The four of us (Desiree, Maria, Megan and Susan) are picking up where we left off in August 2016’s My Take / Your Take — looking at books that won the Schneider Family Award for the portrayal of the disability experience. We looked at five global picture books in our previous discussion, and now we are shifting our attention to four other award winners, this time set in the U.S. The first is The Deaf Musicians.
MARIA: Lee plays his piano every night at the jazz club, something like this: plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink. Gradually, Lee begins to lose his hearing until one day he hears sounds no more. His band decides to let him go. While the story does not elaborate on how Lee copes with both losses of his hearing and the band, the next page describes a hopeful and persistent Lee already ready for a new adventure: maybe I can learn to do something new. And he did! Lee enrolls in a school for the deaf, where he learns sign language, and meets Max, a deaf sax player. Most important, Lee learns that music can be felt on his body and heard in his mind.
Lee and Max quickly discover they can play their beloved jazz songs by following each other, Lee on his piano, plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink, and Max on his sax, boo-bang-bing. Soon, Rose, a deaf stand-up bass player, bomba-bum, bomba-bum, joins their regular subway rehearsals. The new band finds their sign-language singer in Ellie, who is also passionate about jazz. Together, they share their passion for music with “Everyone!”
After reading The Deaf Musicians I explored additional resources that could help me understand the deaf experience, particularly as it related to music. The music videos, documentaries and TED Talks that I watched had a theme in common: the importance of challenging narrow understanding of what it means to have a voice. I think the authors, Seeger and Jacobs, invite readers into this self-reflective journey when they ask, “Who will listen to a deaf musician?” The character asking this question assumes that sound is fundamental to voice, so no sound, no voice. In this regard, I wonder why the authors make no reference to deaf musicians who have learned to produce sounds, such as Mandy Harvey, Sean Forbes or Beethoven’s Nightmare (band), among others. My interpretation of this decision is that the authors are committed to help readers think about voice beyond conventional vocal sounds. Lee discovered his new voice and shared it with determination.
SUSAN: I approached the book in the same way — I went for help! I am not a jazz musician nor am I deaf, so I needed some perspective from someone who could “hear” the story more than I could. While I trusted that the Schneider Award committee would have selected books that accurately represented the deaf experience, I wanted to think about how that experience is portrayed to readers. I asked a special education professor to read the book with me. She read the book with a focus on the contrast of disability and ability.
Lee at first is ABLE, a regular participant in a band that plays gigs at various places. Because of his increasing hearing loss he is no longer able to follow along with the other jazz musicians. I found this interesting in a musical sense because jazz is flexible with different musicians soloing while the others play background. But in order for that background music to work, they have to hear each other, and follow the tempo and key the solo musician has set. In the story, when Lee is no longer able to follow the lead of his fellow band members, he has to drop out and can no longer “jam” with his friends. Later he is RE-ABLE when he can play with his fellow deaf musicians. This makes me wonder if the bandleader had sought out ways to help Lee hear the music, would Lee still be in the band? Was the disability portrayed really the bandleader who was shortsighted in how he viewed Lee and in his definition of “hear?”
Another aspect of jazz that intrigues me is the community aspect. It seems like jazz musicians often play for the pure joy of making music together. The community is important. In the story Lee could no longer be a part of an important group in his social and work network. He had to go find another group. He learned how to communicate in this new group and then took his new language (American Sign Language) and linked it together with his old language (jazz music). His new language gave him even more of an audience than he had before.
Maria, your perspective of this story comes from someone who teaches the development of young children’s language. I am curious to see what you noticed in the development of Lee’s new language or voice.
MARIA: You’re bringing in two interesting points Susan. Did you know that Jazz has some core pieces, like classic songs that every Jazz musician should know? A saxophonist explained this to me after I asked him how was he able to follow the other musicians when this was the first time they all played together. He pointed to the fact that each of them built from those core pieces well known to everyone. I wonder if Lee used a similar strategy? Especially since each band member was described in terms of the instruments they played and their knowledge of jazz. As jazz musicians, I wonder if this core knowledge allowed them to listen and feel the music.
