so that she could go as high as the sky, and she saw Charlie on a flight of small difficult steps, and her father down at the bottom of some steps, just sitting and not trying to go further. She saw everyone she knew on those blinding white steps and for a moment everything was clearer than it had ever been." Me and Rupert Goody, by Barbara O'Connor, concludes with Jennalee's realization of a bond between her, a smart young white girl, and Rupert Goody, a full-grown retarded black man: "And as I watched Rupert that day, loving Uncle Beau like that, I knew that it was true. Me and Rupert Goody had a lot in common." Narrator Neil, in Welcome Home, Jellybean, at one point says of his retarded sister, "… if people would only give her a chance, they'd see she was a person like everybody else even if she was a bit of a variation."

This message can also be conveyed nonexplicitly simply by using Byars's narrative strategy of presenting some of the story from the retarded character's own point of view, so he or she does not seem alien or "other" to the reader but shares the reader's own subjectivity. Eleanor Hull does this in Alice with Golden Hair, and so does Virginia Euwer Wolff in Probably Still Nick Swansen (where Nick, who suf- fers from "minimal brain dysfunction," learns that "every single person in the world has something not okay"). This simple device can convey the message of commonality without ever pointing to it overtly in the text.

A more problematic message, in my view, also common to many books featuring mentally disabled characters, is that while the mentally disabled character may have less intelligence, in terms of measurable IQ, he or she has more of something else: usually more heart, more soul, more compassion for others. This is from Me and Rupert Goody: "‘So, Uncle Beau, what you think is wrong with Rupert, anyways?’ … ‘Just a mite slow, I reckon.’ … ‘Seems a tad more than slow to me, is all.’ … ‘Sometimes what's in a heart means a hell of a lot more than what's in a head.’" Rupert is subsequently shown to be more compassionate and caring than Jennalee, and more sensitive to her beloved Uncle Beau, when he is the one who returns repeatedly into the burning store to rescue Uncle Beau's cherished mementos of his dead lover, Rupert's mother.

In The Falcon's Wing, by Dawna Lisa Buchanan, retarded Winnie is the only one who runs for help after a younger child falls into the raging river: "She was thinking more clearly than almost anyone else today"; "Give the girl credit for being the only sensible soul down there today." Brain-damaged Hannie, in Wish on a Unicorn, is the only one who uses her wish upon a pretended-to-be-magic toy unicorn to gain something for her family, rather than for herself: "Hannie understood better than I did that we were all important. We were family." Only Alice, of Alice with Golden Hair, is perceptive enough in her dealings with the nursing home residents to know where Miss Johnson has run away to. In My Louisiana Sky, Tiger's "slow" father can predict the weather because of his careful reading of animal behavior, and he averts serious damage to priceless plants in the nursery where he works by being the only one able to give warning of an oncoming hurricane. Nick of Probably Still Nick Swansen is a "savant" in his affinity for and knowledge of amphibians.

Likewise, in recent books featuring characters with milder mental disabilities—such as dyslexia—the author takes pains to give the learning-disabled protagonist some significant "other" talent. For Patrick in Tom Birdseye's Just Call Me Stupid, it is art; for Juice, in Karen Hesse's Just Juice, it is the mechanical aptitude she shares with her father. In my own chapter book about a third-grade boy struggling with the times tables, 7 × 9 = Trouble!, I felt an undeniable need to give Wilson a compensating talent, to make him good at something, so I did: he, like Patrick, is good at art. Even as I added this feature to produce a more satisfying story (the book would have been just too much of a "downer" otherwise), I found myself thinking, But what if Wilson hadn't been good at anything? Extra good, that is—what if he had no talent out of the ordinary, nothing that made him shine?

While it is understandable that an author would try to convey the message that although a disabled character lacks one kind of value, he or she compensates for this by having more of another kind of value, so that we all end up "equal" in some sense in the end, this widely adopted strategy ends up reinforcing rather than challenging a fundamentally competitive view of what it is to be a person with value. See, these texts seem to be saying, a disabled person does have value, because look how compassionate she is, how sensitive; although she may not be "smart," she can be "wise." Or have a knack for drawing, or for predicting the weather. A better strategy, I think, would be to interrogate head-on the equation of value with ability or achievement.

