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“The Bookseller – Children’s Conference 2021”

Day 4, 12:30-13:15 “PANEL: Disability Representation in Children’s Books”

Before I watched the panel for the first time, I assumed that the discussion would be about how to introduce young readers to the subject of disabilities, in a manner that is appropriate for their age and level of comprehension. “Easy!” I thought. Most of us totally underestimate the ability and openness of children to learn, understand and accept the diversity of individuals already at an early age. However, it quickly became clear that this panel will not take this approach to the discussion.

On the last day of #KidsConf21, Claire Wade (Author and Co-founder of Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses (ADCI)), James Catchpole and Lucy Catchpole (Directors of the Catchpole Agency), Cerrie Burnell (Author and BBC Disability Ambassador) and Lisette Auton (Author, Activist and Creative Practitione) spoke in a panel about the importance of “Disability Representation in Children’s Books”.

The panel opened by the participants, who started with a visual description of themselves before giving a short bio. Claire, Lisette, Cerrie, James and Lucy talked about how fictional children’s books with an impaired protagonist do not only serve as an educational apparatus for everyone who does not have a disability but are especially dedicated to the young readers who are impaired. “Young people deserve to see themselves mirrored,” so Lisette. Their young readers need to know that they can also be the main character and they don’t need to be magically fixed or changed.

Furthermore, James and Lucy discussed which tropes about disabilities they would like to see less displayed in books. For example, James described how the parent or sibling is “grieving” at the birth of an impaired child, how disabled people get only defined and categorized by their diagnosis as well as the crude message “aren’t disabled children amazing?” It’s also important for James that young impaired children know that they are not obliged to answer everyone’s questions and explain their disabilities: “Answering that question to a curious stranger makes you vulnerable.” 

The group agreed on the significance of impaired people being generally represented in books. But the role of writing an impaired protagonist should only be done by an individual who has first-hand experience. Cerrie adds there “is no need for non-disabled people speaking on our behalf.” 

There are few fictional children’s books published by authors with infirmities. Hence, Cerrie, disabled since birth, wants to write as inclusive and diverse as possible, so everyone can see themselves represented in her books and stories. Lisette’s debut novel “The Secret of Haven Point” will be available from February 2022 onwards and is published by PuffinBooks. 

Claire, Lisette, Cerrie, James and Lucy hope to see a change in how publishers approach the topic of “Representation of Disabilities in Children’s Books”. Publishing houses should create space for authors with disabilities to make sure their stories are heard and read. An active invitation instead of an imposed obligation.