Every child is first a foremost a person: a unique individual. As children grow they develop a sense of their identity – as a boy or girl, as a family member, and as a member of their community. Many aspects of their lives contribute to the building of children's identities, including physical characteristics, interests and abilities, names, places and communities. Picture books can reflect as well as contribute to the development of children’s identities.
With this in mind, picture book characters should reflect a range of different aspects of children’s lives, including diverse portrayals of appearance, interests, cultures and abilities.
All picture books convey messages about attitudes, values and ideologies. These may be implicit or overtly stated. This is not to say that the purpose of books for children should be to use didacticism to teach certain values to children. However picture books are part of the many aspects of life experience through which children become acculturated into the beliefs and values of their communities and cultures.
Recently in the course of my work in teaching pre-service early childhood teachers, I took part in evaluating student presentations on picture books that portrayed disability. The reviewing and sharing of these books, not to mention the hunting involved in finding them, provided the students (and their teachers!) with much food for concern.
As an educator, I believe that the best picture books are those that have literary value – engaging characters, imaginative stories, rhythmic and expressive texts, aesthetic and meaningful illustrations. Quality picture books can and do convey messages effectively through readers’ experiences of story and characters.
It was disappointing to discover that most picture books containing characters who have disabilities are not high quality literature. Rather than being imaginative stories that can engage children’s imaginations, they are most often didactic books ABOUT disability. Although the texts may contain statements which are intended to support ideas of inclusion of all regardless of ability, the fact that a child’s disability is the central focus of the book in fact perhaps contributes to a sense of a child with disability as being ‘other’ than their peers.
As an author, I feel inspired by this exploration of disability in picture books to write imaginative stories about children’s lives and interests which are not about disability, but which include characters of diverse abilities and identities. Children often see aspects of themselves reflected in picture books and respond with enthusiasm if a character does or has something that is also part of their lives. All children have a right to see aspects of themselves reflected in picture books. While impairments have in influence on the way children's lives are led, they do not define a child. And the slices of life and imagination presented in great picture books are meaningful and interesting to ALL children.
Some food for thought for anyone selecting or creating books for young children with inclusive perspectives in mind.
Here is a website which is both useful and inspiring: