When I heard that a new picture book that has a protagonist with a disability – and that had been written by a person with a disability – had hit the bookshelves, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Helping children develop positive attitudes towards children with disabilities forms part of my research (as I’ve blogged before), and the Guardian’s review struck a chord.
Like Burnell, although I spent a fair amount of time as a child at the back of my wardrobe, and managed to devastate my parents, aged nine years, with the news that I wanted to leave for boarding school, there were never really characters in books I could identify with because of their disability*. The closest I got was Matilda who could mysteriously move things with her eyes (if I stare hard enough at my right hand fingers, they will move without my conscious intention). I liked that. And yes, things have improved, since the days when disability was tragedy, and children in books were healed of it, (cf. What Katy Did, The Secret Garden, Heidi) to a place where disability is more positively represented, (Curious Incident) representation from within – and with an under-the-sea theme (am a bit of a fish, myself) had me hooked.
The story itself (beware: spoilers) is about a little girl, Sylvia, who can swim, and a little boy, Luka, who can’t. Sylvia appears at the beach one day, and teaches Luka how to swim, and he loves it. And, when Sylvia appears as a new pupil in Luka’s class, and the children “murmur” why are you in a wheelchair? Luka tells them that she is a mermaid: the focus is on what Sylvia can do.
And this has to be a strength of the (mermaid’s) tail. Often, when it comes to characters with disabilities, the illustrations and story centre on what the child cannot do. This story is different, and highlights the positive ways in which friendships can be built around commonalities. It also flips the whole ‘I must help the child with the disability’ mantra, that children seem to develop when I talk with them about disability, on its head: it is Sylvia that helps Luka, not the other way around.
From a research perspective? There are two empirical questions I’d like to follow up. The first is about friendships. Are friendships with children in a wheelchair easier for children to imagine in this context (the swim), than in the context of the classroom / playground – or somewhere where the character with a disability would likely need help?
And relatedly, if it were easier, why is this? Is it because the taboo is less of an issue when help isn’t needed? It would be interesting to know what children pick up from this story about the taboo surrounding disability. It is mentioned that Luka “hardly noticed” the wheels of Slyvia’s chair – yet to the children in her class – and in the illustrations – they are very prominent. What would happen if the words about the wheelchair were omitted? If Luka did notice the wheelchair? If the children in her class didn’t? If Sylvia was introduced to the class as a swimmer, or as a child who uses a wheelchair?
I liked this story. It gives a positive message about the possibilities of friendship and playing together and helping one another. It focuses on can, rather than on cannot. Plus, I love swimming :-). Realistically, I’m not so sure about Luka’s not noticing the wheelchair, nor about whether dismissing Slyvia’s wheelchair to the class is helpful. But both could be empirically investigated to determine the effects on children’s attitudes (any eye-tracking colleagues wish to collaborate here…?). As I head for a BPS symposium on children growing up with diversity on Thursday, it will make for a silvery sea of discussion. Before that – I’m off to the pool 🙂
Mermaid is written by Cerrie Burnell and Laura Ellen Anderson
*For newer readers, it’s worth knowing that I have a congenital right hemiplegia.