Picture Books can be Sad (without meaning to be)

Not all picture books are bright and happy. Kids have a wide range of emotions and experiences, and there are books for all of them. Or pretty much all of them, in any case. There are picture books about being sad, and there are picture books about things that will make you sad.

This post isn’t about those books. This post is about picture books that I am pretty sure are not meant to make anyone sad. I might be an outlier in finding these books sad. You’ll have to read them yourself and be the judge of the subjective sad level contained in these volumes.

mydad

My Dad Used to Be Cool by Keith Negley

Here is a book about a dad who used to have punk hair and play in a band before he became a dad. Not that he’s a dad, his hair is short and he doesn’t have time for the music. The reviews of this book all seem to find this sweet –praising the depiction of the sacrifices parents make—but when I read it, I am reminded of the way our culture seems to require parents (especially moms, but also dads as in this book) to give up their identities and hobbies when they have kids.  Love music? Try Raffi. Counterculture style? Not gonna work. It makes me sad, honestly. I know not everyone conforms. There are some punk parents out there doing their own thing, and there are parents who play music or indulge in other passion projects. But those are the minority. Most people are like the dad in this book. We used to be someone; Now we’re someone’s parent. So I guess it’s relatable content, but it’s sad relatable content, in my opinion.

dayswithdad

Days with Dad by Nari Hong

This is a book I really wanted to love. There are so few picture books that show disabilities at all, much less a disabled parent, that I wanted to be able to recommend this one widely since it features a dad who is a wheelchair user with his daughter. Unfortunately, the book is one long string of apologies from the dad for all the things he cannot do. The semi-autobiographical text is meant to be feel-good though, because the little girl replies with a positive bit after every apology. Can’t ice skate? No problem, you can lace up my skates for me.  Over and over again. I see the attempt at optimism, and I raise you with this: Why did we need a picture book version of internalized ableism? Yeah, I get that probably a lot of disabled folks feel like they are a burden or a disappointment to their loved ones on occasion, but that is a sad thing about our culture. That’s not a “cheer up, pal” kind of thing. That’s an actually really sucky thing that many of us, myself included, fight within ourselves because our culture tells us we’re less than we should be. That’s not uplifting to me, folks. It’s sad.

 

I feel bad that both of these books are dad books. Stay tuned for a future post sharing dad books that don’t make me sad.

“This might seem rude, but…”

uglyI have talked a lot on this blog about acknowledging differences and asking questions. I was thinking about that as I read Ugly by Robert Hoge, a memoir for kids about Hoge’s experience growing up with a facial deformity. This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

“Some of the best talks I have ever had started with someone asking, ‘This might seem rude, but can I ask about your face/nose/scars/bumps?’ Wherever those conversations ended up, they started as honest exchanges. Acknowledging someone’s differences can be about saying you’re not scared to talk to someone about the things that make them who they are.”

A lot of kids have been afraid of me in my life. When I was a kid, it was confusing to have my peers be afraid of my prosthesis or of my little arm. I wasn’t scary, was I? As an adult, I understand why it might be surprising, uncomfortable, or even frightening for a kid to see someone like me. And I go out of my way to be approachable, to be unscary. I’ll never look just like everyone else, and I’m okay with that.

I promise: I’d much rather be asked a rude question than have someone be afraid of me.

Robert Hoge’s memoir shares his journey to being okay with how he looked. It can be hard to read about how his mother initially rejected him, about the taunts he received from other kids, and about being perceived as ugly, but I hope readers, young and old, come away knowing that they don’t have to be afraid of someone who looks different. They can ask honest questions. That it is possible to be comfortable with what you look like even when you stand out.

You can listen to Hoge talk more about how important it is to be comfortable with how you look in his TEDx Talk:

The Audience

sharkgirlShark Girl by Kelly Bingham is at once My Story and Not My Story. When I first read the book back in 2007, I focused on how much the story felt like mine. It’s true that I did not lose my arm in an animal attack, that I never had to re-learn how to do tasks one-handed, and that I don’t know anything about recovering from such a life altering event. But that wasn’t all there was to the story.