Shyer does this in Welcome Home, Jellybean. There she shows Gerri's father, who is in the end unable to accept his daughter's place in his life, as hoping, wildly and falsely, that Gerri might have the compensating gift of perfect pitch, when she calls "Gee! Gee! Gee!" just as he is playing that chord on the piano. By contrast, Gerri's brother, Neil, can accept Gerri without having to find a compensating strength or gift in her: "I couldn't say it; it just jammed up in my throat like old rags, that not everybody can have perfect pitch, that even though Gerri would always be strange/different/funny/weird, she was the way she was, and she was my sister."

I tried to do this in an earlier book, Losers, Inc. There, while my protagonist, sixth-grader Ethan Winfield, is not learning disabled, he is significantly less successful academically and athletically than his older brother, Peter. As I worked toward a resolution of Ethan's story, I was certainly tempted to have him find something he would be best at, some hitherto hidden talent with which he could finally eclipse his older brother. When I visit schools to talk about the book, children sometimes say they wish I had done this. But I didn't. Instead, the message of the book is that value isn't measured competitively. In my school visits I tell children that I have some bad news for them: whatever they are good at, best at, there is somebody in the world—maybe even somebody in their own school, in their own family—who is even better. Self-worth is securely grounded only in something noncomparative.

As the book ends, the young student teacher is finishing up her time at West Creek Middle School and saying good-bye to Ethan, whose crush on her has encouraged him to transcend the "loser" label he has given himself. When she starts to tell him, "I just want you to know … that I think you are a remarkable young man," he blurts out, "But I'm not…. My brother's the one who's remarkable, not me." The teacher tells him: "I don't know your brother…. I only know you. Whatever he is—and I'm sure he's remarkable, too, if you say he is—it doesn't change the truth about what you are." Each of us can be remarkable however we score on society's official and unofficial standardized tests of mass-marketed merit.

In Jack Gantos's astonishing books about Joey Pigza, Gantos has managed to create an utterly believable character with ADHD—the hyperactive variant of attention deficit disorder—who struggles with schoolwork and with behavioral issues in a way that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Without giving Joey any compensating talent, Gantos lets us see that Joey is an absolutely terrific kid for whom life will always be a challenge. While Joey does finally receive the medication and the special education he needs, the reader knows that though Joey's life will never be easy, he will somehow triumph. Best, Gantos shows us that the real problem lies not with Joey's abnormalities, but with how we, how the rest of us, how all of us, define and deify the "normal."

Here is Joey, in Joey Pigza Loses Control, admiring a department store mannequin, with his perfect hair, nose, chin, skin, and feet: "I just kept staring at him. There he is, I thought, the perfect kid, and I bet he is perfectly normal too." Joey hops up next to the mannequin and tries to imitate his perfect normality, but soon this becomes boring, and he then tries to attract the attention of passersby by various antics:

I leaned way forward and stuck out my tongue until my mouth started to ache. People just walked by as if it was nothing. I crossed my eyes and drooled so much it dripped off my chin. Nothing. I did fake hiccups. Nothing. Nobody seemed to notice, because no matter how weird I was, they were just as weird. People argued and picked their noses and swatted their kids and talked to themselves and pulled at their tight underwear and spit chewing gum out in the corners and wiped their dirty hands on the clothes and sang off key and did all kinds of strange things that I did too, which made me feel like I was normal like they were and not perfect like my mannequin buddy.

Books for children about mental disability inescapably convey values about how we should respond to differences in intelligence. They can portray time in the "slow group" as a shameful disgrace or present difficulty doing simple math problems as the butt of an extended joke; they can tell us that the life of a disabled person is not worth living—or worth living, but only because the disabled person happens to be specially talented in some other way. The message that I think is most true to the moral reality is that we are all differently abled in all different kinds of ways: none of us is normal. The best we can do is to treat each other kindly, to help each other plant our buttons and, we can hope, reap our unexpected oranges.


Greta D. Little (essay date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Little, Greta D. "Handicapped Characters in Children's Literature: Yesterday and Today." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10, no. 4 (winter 1986): 181-84.

[In the following essay, Little offers a comparison between how physical disabilities were depicted in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century children's literature.]

Whenever we approach a topic from the perspective of time, development and change are likely to be the focus of our investigations. The topic of handicapped characters in children's literature is no exception. Even a quick look at the titles of stories about these characters reveals how much change has occurred. The Blind Child (1791), The Deaf and Dumb Boy (1837), Elfred; or, The Blind Boy and His Pictures (1856), Faith, the Cripple (1864), and Blind Alice (1868) are characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books; today The Seeing Stick (1977), The Balancing Girl (1981), Button in her Ear (1976), and Don't Feel Sorry for Paul (1974) are typical. These changes are not accidental. Our society's heightened awareness and sensitivity to the rights and feelings of handicapped or disabled persons has created an atmosphere where such labels are no longer acceptable. Furthermore, in 1975 the U.S. Congress passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which ensures suitable education opportunities for children with special needs and prohibits detrimental labeling of them. Today the emphasis is on eliminating the stereotypes and stigmas attached to disabled people, and focusing on their achievements as well as their frustrations.

