Children’s Picture Books as scaffolds to Re-author Stories of Disabilities

One of the powerful ideas that align narrative practices and disability justice is that people are not the problem, the problem is the problem. That the problems are not in our bodies, heads or hearts but in the social structures of injustice, in a world that’s industrialized, medicalized, ableist. In a conversation with Vikki Reynolds, Norman Kunc who is a narrative practitioner and has cerebral palsy, talks about ‘revolutions that begin when people who are defined as problems, achieve the power to redefine the problem.’ Darshana Ramgiri from Mumbai, who’s a lifestyle blogger, makes travel vlogs and loves design, fashion, along with being a disability self-advocate, speaks about the erasure and misrepresentation of disabled children and people in literature and media. These acts of erasure and misrepresentation are never neutral acts but bring with them long histories of injustice, exclusionary practices and internalized ableism.

How do we then make visible stories of disability that are away from normative construction of bodies, guided by a world that is medicalized and ableist? How do we remain open to possibilities of ways of being by accepting that disability is an inherent part of human experiences? What do we bring in therapeutic and everyday conversations that legitimizes diversity and enables it to thrive despite of unjust social structures?

In narrative practices, one seeks to rescue alternative stories of love, care, healing and diversity that visibilize resistance against ableist practices and upholds preferred ways of being in the world. To nourish and make these stories and possibilities accessible in therapeutic conversations and other spaces, picture-books become a warm and significant doorway.

Children’s picture-books can be a powerful and a radical medium, a scaffold to serve as pathways into stories about bodies and diversity in a way that re-authors disability identities and makes visible‘little’ acts of resistance in people’s living subverted all along by unjust social structures.

Here are some of the recommendations from the world of children’s literature from some of the Indian writers, illustrators and publishing houses that we have discovered in our journey with children with disabilities and their caregivers.

पकड़ो, पकड़ो उस बिल्ले को! – (Originally – “Catch the Cat”) written by Tharini Viswanath, illustrated by Nancy Raj and translated into Hindi from English by Raj Shekhar

ये कहानी है डिप डिप की, जो एक बहुत ही शरारती, हिम्मती और दरियादिली लड़की है और अपने अनोखी ‘गाड़ी’ को लेकर अपनी दोस्त कापी के बिल्ले को ढूंढ़ने निकली है. क्या डिप डिप बिल्ले को ढूंढ़ लेती है? बिल्ले को ढूँढ़ते हुए, मस्ती करते हुए, वह कहाँ-कहाँ जाती है? उसकी ये अनोखी गाडी क्या है? आपको क्या लगता है? ‘पकड़ो, पकड़ो बिल्ली को!’ डिप डिप के मस्तीखोरी, उसके मज़ेदार सफ़र और उसके डिसेबिलिटी की प्यारी कहानी है.

This is the story of Dip Dip who is a notorious, brave and a generous girl who navigates around using a mysterious ‘vehicle’ to find her friend, Kaapi’s cat. Do you think Dip Dip ends up finding the cat? What are the places Dip Dip goes to in her adventurous search of the cat? What is her mysterious ‘vehicle’? What do you think? ‘Catch the Cat’ is a fun story of Dip Dip’s notoriety, her adventurous journey and her disability.

Kanna Panna – authored by Zai Whitaker and illustrated by Niloufar Wadia

Kanna Panna is a very cute story about Kanna’s determination and confidence to get through a unique situation he faces with his family and quite bravely, he saves the day! Kanna has a vision impairment which inturn enables his ability to perceive and sense things differently and in a way no one in the family knew to do it! Also, as the title suggests, Kanna has a love for rhymes! Do you also rhyme in the way Kanna does? What are your favourite words to rhyme?

Chuskit goes to School – authored by Sujatha Padmanabhan and illustrated by Madhuvanti Anantharajan

The story revolves around nine-year old Chuskit and her family who live in Ladakh. Chuskit sits at the kitchen window everyday and draws all that she saw while Ama-ley cooked. Chuskit wanted to go to school just like Stobdan, her brother, but she was born with legs that did not work like everyone else’s. One day Aba-ley brought home a wheelchair but will it make possible for Chuskit to go to school when the path to her home is rough and uneven? This story tells of a tight-knit community around Chuskit who support her to get to school and have the right to education she’s entitled to.

Satya, Watch Out! – authored by Yamini Vijayan and illustrated by Vishnu M Nair

Meet Satya who just can’t stay still! Identify much? He runs and jumps and rolls…and falls! So does his mind! Very much like Satya, have you felt like your hands and legs are always dancing and just don’t seem to stop? But one day, Satya, goes with his mother to the BIG farm, where she works. Wonder what happens then? Satya, Watch Out! is an endearing tale about being different and having fun in the ways our bodies move.

Kayu’s World is Round – authored by Lavanya Kapahi and illustrated by Aditee Deore

Kayu’s world is full of circles – here circle, there circle, everywhere circle! Circle in how his cycle wheels go round and round, merry-go-round goes in circle, the cricket ball that spins and he spots a circular bindi on his aunt’s forehead! Kayu also has a favourite of all the circles. He discovers it when he sits by the pond with pebbles. Can you guess what might have become Kayu’s favourite circle by the pond? This book is a super fun one that lends insights into diverse ways in which some children see the world.

Neel on Wheels – authored by Lavanya Karthik and illustrated by Habib Ali

Neel’s younger brother adores him because he’s got wheels! Neel’s wheelchair transforms itself in a way that can fight dragons and monsters, giant animals and scary creatures of the night. When his younger brother is faced with unknown things in the swishing leaves and the shadows that hide, he finds a friend in Neel and his wheels who can rescue him and the world from things that scare us. Discover what the younger brother, Neel and the wheels are onto as Habib Ali’s illustrations keep pulling you back to the pages.  

A Walk with Thambi – authored by Lavanya Karthik and illustrated by Proiti Roy

This is a story of Thambi and his guide dog, who do everything that their mother asks them not to do. To run in the street, to play in the river, climb the trees, get muddy all over. As Thambi experiences the joy of cool breeze, hears the busy streets, smells the bazaar spices, plays with his friends,and can’t see them; he uses the walking cane in his journey and his loving dog helps him navigate through the town in Kerala. A Walk with Thambi is a beautiful story of love, interdependence and inclusion.  

Narrative practices recognizes that disability intersects with varied social systems of class and caste hierarchy, gender, sexism, patriarchy and can impact one’s identities in different ways. The systems carry with them reductionist practices of what one can be, do and perform. In the words of Michael White, ‘the double-storied testimony’ in the picturebooks make it possible for us to witness the erasure, misrepresentation and injustice but also stories of love, community healing, resistance and reclaiming of people’s identities. Little-big ways in which people and very young people resist normative understandings around them and make way for a world of diversity.

Art by the Fan Brothers for a letter by Janna Levin from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

This article was written by Yashna Vishwanathan, a Mental Health Worker at Ummeed Child Development Center. She works with children experiencing or at risk of disabilities and their families. She met Narrative Ideas at Ummeed in 2016. Ever since then, she has been drawn to resistance narratives in young people, very young people and adults. Yashna enjoys collective reading and writing spaces, loves a warm meal on a rainy day, or loves to just be, with her legs up the wall, propelled onto a world of castle-sized dreams.

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