Future Reflections         Summer 2010

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ANALYZING AND SELECTING CHILDREN'S PICTURE BOOKS THAT FEATURE BLIND CHARACTERS

by Barbara Cheadle

Barbara CheadleFrom the Editor: As most readers know, Barbara Cheadle founded Future Reflections and served as its editor for twenty-eight years. She was also the founding president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Today Barbara is preparing to launch a brand-new career as a children's librarian. The following article is based on a paper she wrote for one of her classes on library science.

Going deeper than history, the myths and feelings of a people are enshrined in its literature.
--Kenneth Jernigan, July 3, 1975

Librarians who subscribe to this sentiment take seriously the task of evaluating children's books for false and inappropriate depictions of gender roles and people of color. To assist in that endeavor, the Council for Interracial Books published guidelines in 1980 that were modified and shortened in 1994. The abbreviated list, called "10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism," is widely circulated as an evaluation tool and a resource to stimulate thought and discussion.

People of color, girls, and women are not the only classes that have historically been ignored or grossly misrepresented in literature. How do we evaluate children's literature to prevent the perpetuation of myths and negative attitudes about blindness? What standards or guidelines can we use?

Sets of Guidelines

In his 1975 speech "Is Literature against Us?", Dr. Jernigan identified nine motifs about blindness that permeated literature up to that time. These themes embody common stereotypes about blindness that linger in our society in many forms. Blindness is represented as compensatory or miraculous power, as total tragedy, as foolishness and helplessness, as unrelieved wickedness, as perfect virtue, as punishment for sin, as abnormality or dehumanization, as purification, and as symbol or parable.

Two other resources provide useful material as well. In 2002 the Circle of Inclusion Project at the University of Kansas adapted the 1980 guidelines for selecting bias-free storybooks from the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The new adapted guide was called "Nine Ways to Evaluate Children's Books that Address Disability as Part of Diversity." The paper makes the following nine recommendations:

1. Check the illustrations. Look for stereotypes and tokenism, and look at who's doing what.
2. Check the storyline. Look at standards for success; look at how problems are presented, conceived, and resolved. (Is the disability or the person with the disability the “problem?”)
3. Look at the lifestyles.
4. Weigh the relationships between people.
5. Consider the effects on a child's self-image.
6. Consider the author's or illustrator's background.
7. Check out the author's perspective.
8. Watch for loaded words.
9. Look at the copyright date as an indicator of dated language.

The third resource is the set of criteria used for the Schneider Family Books Award. Inaugurated in 2004, this award is given by the American Library Association “to honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." Four of the six content criteria specifically address the issue of disability. Those four are:

1. Must portray the emotional, mental, or physical disability as part of a full life, not as something to be pitied or overcome.
2. Representation of characters with disabilities should be realistic, avoiding exaggeration or stereotypes.
3. Persons with disability should be integral to the presentation, not merely passive bystanders.
4. Information on a disability must be accurate.

Evaluating Books with Blind Characters

I utilized these three sets of guidelines to evaluate the following children's storybooks, each featuring a blind character. I decided to examine the books in groups to get a better perspective about each title. Nuances and distinctions show up better when books are examined in contrast with each other.

I also had to consider how to approach judging the accuracy of the blindness-specific information (criterion number 4, Schneider Family Award). As the mother of a blind child and director of children's services for the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, such assessment is not a problem for me, but it might be a challenge for the average librarian. There are three ways in which a reviewer can overcome the knowledge barrier without doing excessive research. First, reviewers should check biographical information about the author and/or illustrator. Is either of them blind or visually impaired? Has either of them had a relationship with someone who is blind (sibling, teacher, aunt, student, etc.)? Second, check to see if the author and/or illustrator provide notes, cite sources, or thank blindness organizations for assisting with the research for the book. Third, many excellent, authoritative Websites of organizations are easily available for quick perusal. I recommend the National Federation of the Blind <www.nfb.org> as a resource.