At the end of the eighteenth century we were only just beginning to recognize the abilities of handicapped people. Reform movements had not yet made their impact on society. The possibility of educating the blind and deaf was not recognized until the middle of the eighteenth century. Neither lipreading nor sign language was taught until 1755, and schools for the deaf were not available in the United States until after 1815. The nineteenth century saw tremendous growth in educational opportunities for the handicapped. Teachers and pupils like Samuel Gridley Howe, Laura Bridgman, Anne Sullivan, and Helen Keller gained wide attention demonstrating what could be achieved in spite of multiple handicaps. Those who suffered physical disabilities were no longer considered less than human and shut away from society.

Do stories written for children reflect the change in these social attitudes? What do children's books of yesterday tell their readers about people who can't walk or see or hear?

The handicapped characters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books were described as "delicate," "pale," "thin," "puny," "deformed," "frail." But their handicaps made them closer to God, and they were unfailingly cheerful, easily amused, eager, gentle and unselfish. For example, Mark of Mark Barnett, the Cripple (1864) is "like an angel of peace" (13), who never complains of weariness or langor. He is different from other boys. He has read a great deal and had the leisure to consider what he has read; thus his thoughts and words are more refined. He has a mine of wealth because of his communion with God. In spite of his weakness, Mark works hard making baskets, "never sighing for health" but "leaning on Christ's great love" (29). In Blind Alice, Alice is healthy, happy and good-humored before scarlet fever leaves her frightened, distressed, and complaining to her mother of the darkness. However, Alice goes to the Institute for the Blind and returns with a "happy face, eyes bright with tender and glad feelings" so that one "would never have believed they saw a blind girl" (101). "The Deaf Shoemaker" (1859) is a sickly, puny youth with "feeble step and emaciated frame" (72), but he has "patient perseverance," "studious habits and intellectual qualities" which "caused him to be treated with kindness and attention" (74).

In many of these stories the handicapped characters are protagonists only in the sense that they are at the center of the story going on around them. Their role is a passive one, to inspire or influence the real actors in the story's plot. Once again the titles are indicative: Child-Angel (1866) and Ministering Children (1867) are both collections of stories about children who help handicapped characters and profit from the experience. Mark Barnett's only contribution to action is to counsel his wayward brother and pray for him; otherwise he either provides an example of why more fortunate children should not complain or an opportunity for other children to show their Christian charity. In Faith, the Cripple, Faith too acts only in the sense of giving those around her the chance to show how good they are.

There are exceptions, however. Biographical stories written in the nineteenth century tell of what Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller, and John Kitto ("The Deaf Shoemaker") were able to accomplish. They are active participants in their own stories. In Elfred; or the Blind Boy and His Pictures, readers learn what Elfred can do—how by asking specific questions he is able to point out aspects of the pictures that the seeing children have overlooked.

In these early works the reader's attention is drawn to the specialness of the handicapped characters, and their role in the story is always tied to their physical condition. They are not simply ordinary participants in a plot. They are central characters because their handicap is necessary to the storyline. Supporting characters who are disabled rarely have a role beyond demonstrating their handicap and providing a chance for the healthy hero or heroine to reveal his worth. Few of these characters have fully developed personalities.

In today's books, children with disabilities are treated differently. First of all, they are described in more positive terms. Paul, the victim of birth defects, in Don't Feel Sorry for Paul, is "remarkably strong for a boy his age" (23). He loves all physical activity, wrestles with his father, and wins a ribbon horseback riding. Lester, who suffers from cerebral palsy in The Alfred Summer, is "fineboned and tall," even "aristocratic" (26) in spite of his uncontrolled jerking. In I Have a Sister My Sister Is Deaf (1977), the deaf sister feels sounds and understands from lipreading and gestures. She cannot sing or know when the phone rings, but she can play the piano, dance, tumble, and climb. Most modern authors rely less on descriptive adjectives than their predecessors, opting instead for verbs to portray their handicapped characters. They tell readers what the characters can and cannot do rather than what they are or are not.

