Don’t Just Ask!

James is holding his phone, which is showing the cover of Just Ask! - a children's picture book. James is looking askance at it and Mainie's looking straight at the camera with a startled "nope" expression on her face. They're both wearing straw hats, which are not relevant. (But lovely IMO.)

Just Ask! But don’t. Please. Speaking as disabled people in children’s publishing – this book means well but is wrong.

Luckily readwithriver started #LibrarianFightClub on Instagram…

The idea “it’s always best to ask” when it comes to disability is not new – its the norm. We hear it a lot.

Even as an adult, it’s always disarming when a stranger approaches to ask about your disability. Because generally, we don’t ask strangers about their bodies, their medical history. We consider that private. Something you might discuss with friends. Unless you’re disabled…

Disabled children have to work out, on top of everything else, how to answer these questions. Do they break off from playing with friends to say “bone cancer” or “I didn’t get enough oxygen at birth”?

Do they ignore, say “I don’t want to talk about that” or “I’m just disabled”? It’s a delicate thing to work out – with parents & trusted adults.

But this book sweeps all that away – no, the world can & should “just ask”. And so it’s your job to “just answer”. However private or traumatic it feels.

A close up of Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. The strapline is "be different, be brave, be you". We've put # LibrarianFightClub over the top.

To be fair, a few lines in the book hint at this: “sometimes my friends don’t feel ready to explain”. But there’s still an obligation: “speaking up keeps me healthy”.

At the core of this book is the (beloved, I know) author’s personal experience with Type 1 diabetes. It’s important to acknowledge that.

And openness about things that make us uncomfortable feels right. But whose discomfort? Do we really feel assuaging it is the duty of disabled children?

Disabled child characters have been used for teachable moments since Tiny Tim. It’s time we moved on. We know there’s very little out there in kidlit when it comes to disability, but bad representation is not better than none.

Full disclosure: James has written a picture book himself on the same subject, with a very different message – it’s called What Happened To You? (2021). It revolves around questions too, but from a disabled child’s perspective. We need to centre disabled children in stories.

And, for that matter, disabled readers. We don’t feel the experience of disabled children has really been centred. To whom is Just Ask! addressed?

Lucy & James Catchpole

This text was also posted on Instagram on the 12th of July 2020.

If you’d like to see some really good children’s books featuring disabled characters, do look at our KidLitCripCrit reviews. Or browse the books on  Bookshop UK or Bookshop US.

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