This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book. In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book. Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough. The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny. For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian. They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20). To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.
And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books. And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability. The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society. British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins. But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!
The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario. Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem. And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.
It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour. The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books. Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability. She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs. “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila. Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again. Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).
Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression. Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69). Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually. However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide. Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way. She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment. Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90). She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain. However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it. Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58). Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”
Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain. Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies. But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition. Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him. But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar. Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless. His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain. It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however. Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims? They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315). Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain? Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams? The answer to those questions lies with you” (334). At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.