Kiddosphere: October is Blindness Awareness Month
With October designated as Blindness Awareness Month, I thought it would be a perfect time to look at our children’s and YA books that feature characters who are blind, or nonfiction books about blindness or famous people who are/were blind:
Blindsided is a powerful and revealing YA novel centered on 14 year old Natalie, who must transfer to a residential school for the blind due to worsening vision loss. Natalie accepts the life skills training that will prove useful, but secretly waits on a cure for her vision. Learning to accept the inevitable is a harsh lesson for a teenager, but one that slowly comes to Natalie. Priscilla Cummings did intense research with students at a Maryland school for the blind, and it shows: not only are the difficulties and heartbreaks experienced by the students are brought to life, but so are the ups and downs of any ordinary teenage life. Save for one unnecessarily dramatic encounter with a bear, this is an authentic portrayal of teens coping with blindness.
Children often have questions about disabilities that either embarrass or confound their parents (on the other hand, many people with disabilities would rather answer the child’s question rather than he/she be silenced). Do You Remember the Color Blue? And Other Questions Kids Ask About Blindness is a Q&A collection of actual questions posed to author Sally Hobart Alexander from young children. Questions about how she became blind, the challenges of being a blind parent, how people treat her differently than other people, how her dog helps her, among others, makes this an informative read for all ages.
Helen Keller remains an intriguing personality for children 47 years after her death. As a biography fan from a young age, Helen Keller was one of my favorite people to read about (I did my third grade social studies fair project about her; I still remember receiving a Braille magazine and a card illustrating the Braille alphabet from one of the national organizations for the blind; I also received a card about the ASL manual alphabet from another organization). Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher is a richly rewarding children’s biography of Anne Sullivan, who had low vision from childhood. Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller is an excellent chapter book about the relationship between these two remarkable women. If you were to read just one (adult) biography on Helen Keller, it should be Joseph P. Lash’s unrivaled Helen and Teacher (long out of print, so I am hanging onto my personal copy as long as possible). Helen Keller’s memoir, written while she was a Radcliffe College student, is also a must read. She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer is a superb biography of the woman who paved the way for Helen Keller’s education at Perkins School for the Blind.
Christmas and Hanukkah books will be front and center before we know it; if you are in the need for a unique Hanukkah picture book that goes beyond the standard “we do this at Hanukkah” theme, Jeremy’s Dreidel should be on your radar. Jeremy’s classmates at his dreidel-making workshop think he’s making a super secret code on his dreidel, but he’s actually translating the Hebrew message, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, or A Great Miracle Happened There, into Braille, for his father. The portrayal of Jeremy’s father is very positive and matter-of-fact: he works and takes care of his son just like any other father does.
Little Stevie Wonder is a brightly illustrated picture book biography of the legendary musician, who lost his sight at birth and had a hit Motown song (“Fingertips”) at the age of 14. Save for a short essay at the end of the book, this would not be your first choice for a report; rather, it’s meant to be shared and enjoyed with young children. One of Wonder’s classics, “Isn’t She Lovely?” is evoked throughout the story-poem, and Wonder’s activism is also touched upon (singing “Happy Birthday” to Martin Luther King Jr., and his involvement with the 1985 benefit song “We Are the World” for famine relief in Africa. Children’s biographies about musicians should include a CD whenever possible (I realize that getting rights to songs can be difficult, but everyone involved should realize that the alternative is the parent or reader searching for songs on Youtube, which benefits no one); “Fingertips (Part II)” and “Uptight (Everything is All Right)” are included on the accompanying CD. (Why “Isn’t She Lovely?” wasn’t included is a bit weird, but the intricacies of the music business are beyond me)
When I am asked for historical fiction recommendations, I often show patrons the Dear America section; these books in diary form are well-researched and inviting to 3rd-5th graders, whether or not they are fans of historical fiction or are dragging their feet about their assignment (My Name is America and Royal Diaries are also similar). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan follows the life of (fictional) Bess Brennan, a student at the Perkins School for the Blind (which Helen Keller also attended, but several decades before this takes place) during the Great Depression.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay is a charming, positive, and believable picture book featuring determined Zulay, who happens to be blind. Zulay enjoys school with her friends (who are not blind). but dislikes having to use her white cane and being pulled out for life skills training with her cane. When the teacher announces activities for field day, Zulay immediately wants to participate in the relay race. Her life skills teacher helps her practice with her cane and to be aware of the other runners, leading to a very fun field day! I hope this is named as one of the Schneider Family Book Award winners on January 11!
Most people are aware that dogs can be trained to assist people who are blind, but have you ever heard of a guide horse? Panda: A Guide Horse for Ann is the true story of Ann Edie and her miniature horse, Panda, who helps her be independent. Panda and Ann use special signals to communicate when they should stop, when they should go, and when potential danger is ahead.
Finally, Who Was Louis Braille? is an eye-opening look at the Frenchman who created the system by which people with blindness read and write. If you would like a picture book biography of Louis Braille, David Adler’s A Picture Book of Louis Braille is a fine choice. On the other hand, readers wanting a more detailed biography than Who Was Louis Braille? should read Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille.
∼ Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library
Looking for more program highlights and staff suggestions for children and young adult readers published prior to January 2015? Check out Kiddosphere!