Reviews

I begin my reviews with the books to which I reacted most strongly. One sparked a positive reaction, and one a negative response. I close with the two books about which I felt the greatest ambivalence.

The first book, Seven Blind Mice (1992), reworks the Indian fable about seven blind beggars and an elephant. In the original tale each beggar touches a different part of the elephant. Then they argue about what an elephant looks like, based upon each one's limited experience. It plays into the blindness stereotype Jernigan describes as "foolishness." The blind beggars are devoid of common sense. They cannot draw conclusions from the facts they collectively have gathered.

Initially I read this story with skepticism, but I was delightfully surprised. The blind mice are portrayed as curious, active, and courageous. One by one they set out to discover what has moved into the pond nearby. As in the original fable, each of the first six mice explores one part of the elephant. The mice begin to argue about what it is--a fan? (the ears), a snake? (the trunk). The seventh and last mouse solves the mystery. She explores every part of the creature and comes back to tell the others that it is an elephant. Because the seventh mouse is also blind, her solution puts the failure of the others into perspective. They do not fail due to their lack of sight, but because they are not thorough and systematic.

The only way in which the author/illustrator falls into stereotypical thinking is in the portrayal of the eyes of the mice. All are large white dots (gray for the white mouse) with no pupils. However, since the mice are portrayed in distinctively unmouselike colors of red, purple, blue, green, yellow, and orange (the seventh mouse is white), this is a minor issue. (Distorted eyes, closed eyelids, and sunglasses are common stereotyped images used by illustrators who feel compelled to indicate to the viewer that a character is blind.)

So, how does this book stack up? Very well, indeed. We have a possible (but minor) stereotype in the illustration that might not even have been deliberate, and a proactive blind (female) hero who solves a problem that is not related to blindness.

Published in 1999, The Doll on the Top Shelf provides an unfortunate contrast. Three plain, unwanted toys (a doll, a clown, and a pig) are relegated to the top shelf in Mr. Carenot's toy shop, but they don't give up hope. Late on Christmas Eve, a grandmother and a small child enter the shop. The grandmother, explaining that she doesn't have much money, wants to know if Mr. Carenot has a doll for sale. She asks if he will let her granddaughter hold the doll, "since she is blind." Wanting desperately to belong to someone, the plain doll rolls off the shelf and lands at their feet. What happens next is predictable: girl holds doll, grandmother buys doll, shopkeeper wraps doll, and when the grandmother and child get home they discover that Mr. Carenot wrapped up the doll's friends with her.

From the storyline alone, we see a passive blind character whose only role is to soften Mr. Carenot's heart. She demonstrates the spirit of Christmas by her ability to love and see the true worth of the plain doll. The illustration of the girl portrays her with wide-open, beautiful blue eyes--a sure gimmick for wringing pity from the reader. And who's the active hero of the story? The inanimate doll who contrives to get herself noticed and purchased. The blind girl fits three of the nine stereotypes described by Jernigan: blindness as virtue, purification, and symbol. The most positive, realistic depiction of her disability is the description of how she gently touches and smoothes the wrinkles from the doll's dress.

In the next two books--Brian's Bird (2000) and Keep Your Ear on the Ball (2007)--reviewers hit the jackpot with a rich mine of biographical information about the authors. Both books are written by teachers who base their blind characters on former students. The main characters are boys about eight years old. Both are multifaceted characters with problems to solve that require wrestling with significant relationships: Davey with his classmates and Brian (who is African-American) with his older brother.

The illustrator of Keep Your Ear on the Ball gives credit and thanks to a teacher and students at a school for the blind, so we can assume that she did research to enhance the accuracy of her illustrations. We do not have any information about the illustrator of Brian's Bird, although I found his illustrations nuanced and accurate. Both illustrators depict the characters without any stereotyped conventions.

