Don’t catalogue people! KidLitCripCrit

I'm sitting in my wheelchair in front of my old, chipped mirror, the text 'Don't catalogue people!' is printed on a torn cream paper background at the top. I'm a white woman with long brown hair in a side plait and a brown crochet beret. I'm wearing a fitted dark brown cardigan and a pink linen skirt. My expression is slightly wry.

Last year we wrote a critical review of bestselling picture book Just Ask! Apart from its central message, which we find deeply unhelpful, there’s something else uncomfortable about it. And it keeps coming up in books trying to do ‘diversity’. 

People are not species of animals. Or trains. And when we try to use those formats for people, especially people already stereotyped by society, it does not work. For me. 

Just Ask! is a picture book that tries to explain disability to children. (Non-disabled children, obviously. Books about disability are not generally written with disabled readers in mind.) 

There’s a double page spread for each disability, and one or two child characters to represent each one. 

“I use a wheelchair… I can’t run with my legs” aaand on to diabetes. 

So children finish the book believing they’ve pretty much got disability covered. Which – there are two issues:

The cover of Just Ask! A children's picture book. The subtitle is "Be Different, Be Brave, Be You"

1. THEY DON’T. Taking the wheelchair user as an example – most children who use wheelchairs do not have a spinal injury. Most can use their legs. But child readers are given none of that. So when they meet a wheelchair user who stands up… 

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. 

2. Presenting a range of medical diagnoses – like an illustrated medical textbook for kids – just others disabled people even further. I don’t want more people fascinated by my body – the way it functions or doesn’t. 

Armchair experts are awful. We do not need more of them. 

Poor Just Ask! It is not the only book doing this. And it’s not just disability. The push for more ‘diverse’ children’s books has been going for years, and one understandable response is books like this. 

The danger of the format is that we end up with stereotypes. And stereotypes are not helpful. 

We need non-fiction about disabled people & other marginalised groups. But let’s start with individuals, like I Am Not A Label does. Not diagnoses. 

People are not museum exhibits. 

All ‘awareness’ is not good awareness.

– Lucy Catchpole

If you’re looking for illustrated children’s books we think do disability really well, the posts below might interest you. We also have lists at UK and US Bookshop.org.

(First posted on Instagram on the 24th September 2021)

[Image description: I’m sitting in my wheelchair in front of my old, chipped mirror, the text ‘Don’t catalogue people!’ is printed on a torn cream paper background at the top. I’m a white woman with long brown hair in a side plait and a brown crochet beret. I’m wearing a fitted dark brown cardigan and a pink linen skirt. My expression is slightly wry.]

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