These characters are rarely passive. Even where the focus is on one of the other family members, as it is in My Brother Steven Is Retarded (1977) or I Have a Sister My Sister Is Deaf, readers learn about the handicapped character's life as well as how it affects the narrator. Both Steven and the deaf sister do more than inspire good deeds.

The role of these characters in the plot continues to be defined by their handicaps, as it was in the nineteenth century. Occasionally, however, a story is totally unrelated to the character's disability. Margaret in The Balancing Girl cannot walk and is confined to a wheelchair. Her story of setting up a chain of dominoes as part of a fund-raising carnival is in no way dependent on her inability to walk. The story gains poignancy from her triumph over a physical handicap, but that is entirely secondary. The main triumph for Margaret is in raising more money than her nemesis Tom, a fellow student who had challenged her balancing skills.

These changes in the portrayals of handicapped characters are consistent with the changes in our society and in our attitudes toward disabled persons. In the eighteenth century, handicapped people were a burden to their families, usually kept isolated from the rest of the world. They had little hope of being educated, and almost none of an independent, self-sufficient existence. Today, the social consciousness which was only awakening in the nineteenth century has prompted the establishment of programs and institutions designed to help the handicapped become part of mainstream culture. The handicapped are still special and perhaps different, but today's society is more inclined to integrate than to isolate. Consequently the characters we find in children's books are pretty ordinary people with ordinary reactions and goals, except that they must cope with and compensate for something they are not able to do.

If society and its view of handicapped people have changed so much, have the messages carried in these books changed also? Early books seem to promote three major purposes: to inspire Christian piety and patience through examples of the sufferings of unfortunate handicapped characters, to show the accomplishments possible in spite of physical adversities, to educate the public about what is involved in various handicaps and overcoming them.

The first group have a strong religious overtone and are probably responsible for the stereotype of handicapped people, handicapped children in particular, as "too good to live." Thus Faith, who never thinks of herself, is rewarded by death: "Faith sings as she walks through the golden streets of her beautiful home; no more tears, no more pain, no more sin, no more a little, deformed cripple, but an angel now" (243). In "Poor Jay Jones" (1867), Jay is "carefully nursed and tended by pitying neighbors" who "sweetened the cup of suffering that poor, lone boy was compelled to drink" until he "passed down the stream of Death" (82-3). Not all these inspirational stories end in death. Elfred was written to "illustrate the spirit and temper of mind with which evil should be borne" and to show "the innumerable sources of enjoyment which still remain" (7).

The second group of stories are happier, concentrating on the successes of the disabled characters; nevertheless, religion continues to play an obvious part in the message communicated. In some, the introduction makes clear how the children are expected to profit from their reading. "The Deaf Shoemaker" tells how John Kitto overcame his deafness to become an important publisher and editor of The Biblical Encyclopedia and The Pictorial Bible. His story is part of a collection of short accounts of people and what happens to them, "written to lead children to Christ" (vi). Alice's ability to help support her mother and to read books, enjoy her garden, and do other things show children that blindness can be overcome.

Stories which are meant to educate the public usually are those about actual people. They are similar to the second group in that they are upbeat and concentrate on what their heroes and heroines have been able to achieve, but they are not especially religious in tone and provide factual information. "The Story of Laura Bridgman," which appeared in St. Nicholas (1889), includes a pictorial demonstration of the finger-spelling alphabet. "Helen Keller," also in St. Nicholas (1889), shows a sample of Braille writing. Both are explicit in explaining how the Perkins Institute for the Blind operated.

The instructive purpose for literature about disabilities is a very popular one today. Some books are nonfiction with only a factual component, but many, like Button in My Ear, use a storyline to explain the problems caused by the handicap. The main purpose of My Brother Steven Is Retarded is to enlighten children about the realities of living with the mentally retarded. Don't Feel Sorry for Paul includes very specific information about prosthetics—how they are made and the difference they can make in the lives of birth defect victims like Paul.

The accomplishments of the handicapped, especially how they are able to adapt to their disabilities is also a frequent theme in modern books. ATU, The Silent One (1967), tells of a mute African youth who draws pictures to tell of his exploits on a hunting expedition since he can't join in the storytelling around the fire. Light a Single Candle (1964) is the story of fourteen-year-old Cathy, who goes blind from glaucoma and is able to return to her public high school with a seeing-eye dog that allows her to interact with her fellow students as an ordinary student.

