Educator Dean Boddington shares his top five reads to help children feel seen in the books they read.
Everyone has a tired anecdote that they have shared with anyone who will listen. Mine is the joy of reading The Royal Rabbits of London by Santa Montefiore and Simon Sebag Montefiore to a class and realising that the protagonist is from ‘a field in Northamptonshire’. Northamptonshire is rarely featured in literature or any media, so I was overcome with a huge sense of pride and excitement that the area I grew up in was represented in a book. The children gave me a few odd looks at this point, but I didn’t care – I felt seen.
For years people have been calling for more diversity in children’s literature, ensuring that every child gets the chance to see themselves represented in the books that they read. Recently, it has been obvious to see that the publishing industry is trying. Don’t get me wrong – there is still a long way to go, but we’re heading in the right direction.
When I was 16, I was diagnosed with congenital hearing loss. It had taken a long time to diagnose because I’d noticed during my hearing tests that every time a sound was played, a light flashed on the side of the machine. So, according to every test I’d had previously, I had perfect hearing. At 16 I admitted to my parents that I had cheated every hearing test I had taken, but I’d become worried that I couldn’t hear everything and with GCSEs looming I had begun to panic. The hospital did tests (in scary soundproof booths), concluding that I needed hearing aids and had been partially deaf since birth – up to that point I had got by with lip reading and a bit of luck.
Like most 16-year-olds, I hated the thought of something that would make me stand out. I wore my hearing aids for French lessons and nothing else. I hated them and never gave them a chance to help me. Fast forward to becoming a teacher at age 25, and I tried hearing aids again. The same story: I just couldn’t get used to them. I felt ridiculously conscious of what other people thought about me. I was happy to explain to people that I was hard of hearing but the thought of being seen in hearing aids petrified me, and I used humour to distract from my anxiety. Eventually as a 34-year-old I had finally matured enough to give them the time they needed and my working life has improved as a result.
Growing up, I never saw anyone with hearing aids. They were an alien concept to me, only worn by old people. Had I or my friends seen hearing aids normalised in media, maybe it would have been a different story. This is why I feel so strongly about representation of disabled characters in books, and ‘disabled’ is a word that I’ve only just in the last few months felt comfortable using about myself due to the stigma of the word whilst I was growing up.
Over the last few years there have been more and more disabled protagonists appearing in books. However, I believe that now is the time to pause, take stock and evaluate what we have, but also look at how we can improve.
In over half of the books I have read featuring a protagonist who wears a hearing aid, the hearing aid gave the wearer superpowers. Now I’ll be honest here, this in itself isn’t a huge issue – I love the thought of magical/super hearing aids. I have recommended these books countless times and genuinely enjoyed them myself. But disabled characters should be fun, worthwhile and interesting without having to be magical or super. These characters are often unpopular, uncool or struggling until their hearing aids give them a new advantage. If I read too many more of these books I may give the NHS an angry phone call and demand an upgrade because mine aren’t even Bluetooth compatible.
We need to be seeing more disabled characters that are having adventures, living normal lives, defeating monsters, and saving the world alongside their disability, not because of it. Otherwise we are taking the representation away from disabled readers and we’re back to square one in regard to children seeing themselves in books.
I would like to share five books that I feel are representative of the needs of the characters they portray.
Can Bears Ski? by Raymond Antrobus and Polly Dunbar (Candlewick Press, 2020) is a picture book that was first sent to me by a friend who thought I’d like it. It PERFECTLY describes what it is like to realise that perhaps your hearing isn’t how it should be, and captures the confusion and frustration that comes with a hearing impairment. I often share this book with children of all ages to openly discuss my own journey with hearing aids.
What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George (Faber & Faber, 2021). This superb book shows an imaginative and confident young boy when the children playing with him notice that he’s missing a leg. I love how the character is not defined by their disability and the other children quickly get over their observation before continuing their game. It is a great book to pose the question: ‘Does it matter if someone is disabled?’ and make children think about whether they actually need to change the way they interact with them.
Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (Scholastic, 2019). This was the first book that really made me think about authentic voices. I learned more about autism from this book than from working with autistic children for 10 years prior to reading it. Since reading Can You See Me? I’ve been wary of reading books with disabled characters written by able-bodied authors. No amount of research can match lived experiences. Libby’s voice is genuinely eye-opening and brilliantly describes the struggles that some autistic children face when transitioning to a new school.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights of Media, 2020). This book absolutely blew me away. Elle’s writing is exceptional – she manages to perfectly capture raw emotions and offers an insight into the lives of her characters. The links she makes between the witch hunts and autistic women are devastatingly accurate. This is a book that not just allows children to see themselves but also alters the mindset of its audience.
Song For a Whale by Lynne Kelly (Delacorte Press, 2019) features another protagonist who doesn’t let her disability get in the way of an adventure. Iris has frustrations attending a mainstream school but can’t sign at the same speed as the children at the local school for deaf children, and she is unsure where she fits in the world. When she finds out about a lonely whale that is unable to communicate with others of its kind, she hatches a plan to help the whale. It takes her on an eye-opening adventure with her deaf Nan to find and save Blue 55.
Have you read any of these? What are your favourite books with disabled protagonists? I’d love to hear your thoughts.