I also wonder about your comments regarding the concepts of able and disable, especially your idea of the bandleader as being disabled. I think that as a society (without generalizing) we have a tendency for deficit views when individuals’ experiences and stories do not fit dominant discourses. Does the teacher you worked with have a more inclusive term that looks at different abilities, rather than disabilities? Sounds like the terminology for engaging in conversations with children who think, act, look, feel different has been historically framed by perspectives that only consider limitations and differences, rather than multiple abilities, including new ones that we learn at different moments in life.
Love your question about Lee’s language development! I think that my strongest connection is around language as a social practice. Lee seems to be learning a new language through social interactions that encourage him to see the connections between thinking, signing, and meaning making. His teacher also introduces Lee to a community of learners who share multimodal literacies, as well as, a passion for jazz and music in general. I see this community as a space that will also support Lee in reflecting upon language ideologies around the concepts that we have mentioned in this conversation: able, dis-able, and re-able. It is an opportunity to read and interpret his life and the world from a new perspective.
SUSAN: Maria, your response sent me down an inquiry path. I did not know that jazz is played from a core set of songs. That helps me understand how deaf musicians could play together and how the subway band could be formed so easily. Lee, Max, Rose and Ellie were playing jazz standards they all knew by heart. But it still leaves me with questions — how do musicians who are deaf play music and stay in sync with other musicians?
While searching, I landed on an interview with jazz trumpeter Jon Sieger. He described jazz as having “the feel, the energy, the looseness with just enough structure and ‘not structure’ — enough room for personal expression” (Rochester Chronicles). That supported what I thought about playing jazz together — the style and beat are consistent but with lots of room for individual musicians to add notes. But it still left me wondering HOW??? So I kept digging and discovered that jazz singer Mandy Harvey senses the vibrations of the bass. She also was a pianist before losing her hearing so she watches the hands of her accompanist so she can sing in sync with his playing. Opera singer Janine Roebuck watches her fellow performers carefully to see when they breathe in so she can come in with them. Evelyn Glennie, world-renowned percussionist, plays in bare feet so she can feel the music more easily. All this information about the clues musicians use helped me understand the role sign language played for Lee in the story. For him the body movements looked like jazz. So hands danced with a doodle-bop-bop, fingers talked with a boo-bang-bing, and bodies moved with a shish-shish-shoogle.
As I read and reread this book and thought about the community aspect, the final pages took on more of an impact. We had talked about how the school for the deaf and learning sign language gave Lee a new community to be a member of and a new mode of communication. The plot shows the changes in Lee’s social group as he moves from membership in a band to having membership rescinded to finally gaining a new membership within the deaf community. Then the book narrative takes on a crescendo feeling as the four deaf musicians play in the subway to larger and larger audiences. Pete Seeger, in the Afterword, adds the final thunderous joyful note, describing what it is like to play with thousands of people joining in on a song. He concludes that the real music is people joining together. The vibrant illustrations communicate that deep joy in making music together. Words in a variety of fonts and colors dance across the pages and characters are excited with arms in the air and bodies in motion. Readers can see the happiness Lee feels as he is once again creating music in community.
Representation of multiple disabilities is something that seems to concern the Schneider Family Award committee. The books that win the award represent a wide range of disability experiences. We also tried to cover some of that range as we selected books to discuss. So our discussion is going to move from characters who are deaf to a person who lost the use of his arm due to a war injury.
Title: The Deaf Musicians
Authors: Pete Seeger, Paul Dubois Jacobs
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Date Published: 5 October 2006
DESIREE: Horace Pippin is considered the foremost self-trained American artist of the twentieth century. During World War I, he enlisted in the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. He did so to demonstrate his patriotism and his place as an equal citizen. The all-black unit to which Pippin was assigned was sent to France, and it was there that he was shot in the arm and permanently disabled.
A Splash of Red traces Horace Pippin’s life from his early years as imaginative child with a passion for art to his surprising entrance into the American art world in the 1940s. Through a series of colorful, representative-style illustrations and vignette style writing, Sweet and Bryant highlight Horace’s passion and determination to be an artist. In his teen years, he dropped out of school in order to help support his family. Although his job was physically exhausting, Horace continued painting; “pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead,” he said. While he was away at war, he drew what he saw from the trenches. After he returned home, he learned to use his left hand to assist his right, paralyzed hand, to draw. Horace Pippin created richly textured paintings of African-American life, Bible stories, images of war and emancipation, many of which were displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Until I read this book, I had never heard of Horace Pippin. This is an important story about one man’s ability to defy all odds to become an artist. The Museum of Modern Art described him as a “Disabled, Negro war veteran.” I think this book could easily be placed in an African American text-set, based on his race. However, overcoming his physical disability was an equally important part of his story. How do you think this book connects to and/or extends the other books in our disability text set?
MEGAN: This story both connects to and extends beyond the group of texts we have been looking at over the previous few months on individuals with disabilities. Horace is disabled which connects him and his story to the other books in our set. I feel that Horace’s story connects best with a story we looked at in the fall for My Take / Your Take, Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist, by Bonnie Christensen. In both cases, the protagonist (Horace, Django) is a male artist from a marginalized group who was not born disabled, but through injury, becomes disabled. In addition, after their injuries, both Horace and Django initially retreat from their artist calling, though they eventually find their way back. Both Django, through his music, and Horace, through his art, overcome their disability, adapt, and find success in the performing arts community.
A Splash of Red also extends the text set. Similar to the way Django does. Both characters belong to a marginalized group, are poor, and have to adapt to a disability brought about through injury, providing a more dynamic story than some of the other books we have covered.
DESIREE: When we started this conversation, I said that I really enjoyed this book. It seems that there are a number of “Hidden Figures,” with whom I am only now becoming familiar. Children’s books featuring the African American experience were rare when I was growing up. I think that is why I have gotten stuck on how Horace Pippin’s multiple identities intersect in this book; he is African American, dis-abled, and perhaps even someone from a poverty situation. I realize that each of these identities shaped Horace’s life and by extension, his art.
One thing that has troubled me as I have further considered the book, are the illustrations. When I first picked up the book, I was not certain that Horace was African American. In the illustrations, he is depicted much lighter in complexion than he was in life, or even in his self-portraits. I wondered why the illustrator chose to depict him that way. I also found the story itself to be a bit problematic. The author repeatedly drew reader’s attention to Horace’s “big hands.” I questioned why she focused on the size of his hands rather than on the art he created despite his paralysis. In many of our conversations, we have grappled with the idea of insider and outsider perspectives. We have also read Jacqueline Woodson’s article, “Who Can Tell My Story.” While I am thankful that someone finally did tell Horace Pippin’s story in the form of a picture book, I wonder how different it might have been if it were told by an African American author/illustrator, or one who had a physical disability. What are your thoughts?
MEGAN: I agree. After reading your post, I went back into the book to review the illustrations. I also viewed Horace’s photograph on several websites to compare with the book’s illustrations. A troublesome occurrence (at least at first in the story) is that his skin is not a consistent color throughout the book. At times his skin is lighter and in one picture in particular it is not. I read in several reviews that Melissa Sweet, the illustrator, somewhat mimicked Horace’s own painting style for the illustrations as well as featured small replicas of Pippin’s paintings in the background of her illustrations for the story. I began to wonder if Sweet intentionally varied Horace’s skin color in an effort to prompt discussion.
While this assertion seems possibly far-fetched, Horace himself varied the color of the skin of his characters both white and black. Horace brought attention to the themes of race, war, and social injustice and picked his colors carefully…so was there some intentionality in his choices in order to promote discussion? I think one question you bring up is an interesting one to dig deeper — what is more important: to tell an individual’s story that is worth telling, even though you “have not been in their house,” or to not tell it at all? I do not think the answer is a simple one because the answer lies in the gray. I think a white author needs to do due diligence, as well as recruit an individual(s) from the culture or community they are writing/illustrating to advocate for that culture and provide a more critical eye. The best scenario is always to have a writer or illustrator from the culture being written or illustrated for the most authentic and accurate rendering.