These contemporary examples of books showing what the handicapped are capable of doing do not have the strong religious overtones of the earlier works. As a result, we are inclined to say that they are not didactic, but realistic. However, John Rowe Townsend has pointed out that "didacticism is still very much alive…. Years ago we threw the old didacticism (dowdy morality) out of the window; it has come back in at the door wearing modern dress (smart values) …" (56). He goes on to explain:

We see our ideal society as one in which everybody is thoughtful, gentle, compassionate, withal humorous and fun-loving; in which everyone is integrated but nevertheless individual. We expect, consciously or otherwise, that writers for children will provide us with instruments for bringing this society into being.

In books about the handicapped this didactic purpose is especially alive. Nineteenth-century books to inspire focused on the sufferings of the handicapped; today's focus on their ability to adapt and achieve. The message is more often implicit rather than explicit, and rarely overtly religious. Nonetheless, the inspirational message can still be found in contemporary stories about the disabled. A comparison of two books—Elfred; or, The Blind Boy and His Pictures (1856) and The Alfred Summer (1980)—demonstrates the similarities and the changes.

Elfred is blinded when he is struck in the head with an arrow shot by an older playmate. Although his mother had thought Elfred would be destitute and helpless all his life, the boy's cheerful industry soon convinces her otherwise. He learns to "see" by feeling things. He makes a chicken coop, refusing all help because he can do it himself. One of his friends is a little girl, Josie, who brings him his first picture despite her parents' warning that it will make him feel his blindness and helplessness more. Instead, the pictures provide him even more contact with other children who enjoy hearing Elfred's stories about them.

Elfred's closest friend is Park, a deaf and dumb boy. They manage to communicate by gestures, frequently using Josie as interpreter. On an excursion with Josie they meet Adonijah, who is lame. Park carries him to the cart, which Elfred pushes and Park pulls. "One was deaf and dumb, another was a cripple, and the third was blind. But then they had senses and faculties enough among them" (122-3) is the author, Jacob Abbott's comment. Elfred and Park, now close friends, prove their successful adaptive abilities by cooperating to build a Martin house which Park enjoys by watching the birds while Elfred listens to their singing. The story ends with a list of the lessons readers should have learned:

1. beware of dangerous toys …

2. happiness in life depends on temper and disposition …

3. do all you can to befriend and help the unfortunate; make them smile and forget their privations and sorrows …

The main characters in The Alfred Summer are Lester, victim of cerebral palsy; Alfred, who is mentally retarded and suffers from epilepsy; and Myron, an inarticulate, clumsy teenager who is also overweight. When the boys first get together and go to the cafeteria for a snack, Lester describes them as "the Cripple Parade" (25), words reminiscent of Abbot's description of Elfred and his friends. Over their food Myron tells them about the boat he is building, and Lester and Alfred volunteer to help by collecting wood. They work in the basement of their apartment building each night, sharing their feelings of alienation and fear. The group's expedition to the park to check other boats for the placement of passenger seats is the first time Lester is able to go anywhere without his mother hovering close by. Later Lester and Alfred return to the park on their own to get oarlocks for Myron's boat. Lester draws up the plan and Alfred actually executes it. The plan is successful; but as they are returning on the train, Alfred suffers an epileptic seizure when they reach their stop. No one on the train is willing to help, and Lester must pull Alfred off the train in spite of his lack of coordination. As a result, Lester is able to earn the respect of his father for the first time.

In honor of Alfred, Myron changes the boat's name from The Getaway to The Alfred. When the boat sinks on its first voyage, Myron learns to laugh at himself. All the characters are triumphant in spite of their various problems. Lester describes the scene this way:

I listened to that big crowd appreciating my friend when just a moment before they were hurting him. I saw Myron's big grin and knew his heart had gone down with his boat. I saw the Burts [Alfred's parents] cheering as if they hadn't a care in the world. And I didn't forget me, either, unable to even do a decent job of yelling for my friend and yet bursting with … I don't know what.

Really, sometimes life just knocks me out!

In both stories the handicapped characters draw on each other's strengths to compensate for their shortcomings. They succeed by pooling abilities and cooperating. They have to convince their concerned parents that they are capable of having any independent life. The triumphs these characters achieve are modest, but in each case the children strive for and are able to attain a degree of normalcy. Both books inspire children by showing how people can cope with insurmountable problems and still enjoy life.