There was also Jane’s desire to live her life without an audience. She doesn’t want to be a hero or an interview subject. She doesn’t want eyes on her as she figures out how to do what she needs to do. But she quickly learns what I have known for a long time: amputees cannot avoid an audience. In his memoir We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist said, “That’s what it means to be an amputee: You’re always putting on a show.” He’s right.

The audience might be a quick double take or a curious stare. It might be unnecessary assistance or an admiring gaze. The worst, in my opinion, are the apologetic audiences. The I’m-so-sorry-I-didn’t-realizes at offering the wrong hand to shake and other awkward moments are the story of my life.

In the book Jane gets letters from people who saw her story on the news. She struggles with the idea that she isn’t herself anymore. She is Shark Girl. That’s all people will ever see. I may not have a story like hers, but I do know how it feels to think that you’ll never be able to get beyond what people see. Jane put it this way:

“Missing an arm is like wearing a coat,

a really big, hot, ugly coat

that I can’t take off.

Ever.

It’s all that people see.”

Every amputee deals with the audience in their own way, I suppose. Sundquist, who had his leg amputated as a child, became a motivational speaker, exactly what Jane in the novel declares she will never be. It took me a while to figure out how I felt comfortable taking on the audience, but eventually I decided to lean in to it. As a teenager I would avoid eye contact with the starers or do something to purposely put them off guard if I thought they were being rude. Though that might have been easier or more gratifying in the moment, I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I didn’t feel good about it. So I started seeking eye contact, answering questions, and sharing more about what it means to be me.

Much like Jane in the novel, I don’t appreciate an audience when I’m figuring out how to one-hand-hack a task I’ve never done before, but honestly, if you want to watch me tie my shoes, I really don’t mind. I’ve tied my shoes enough times in my life that I am completely fine with an audience.

Crocodile Stories

It seems to be a general rule that every story in which an amputee character gets any page time at all will also feature a crocodile. Or maybe a shark or a tiger. It doesn’t matter what wild animal one chooses, and it doesn’t matter what the truth of the story is. What matters is surprising people.

No one expects much from a less than fully limbed person, and I can speak from personal experience when I say that it can be rather draining to live a life in which people don’t expect you to be able to tie your own shoes or do much of anything for yourself. I surprise people on a near daily basis by my ability to accomplish the most basic of tasks.  In a world of such constant underestimation, there is an almost irresistible pull to really surprise people, to shock them into considering their assumptions, to change the story they’ve told themselves. That’s where the wild animals come in.  No one ever expects a crocodile.

While it is perhaps something of a cliche for an amputee character to make up some wild story about their limb loss, I can’t deny that it happens. I laughed when I read  the scene in A Time to Dance when Veda responds to rude people with a crocodile story. I’d have done much the same if I were her. I did much the same many times as a teen. I am, and always have been, happy to answer questions asked kindly, but there was a time in my youth when rude questions, comments, or staring were almost certainly answered rudely or with a crocodile story intended to shut down the conversation by surprising people.

In The Doldrums, Adelaide tells a crocodiledoldrums story with the words “chewed it clean off” when a man stares at her prosthetic leg. The man is so surprised he leaves the cafe without his coffee.  Later she finds that the story works initially with the other kids at her new school, but it quickly gets out of hand.  A word of advice: if your goal is to shut down the conversation, a crocodile story will only work with adults.  Kids will just be more interested and probably call you “crocodile girl.” That is exactly what happens to Adelaide. It isn’t exactly a winning strategy for getting people to leave you alone, and it definitely won’t make you any friends.

However, I have found that it is often the people who don’t react quite like everyone else who make the best of friends.  Adelaide’s crocodile story makes Archer, a wannabe adventurer, jealous. “It’s an odd thing to be jealous of a girl whose leg was eaten by a crocodile. Few people would be jealous of that. But Archer was few people. And it wasn’t so much the loss of a limb as it was the entire story.” That, of course, is the beginning of a real friendship, or at least, it becomes a real friendship when they eventually get past Adelaide’s story and Archer’s jealousy.

