Updated: Jun 23, 2021
By Hannah Grieco
Recently while reading to my six-year-old, I noticed my nine-year-old leaning in through the doorway to listen. “I love this book!” she said, and I was thrilled. Is there anything better than watching your children develop into readers? It’s a parent’s dream!
But as we continued to read, I came across the phrase, “He must have thought we had just broken out of a mental hospital or something!” And all of a sudden, I had to do damage control. Not because the book was diving into the subject of mental health, and not because I’m on some sort of book-burning crusade to cure literature of all offensive language. I had to soften the blow because my oldest child had previously been hospitalized for mental health reasons, and this author was mocking both him and that experience.
Reviewing this author’s work, I discovered that she regularly wrote ableist phrases like “mentally ill weirdo.” In fact, she had already been forced to omit the word “retard” out of one of her books.
The language authors use, particularly in children’s literature, is critical. A middle-grade book like this targets 8 to 12-year-old readers. Plenty of children’s books, tagged as “essential reading,” have language that is uncomfortable and even disturbing. Some books are products of their time, but still relevant to read and discuss for the lessons they teach. Others use language to explore specific topics. Profanity, descriptions of bigoted behaviors, scenes with bullying – these components of a book might be alarming for parents (and kids), but often seek to explore character development and/or address an overall theme.
There are lessons to be learned from exploring dated, painful viewpoints about different types of people. But when a children’s book indifferently mocks a group of people, just for the laughs – where is the value in that? Should casual racism, sexism, homophobia, and in this case, ableism, be dismissed if it’s “all in good fun?” In a book that my young child brings home from her school library? It was not a novel study in a class where the teacher asks probing questions, and the students discuss, even argue, about meaning. No, just for fun. As a joke.
We live in a country that has undergone a social regression over the past few years. The rift between political and social beliefs has grown so vast that there are few opportunities to build bridges. Name-calling is the norm. Bullying is seen as a sign of strength.
Children’s authors can build bridges, though. We already have shelf upon shelf of books with dubious language that marginalizes others. Authors from different periods who used the tools they had, often the biases they weren’t even aware of, to tell their stories. But we know better now, and writers can do better. We can all make the thoughtful choice to refrain from “punching down.” Writers can be creative, instead of following in old, tired footsteps that exclude or target others for entertainment and cheap shots. They can write compelling characters instead of relying on stereotypes.
Authors, especially children’s authors, must be aware that their audience includes many types of readers. Are they making the literary world, and by extension, the real world, a better, more inclusive place? If not, why are they writing?
It’s incredibly easy to find books in our school libraries that belittle and mock characters with disabilities. But where should parents turn to find books that elevate these experiences instead? Books that introduce readers to characters that look like them, their friends, and their family members?
One of the best ways to find inclusive children’s literature is to look for “own voices” authors: people who have lived the experiences that they’re writing about. These authors can add nuance and perspective that is both valuable and authentic as they create their characters.
Here are seven examples of children’s books written by “own voices” authors.
Dad has a Wheelchair– Ken Jasch
El Deafo – Cece Bell
Captain Underpants – Dav Pilkey
How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl – Florida Frenz
On the Edge of Gone – Corinne Duyvis
Too Sticky – Jen Malia
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Hannah Grieco is an educational advocate and writer in Arlington, VA. She can be found online at www.hgrieco.com.