Although it is not Davey but his classmates who solve the problem in the storyline, the classmates are inspired to do so because they have observed Davey's independence and competency in the classroom and lunchroom. They want Davey to play competitively on the playground. In Brian's Bird, Brian gets a parakeet for his birthday. He almost loses his pet because of his older brother's carelessness. Brian figures out a solution, and in the process discovers that his brother isn't so bad.

Both books get a thumbs-up. Brian's Bird might edge out Keep Your Ear on the Ball since blindness is not a part of the problem to be resolved, and the book also presents a strong, positive image of an African-American family. On the other hand, Davey's friendships with sighted classmates are a plus.

The next three books are also written by people who can claim some authority on the subject and provide relevant perspective. The Night Search (1997) and The View from Under the Pew (2008) are both written by blind women, and both authors are dog guide users. The Secret Code (1998) is written by a woman who grew up with a blind brother. In all three stories the focus is on blindness-specific skills: the use of canes, dogs, and sighted human guide for travel, and the use of Braille for reading.

The Secret Code by Dana Meachen Rau is an early or easy reader from Scholastic's Rookie Reader series. The author learned to read her brother's Braille books with her eyes, and envied his capacity to read in the dark with his fingers. The illustrator made special trips to research Braille books. The blind character, Oscar, goes to a regular school, reads Braille, and goes to art class and the library with the other kids. He takes the initiative to teach the Braille alphabet to his sighted classmate, Lucy, so they can write notes to each other in the "secret code." In the bright, cheerful watercolor-with-ink illustrations, Oscar is depicted in every way as a normal child. His eyes are the same black dots used in the illustrations of his classmates. Although it's not much of an action plot, the intrigue of learning a "secret code," a Braille alphabet chart with print letters and print dots, and the simple but accurate explanation of Braille should capture the reader's interest.

The Night Search (1997) has an engaging plot and a plucky character--Heather--who successfully resolves the problem presented in the storyline. Readers learn that Heather is blind in the opening conversation between her and her parents. They also learn that blind kids can go camping, that children don't use guide dogs, and that guide dogs must be mature and trained--pet puppies don't cut it.

The illustrations are accurate, realistic pencil sketches. Heather's adventure--or misadventure--begins when her puppy wakes her as she sleeps on her camp cot in the middle of a rainy night. Heather decides to go to the bathroom, too, when she takes him out. Ignoring her parents' earlier instructions, she leaves her cane behind and is soon lost. She gets herself out of her predicament when she finds a stick on the path and uses it as a cane. With it she rescues her puppy who had slipped away from her, and gets back to their cabin with only a few scrapes and wet, muddy shoes. It's the kind of life-lesson we might expect any child her age to experience. Heather is a well-rounded character and there is nothing pitiable, extraordinary, or stereotypical about her.

We have no background about the illustrator of The Night Search, but excellent information about the author, Kate Chamberlin, is provided on the back cover. She is a blind guide dog user who makes her living as a newspaper columnist and freelance writer.

The author of The View from Under the Pew, Diane Winters Johnson, is also blind and travels with a guide dog. Margaret Freed, the illustrator, is a professional artist. Freed offers well-designed, full-color illustrations that allow the book to stand alone as a picture story. The text and storyline are accurate in their depiction of blindness. But alas, the story is dull. There is no action to engage the reader. As the title suggests, the story is told from the perspective of the guide dog, Walter, whose mistress is a blind pastor. Even that appeal is not enough to sustain interest. The child listening to the story will be tempted, like Walter, to curl up and fall asleep.

One of the next two books has a character who is not really blind, and the other has a character we don't realize is blind until well into the story. The first book, Ben's Glasses (1996), addresses blindness and visual impairment in ways that perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Ben decides that his glasses make him look "goofy." He goes to school without them on the day class pictures are scheduled to be taken. Ben is not legally blind, but without his glasses he is severely visually impaired. He promptly turns into the stereotype described by Jernigan as "helplessness and foolishness." He bumps into a chair and apologizes to it. He mistakes a coatrack for a friend. He compliments a mop on her hair and wanders into the girls' bathroom. Finally, Ben's classmates convince him that it's okay for him to wear his glasses, and everything returns to normal.