It has been a very long time since I told a crocodile story about myself. These days I am much more focused on keeping the conversation open, but there are times when I am tempted. Especially considering the real story of my limb difference is so boring. Of course, I’ve learned that the boring story is the most unexpected of all.  The truth is, I’ve gotten so much more surprise from “I was born this way” than I ever did from any wild animal story I told as a kid.

 

What YA Needs

Back in July, the #YANeedsMore hashtag turned my Twitter feed into a wish list of what librarians, readers, and book people wanted to see published for teens.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to add my own. YA needs more congenital disabilities.

Let me put it another way. YA does not need any more stories about tragic accidents or illnesses that affect the protagonists’ ability to do what they love most.  A few examples:

  • A runner loses a leg in The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.
  • A dancer loses a leg in A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatramen.
  • An artist loses her drawing arm in Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham.

I like all of these books and recommend them often, but I want to tell future YA writers: this story has been told.  Let’s tell a new story.  Some people have had physical differences our whole lives.  Perhaps that could be a story, and I can tell you from experience that story isn’t a tragic one.

How to ask a question

Questions are a big part of my life.  Not only am I a librarian, a career that has a particular focus on helping people answer questions, but also I’m a person with a visible physical difference–not to mention the assistive device I wear.  I live with curiosity, and I’ve decided to encourage it.

its-ok-to-ask-thumbIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this isn’t news.  I’ve talked a lot about the questions people ask and the way that I answer them.  Here are just a few posts on the topic:

  • It’s Okay to Ask – Features a new picture book that encourages young kids to feel comfortable asking about disabilities and see beyond them.
  • My Day at School – Reflections on not being able to blend in when I visit my daughter’s classroom for the day.
  • Storytime Reflections – I was a special guest at a storytime at a public library, and I got some great questions from the kids and parents in the audience.

I have gotten questions of all sorts.  Some quite rude, most just hesitant and awkward.  I answer them all as best I can.  Not long ago, though, a little girl asked me about my prosthetic arm in the nicest way possible, and I just had to share.  She said, “I like your arm.  Can you tell me about it?”

It doesn’t get better than that. :)

Speaking of pirates…

While I am on the subject of pirates, which I referenced in this post, I’d like to bring up the only one-handed fictional character everyone knows: Captain Hook.  I spent most of my life really hating that guy.  You can imagine why.  It’s not easy having something so obvious in common with a terrible villain, especially as a kid.

I had to re-evaluate my anti-Captain Hook stance (a little) when my daughter started watching “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.”  In the show, Captain Hook is not only a villain but also a bumbling oaf.  It was hardly an improvement.  But as I watched, I noticed something.  He might have been a bad guy and a stupid guy, but he was never helpless because of his lack of an arm.  The show never, that I saw, had him struggling as a one-handed person.  He struggled with bad decisions and was defeated fair and square by the good pirates.  I’m still not crazy about the whole disability = villain trope, but at least it doesn’t equal helpless.  I think that’s a win.

In my new-found not-hatred for Captain Hook, I happened to read a couple of interesting books recently:

  • aliashookAlias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a re-imagining of the Peter Pan story.  In the book, Captain Hook isn’t the villain at all.  He’s a tragic hero who may be able to find a happy ending after all.  It’s part-historical novel, part-fairy tale fantasy, and an odd sort of coming-of-age novel.  There’s also a romance, which I appreciated.  How often do you see the person with the disability get the girl?  ;) It is far from my usual reading choice, but I rather enjoyed it.
  • hooksrevengeHook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz is a children’s novel for middle graders (roughly ages 10-12) that follows Captain Hook’s daughter as she takes command of the crew after her father has died.  It’s a fun adventure full of humor and action with a girl at the center.  Jocelyn Hook is a two-handed heroine, but the book has some funny references to the disabled pirate stereotype that made me laugh.

Maybe pirates aren’t so bad after all.  And maybe people with differences aren’t as helpless as people think either. :)