The way in which the intersection of Horace’s identities plays out in his life is an interesting concept because his art varied widely in style and theme. Horace’s art crosses between African and American primitive art; and his themes cover subject matters such as autobiographies, historical paintings, portraitures, politics and religion. Horace’s art is in many ways much more complex than many artists of his day. The idea that nothing about Horace, Horace’s paintings, or the book that tells his story are simple to analyze is interesting. I might argue that by both nature and circumstance Horace was complex, and possibly the illustrator demonstrated Horace’s complexity well. I do not think this explanation adequately accounts for the lack of depth of color given to his character, but it does make me wonder how much intentionality Sweet gave to the thought of color or not.
Title: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Date Published: 8 January 2013
MEGAN: Based on author George Ella Lyon’s own experience comes a story of a little girl whose eyes play tricks on her. Ginny, a kindergartener sees two of everything, but does not know that she has double vision or that it is unusual. Ginny frequently hears her teacher makes statements such as “we read it just once” and “don’t squint,” but she does not think anything of it. Not until a vision test at school brings to light Ginny’s double vision. The nurse gently asks Ginny how many words she sees and informs her that “most people only see one.” Ginny’s see everything double, but when she receives the screening she discovers that not everyone sees double; she also discovers that her vision can be treated. The story covers Ginny’s time in kindergarten when she wore a remedial eye patch to help correct her double vision.
With little fanfare and simple text, Lyon places readers in Ginny’s mind; and Avril’s mixed-media illustrations are arranged beautifully to match Ginny’s vision. Avril’s illustrations are created by overlaying one image a touch off with the original in order to create a disorienting picture.
The story is an empathetic look at a disorienting impairment. Lyons and Avril work together to show how disorientating and isolating double vision can make an individual feel. The story also highlights the benefits a basic school screening for vision and hearing can have to improve school children’s success. Readers are not privy to Ginny’s complete improvement but are assured that her vision will be completely healed.
While I am not always a proponent of happy endings I do think this story works.
MARIA: I agree with you, Megan, that the illustrations can support readers in understanding what Ginny is going through, how she “literally” sees the world. The juxtaposition of the images is clever, particularly the illustration that shows Ginny’s book “Cat ran fast.” I found the way narrator describes reading isolated letters versus reading words interesting: “If they had been words, she [Ginny] could have read just once, but letters by themselves were jumble.” This sentence can elicit conversation around the importance of context and meaning in reading (and writing).
I have mixed feelings regarding the portrayal of the teacher. Her lack of awareness at the beginning of the story is discouraging at times, especially when she discounted Ginny’s reading strategies: “we read with our eyes, not our noses,” “don’t squint.” However, when Ginny struck the scissors in the glue out of frustration, the teacher acknowledged Ginny’s efforts in cutting the bunny’s ears and kindly asked her to wash the scissors. Maybe, at this time she had noticed Ginny’s double vision. I appreciate the realistic tone of the story: she was bullied by her classmates, sometimes misunderstood by her teacher, and experienced a wide range of emotions (from fear and frustration to optimism and joy) that many children face on a daily basis. Still, the story positions Ginny as a strong and motivated little girl.
MEGAN: This story also demonstrates the importance of viewing situations from a holistic stance as well as a contextualized stance. I am an advocate of phonics instruction within a balanced approach to reading instruction. This story demonstrates how viewing circumstances in isolation can have drawbacks. Without understanding the larger context of a situation an individual can make erroneous assumptions.
When Ginny has difficulties reading, the teacher labels Ginny as deficient rather than investigating the underlying reasons for Ginny’s reading difficulties. The teacher needs to consider Ginny’s reading behaviors from multiple perspectives and as one behavior of many. If only meaning mattered in developmental reading instruction, the teacher may not have known the severity of Ginny’s disability until a later date. Capable students can often understand a story that they cannot read; similarly, students can decode the words in a story but not make meaning. In reading instruction the combination of explicit instruction of phonics along with a holistic approach provides a joint focus on meaning and all other reading skills.