Only one criterion need be applied in evaluating this book: how would it affect the self-image of a blind or visually impaired child whose vision is not improved by putting on glasses? In an attempt to teach that it's okay to wear glasses, the author has perpetuated stereotypes of blind people.

So far, there does not appear to be a correlation between publication date and suitable or unsuitable portrayals of blind characters. Published in 1994, two years before Ben's Glasses and four years before The Doll on the Top Shelf, Mandy Sue Day depicts a special day in the life of a girl of nine or ten. She lives on a farm with five brothers and sisters. All the children have been promised one day off during the harvest season, and this is her day to do as she pleases. What pleases her is to spend the day riding and racing her beloved horse, Ben, through the woods and fields.

Although there are subtle hints in the large, realistic watercolor illustrations and the poetic quality of the text, the reader may not realize until the concluding pages that Mandy Sue is blind. Her blindness is only stated when her little brother offers her a flashlight to take with her to the stable. Mandy Sue matter-of-factly reminds him that she is blind, while their dad gently chuckles. The author has made no effort to hide this fact; she simply waits for it to come up naturally. If readers go back to the text and the illustrations they will see Mandy's "fingers ticking off the fence posts. Twenty-four to the barn." And they will note that Mandy Sue's observations about Ben and the world around her are rich with sounds, smells, and touch--"crunching leaves," "whiffs of wood smoke and Concord grapes," while sights are absent. The language is so descriptive and the illustrations are so satisfying that we don't notice this the first time around.

The author has managed to portray a fully satisfying world, rich with experiences and sensations, from the perspective of a blind character. The reader is not even aware that he/she has stepped into Mandy Sue's shoes. It is pleasing to engage with a character without any presumptions about what she can or cannot do based upon a disability. This book is a definite keeper!

The last two books have the earliest publication dates and were the most difficult for me to evaluate. The Seeing Stick was published in 1977 and Knots on a Counting Rope appeared in 1987. Both books are set outside the prevailing culture of the United States. The characters in Knots are contemporary Native Americans. The Seeing Stick is a literary folktale set in ancient China. The blind character in Knots, Boy-Strength-of-Blue-Horses, is a little boy around age six, and the blind character in The Seeing Stick, Princess Hwei Ming, is about the same age. Both characters have elderly mentors--a grandfather for Boy and an "old man" (who also turns out to be blind) for the princess. The challenge for both characters is to learn to face blindness with courage and strength, and to find ways to participate in the world without vision.

In Knots, Boy's grandfather tells him the stories of his birth and how he gets and names his horse, Rainbow. Every time he tells a story he ties a knot in a rope to help Boy remember. Boy is faced with a problem when he must decide whether to participate in a tribal horse race with the other boys. Recalling how his grandfather helped him memorize the trail, he faces the challenge and participates. He doesn't win, but he acquits himself well in the race and the whole tribe is proud of him. So far, so good. The problem comes with the repeated use of "darkness" symbolism, which leads to the use of several loaded phrases: crossing "dark mountains," being born with a "dark curtain" before the eyes, and "living with darkness." More problematic is that we never see Boy fully develop as a character. He has potential--he fears the race, but he gathers his courage and participates anyway. He goes out with the sheep (so we are told, it isn't illustrated) just like the other boys. But grandfather overshadows him. Even in the illustrations before and after the race, when other boys and tribal members are in the scene, there seems to be an invisible circle around Boy and his grandfather, separating Boy physically from others. In all other ways, the illustrations portray Boy naturally and without stereotyping.

