Imagine being visibly different and being asked the same question about it over and over again? What Happened to You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George is the first picture book that addresses how a disabled child might want to be spoken to, and how they might not want to answer.
What Happened to You? is the story of a disabled child called Joe, who wants to play his game in the playground, but keeps being interrupted by other children asking him The Question. I was Joe, and this was my daily experience. As a disabled adult now, it still sometimes is, especially when I take my own children to the playground. But what may be inconvenient as an adult, is often distressing as a child, for whom the interrogation can feel relentless.
As the parent of the child who is staring and pointing and asking questions, it’s hard to know what to do. I’ve been on that side of the equation too. Sometimes, parents come up to me and ask me directly: sorry about that, but what should I do?! And I can understand their confusion. They don’t want to shush their child and make them feel uncomfortable around disability. As a disabled person, I don’t want that either! So should they do the opposite, and play it cool by encouraging their child to come over to me and ask me why I look different? Plenty do . . .
But here’s the rub: pointing and staring isn’t good, but asking questions is not the opposite of that. It’s not the solution either. But it IS the current consensus.
‘Just ask!‘ is the message we tell our children, and often adults too. ‘Just ask!‘ and the different looking person you’ve never met will be only too pleased to tell you everything you want to know. So if the man at the bus stop has one leg, just ask and he’ll tell you all about the traumatic injury he suffered. If a child has no hair, just ask and they’ll tell you and your friends all about their cancer. Is it any wonder that adults ask disabled people these questions every day too? Fundamentally, the message of ‘Just ask!‘ is disabled people do not have the right to privacy. And that’s what we’re teaching our kids . . .
The bestselling picture book about disability at the moment is called and I kid you not ‘Just ask!‘ This is what happens when someone writes a book about disability for non disabled readers. The aim is to educate non disabled children about different disabilities, and make them feel comfortable around disabled children. But what of disabled children, who may not want to ‘just answer’?
Having been a visibly disabled child, I’m in a position to try to tell this story from the inside, and to write a book that centres the disabled child both as protagonist and as reader. This is the book the five year old me would have found helpful. I needed someone to tell me that I didn’t have to answer The Question, that I could try to find ways round it without surrendering my sense of privacy and that the children interrogating me would eventually get over their curiosity and accept me. And, of course, by writing from a disabled perspective, for a disabled reader, I’ve realised that I actually have something meaningful to say to non disabled readers and their parents too. All I have to do is to invite them to walk, for a minute, in Joe’s shoe.