MARIA: Megan, your comments regarding a holistic approach to literacy made me wonder about how other people have interpreted this story. I read several reviews about the book on Goodreads and two ideas caught my attention. First, some people questioned the author’s decision to include instances when Ginny was bullied at school, arguing that a children’s book should not be the place to describe this unkind and dehumanizing behavior. I myself have worn glasses since I was five years old, and I was called all kinds of names at school because the glasses make me look different. Reading the reviews and reflecting upon my experiences, I am convinced that children’s literature is the place to describe social issues like bullying because these stories can create opportunities to address issues in a systematic way through the curriculum.
Second, the reviews made me think about the notion of being perceived as different. I understand that the format of picture books, when compared to chapter books, does not provide enough space to develop some stories. Still, I wonder about the portrayal of Ginny’s classmates throughout the story, especially their quick change when she became the pirate of kindergarten. It seems like they changed their relationship with Ginny when they perceived her as normal. I wonder if they laughed at her when she started wearing the patch. I think this book creates a space to explore the ways in which classrooms build community.
Last week I visited a first grade classroom where the teacher and her students created two thoughtful T-charts:
– What I can say to myself: Instead of… Try thinking…
– This is how “being kind” sounds like… and looks like…
The first T-chart could encourage children like Ginny and her classmates to reflect on their own thoughts, and support them in moving towards a positive self-concept and self-esteem that can create spaces for children to empower themselves. The second T-chart can encourage children to develop language and actions toward a respectful, empathic, and inclusive community of learners. These charts can serve as tools for children and teachers in taking a holistic approach to their own learning as they also consider and develop dispositions.
Title: The Pirate of Kindergarten
Author: George Ella Lyon
Illustrator: Lynne Avril
Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
Date Published: June 22, 2010
SUSAN: Piano Starts Here tells the story of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum, an artist I was not familiar with, but who is revered by other musicians as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Of course I wanted to hear his playing for myself. Thanks to YouTube I could listen to his incredibly fast finger work and his skill at transposing and weaving melodies together (in this case, “I Got Rhythm”). It is amazing to listen to him play, and, like all great pianists, he makes it look effortless! So why isn’t he more well-known? Perhaps because he died fairly young, at age 46 (1910-1956).
Piano Starts Here gives us a window into Tatum’s early life and the people who surrounded him and enabled him to develop as a musician and play the way he did. Born blind, his parents arranged surgeries for him to help him gain some sight, but the surgeries were not really successful. Instead his family members and neighbors rallied around him to make sure he got back and forth to school. Not one to sit on the sidelines, Art would join in neighborhood games like basketball and football. That can-do spirit mixed with his love of making music led to him playing for church parties, neighborhood bars, and eventually clubs across the U.S.
Tatum’s musical training started at home, plinking on the piano when he could barely reach the keys. His father teasingly asked that he not wear out the piano because he loved playing that much. What is clear, even in the space of 32 pages, was his parents’ support of his musical ability. They allowed his curiosity about music to develop.
Author Robert Andrew Parker juxtaposes Tatum’s failing eyesight with his incredible musical memory. Tatum could hear a song and reproduce it. Parker also describes the way Tatum would insert a song into another song, and even a song into a song that was inserted into a song. One of his favorite “insertions” was “Humoresque” by Czech Dvořák.
DESIREE: I was also unfamiliar with Art Tatum’s music prior to reading this book. As part of my background research, I ordered a copy of The Songs of Blind Folk (2009) by Terry Rowden. This is a book of critical theory that looks at how disability, like blackness, has shaped the music produced by a number of artists throughout history including the Blind Boys of Alabama, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Art Tatum. Of all the musicians in this group, I only recognized Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
I continued reading Rowden’s book, alongside Piano Starts Here, and was amazed by the connections. In the picture book, Tatum tells readers, “because of my bad eyes, day and night, dark and light, don’t really matter to me. Not the way sounds and smells do — piano notes, streetcar bells, corn bread baking in the oven.” Obviously, being blind, he was more reliant on his hearing and sense of smell. But the way this shaped his approach to music is what I found to be fascinating. He could not learn to read music or chord symbols. Instead he had to rely wholly on his aural perception of the music. This was interesting because, thus far, the books we have read have focused on characters who have had to overcome their disabilities. This book might very well fit into that category. Yet, it could also be reframed as a book that represents disability as a strength.