The Seeing Stick is a modern folktale created by Jane Yolen. The text has some mystical qualities, but the illustrations are mostly responsible for the strong, dreamlike, mystical impression created by the book. This is unfortunate and distracts considerably from a storyline that, with a different illustrator and style, could leave a much less stereotyped impression of blindness. It would take great skill to craft the text and plan the illustrations for such a tale to keep it from turning blindness into a symbol or parable. When I read the story the second and third time and ignored the illustrations as best I could, I was much happier.

The Emperor offers wealth to anyone who can give sight to his daughter, who is blind from birth. All fail, and the Princess is sad because she is blind. Finally, a ragged old man appears at court with a "seeing stick" on which he carves amazing likenesses to illustrate fabulous tales of his journeys. In that process, the text hints of his blindness. The illustrators portray it by showing him with closed eyelids.

In showing the Princess the "seeing stick," the old blind man teaches her to use her fingers to touch and "see" the world around her. She is happy, and insists upon touching everyone and everything she can literally get her hands on in the kingdom. She and the old man go on to teach the other blind children in the city how to "see" as well.

Like Boy, the Princess is not fully developed as a character, but I feel more hope and anticipation for her than I do for Boy. The limitations imposed upon her by those who did not understand her need to touch would make anyone sad. She also reaches out to children her age at the end of the story, but Boy remains isolated from other children. I would love to see this story reissued with new illustrations that give more individuality and character to the Princess and the old man. I would love to see pictures with a strong tactile quality to reinforce the story's message about the importance and viability of touch as a way of knowing and finding pleasure in the world.

Conclusions

I believe that the criteria from the three sources worked quite well in my evaluations of these books. Some categories were tapped more frequently than others, and some seemed not to apply at all (I don't believe I ever mentioned lifestyle, for example; and none of the characters displayed the evil, wicked, sinful, or complete tragedy stereotypes). However, the books evaluated for this paper do not contain the whole universe of possibilities, so I would be reluctant to edit out any of the criteria based on this exercise alone. By far the most important criterion is the development of the blind character. If the character is multidimensional and demonstrates a wide range of human characteristics, then it will likely meet most of the other criteria.

To combat stereotypes it takes more than vigilance in evaluating books to keep out the negative and inaccurate. It takes a proactive stance in seeking out a wide variety of books to provide a balanced view and prevent stereotypes based upon limited exposure. If the books in the collection are not sufficient to show diversity in the depictions of relationships and lifestyles, as well as diversity in ages, gender, and culture, then stereotypes can continue to be perpetuated. They are perpetuated through absence of good models as surely as through the presence of poor or stereotyped models. In short, there should be a viable blind character anywhere and everywhere other literary characters tread in children's storybooks.

WORKS CITED

Chamberlin, Kate. 1997. The Night Search. Hollidaysburg, PA: Jason and Nordic, ISBN: 0944727328

Davis, Patricia Anne. 2000. Brian's Bird. Walnut Creek, CA: Shens Books, ISBN 0807508810

Johnson, David. 1996. Ben's Glasses. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, ISBN 0448412853

Johnson, Diane Winters. 2008. The View from under the Pew. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, ISBN 068764478X

Karim, Roberta. 2003. Mandy Sue Day. New York: Sandpiper, ISBN 0618316752

Martin, Bill. 1997. Knots on a Counting Rope. New York: Henry Holt, ISBN 0805054790

Petrillo, Genevieve. 2009. Keep Your Ear on the Ball. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, ISBN 088448324X

Rau, Dana Meachen. 1998. The Secret Code. Danbury, CT: Children's Press, ISBN 0516263625

Turk, Ruth. 1999. The Doll on the Top Shelf. Walnut Creek, CA: Shens Books, ISBN 1891992023

Yolen, Jane. 1977. The Seeing Stick. New York: Crowell, ISBN 0690004559

Young, Ed. 2002. Seven Blind Mice. New York: Putnam Juvenile, ISBN 0698118952

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