Although there are similarities between the books, there are striking differences also. Most of these differences are indicative of the way children's literature itself has changed. For one thing, Lester, Alfred, and Myron have much more developed personalities than Elfred, Park, and Adonijah. Their story has a well-constructed plot, whereas Elfred is a series of events. Furthermore, The Alfred Summer employs a self-conscious first person narrator, a technique not much used in nineteenth-century children's literature. Consequently, readers are able to enter Lester's mind and feel his hurt and frustration more acutely than they can feel Elfred's. This self-conscious perspective is particularly useful for writers whose characters are handicapped, since it provides an effective tool for convincing readers themselves.

Both the society and the literary conventions which shape children's literature have changed considerably. As a consequence, the books seem quite different. The type of society promoted in today's books is not that promoted in the nineteenth century. Empathy with the handicapped is sought over sympathy for them. Overt religious moralism has been replaced by a subtler implicit didacticism urging compassion and acceptance. The stories have richer plots with multidimensional characters who can express their own feelings. Yet for all these differences, at heart these books have remained very much alike. Whether written yesterday or today, stories with handicapped characters have the same theme or purpose: They tell us about disabled people and their lives, what they are able to achieve, and finally inspire us by the example of their efforts.


Abbott, Jacob. Elfred; or, The Blind Boy and His Pictures. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856.

Barrett, Philip. "The Deaf Shoemaker." The Deaf Shoemaker. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1859.

Butler, Beverly. Light a Single Candle. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1964.

Charlesworth, Maria Louisa. Ministering Children. A Sequel. London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1867.

Faith, the Cripple; or, Songs in the Night. New York: Carlton and Porter, 1864.

Fletcher, William. The Deaf and Dumb Boy, a Tale. London: John W. Parker, 1837.

Hall, Florence Howe. "Helen Keller." St. Nicholas 26 (1889): 834-43.

Jarstrow, Joseph. "The Story of Laura Bridgman." St. Nicholas 26 (1889): 746-52.

Jupo, Frank. ATU, The Silent One. New York: Holiday House, 1967.

Litchfield, Ada B. A Button in Her Ear. Chicago: Albert Whitman and Co., 1976.

Mark Barnett, the Cripple; or, Westmorelands. Boston: Henry Hoy, 1864.

McIntosh, M. J. Blind Alice. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1868.

Page, Mrs. J. N. "Poor Jay Jones." The Child-Angel, and Other Stories. Comp. Mrs. Caroline D. Hiscox. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1866.

Peterson, Jeanne Whitehouse. I Have a Sister My Sister Is Deaf. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Pinchard, Mrs. The Blind Child, or Anecdotes of the Wyndham Family. London: E. Newbery. 1791.

Rabe, Berniece. The Balancing Girl. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981.

Slepian, Jan. The Alfred Summer. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

Sobol, Harriet Langsam. My Brother Steven Is Retarded. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Townsend, John Rowe. "Didacticism in Modern Dress." In Only Connect. Ed. Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Wolf, Bernard. Don't Feel Sorry for Paul. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1974.

Yolen, Jane H. The Seeing Stick. New York: Crowell, 1977.

Cynthia Neese Bailes (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Bailes, Cynthia Neese. "Mandy: A Critical Look at the Portrayal of a Deaf Character in Children's Literature." Multicultural Perspectives 4, no. 4 (2002): 3-9.

[In the following essay, Bailes presents a critical reading of Barbara Booth's picture book Mandy to illuminate how hearing writers, though well-meaning, often perpetuate stereotypes and inaccurately portray the point-of-view of the Deaf community.]

When any segment of society is excluded from its literature, the implication is thereby conveyed that the group is without value.
     (Rudman, 1995, p. 219)

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Wendy M. Smith-D'Arezzo (essay date March 2003)

SOURCE: Smith-D'Arezzo, Wendy M. "Diversity in Children's Literature: Not Just a Black and White Issue." Children's Literature in Education 34, no. 1 (March 2003): 75-94.

[In the following essay, Smith-D'Arezzo presents a series of criteria for examining children's books concerned with learning disabilities, utilizing reactions from young readers to gauge the effectiveness of and interest in such works.]

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Marah Gubar (essay date September 2004)

SOURCE: Gubar, Marah. "‘Whacked-Out Partners’: The Inversion of Empathy in the Joey Pigza Trilogy." Children's Literature in Education 35, no. 3 (September 2004): 219-39.

[In the following essay, Gubar argues that Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza trilogy forces young readers to reconsider their preconceived notions about children with emotional disabilities.]

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Disabilities in Children's Literature

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