When I read through the long list of blind musicians outlined in The Songs of Blind Folk, I couldn’t help but question whether these artists would have achieved greatness if they had not lost sight. What are your thoughts about how this book might be framed? Also, have we missed something in our exploration of previous books? Could or should this strength-based perspective be applied to our entire text-set?
SUSAN: I appreciate your question about whether the artists you mentioned would have achieved the same level of greatness without their disability. I landed on the same question as I read about books and materials for kids with disabilities in an essay by Heidi Boiesen, the former librarian of the IBBY Documentation Centre of Books for Disabled Young People (now housed at the Toronto Public Library). She was talking about the kinds of materials blind children need in order to learn about their world and learn to read Braille. She mentioned that these children need to experience their world through audible means or through touch. She described the adapted books they usually use to learn: tactile picture books, audio books, or books with sound illustrations.
I was familiar with at least one example of a tactile picture book (The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría) but I had never heard of a book with sound illustrations! What this aha moment did for me was help me realize what extraordinary gifts Tatum’s hearing and musical memory were. As a person who is blind, he could not read notes printed on paper. As a musician who needs both hands, he could not read Braille notes and play at the same time. He was dependent on his ability to reproduce what he heard.
This aha made me wonder if the lack of ability to read musical notes may have given him the creative space to experiment with sound. He was known for his ability to interweave compositions. That mixing takes creativity but also tremendous skill because the musician is weaving tunes that may be at different tempos and in different keys, and he/she needs to transpose at least one of the tunes to fit the other. On top of the technical challenge comes the challenge of playing collaboratively with other jazz musicians. I understand jazz to be a very fluid type of music where one person is soloing and the others are supporting. At the same time there is a tempo that is stable across the different instruments. Understanding the complexity of what jazz musicians do helped me understand the level of Tatum’s creativity. It was astronomical!
I think you asked an important question about books that portray the disability experience. Do they portray the disabilities in a way that describes assets (like musical memory) as compensation (for limited or no visual ability), or do the descriptions portray assets as going beyond just compensation? Did Tatum compensate for lack of visual ability by flexing his musical memory muscle, or did he go way beyond and develop musical creativity? All of us have areas of strength and weakness but do not want to be looked at on the basis of that list. I am guessing that a person with disabilities is the same way and that our focus in books needs to be on what they did to go beyond compensation for a disability.
But I also think a caution is in order. The books we looked at this month have portrayed two people who were geniuses (Art Tatum, Horace Pippin). The books portraying the extraordinary gifts of these men need to be read alongside books like the Pirate of Kindergarten so children who have disabilities do not get the idea that in order to live a wonderful life you have to have an extraordinary gift in another one of the senses. Research has demonstrated that children need to see themselves in a book. This includes the stories of dealing with letter reversals and eye patches. But they also need heroes who have gone above and beyond daily life with a disability.
DESIREE: Susan, I’m glad you mentioned how these books might serve as mirrors for children with different types of disabilities. Historically, children with disabilities have found few accurate representations of themselves in literature. At the same time, non-disabled children have not, historically, encountered these books as windows. Nor have they been invited to think critically about disability as a social construction, on par with race or gender.
When our group started to explore this set of books, I was struck by the changes in representations of the disability experience in children’s literature. It was far different from what I experienced when I was growing up. Many of the changes we found were informed by research in disabilities studies, which has developed as an academic discipline in the past 20 years. Because of this research, formerly unquestioned representations of people with disabilities have faced interrogation and the disability rights movement has gained momentum.
Moving forward, children’s literature has an important role to play in continuing the momentum. Publishers have an obligation to seek insider perspectives and to increase the diversity of disability experiences being portrayed in children’s literature. The set of books that we selected for both issues of My Take / Your Take are the kind that bring fresh perspectives to classroom conversations about disability. Not only do these books reflect the struggles by people with disabilities for equal rights and provide global representations of the experiences of people with different disabilities, but they also avoid evoking pity or a charitable response. Instead, these books introduce unique perspectives, and strong characters with whom readers can identify. They provide a space for critical conversations and for the creation of new knowledge.
Title: Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
Author and Illustrator: Robert A. Parker
Publisher: Dragonfly Books
Date Published: January 26, 2016