MTYT: Emmanuel’s Dream

Just say “award-winning book” to a group of children’s and adolescent literature enthusiasts and listen to the many, various takes each offer to the conversation! But what happens when preservice teachers in the novice stages of exploring children’s and adolescent literature share their take on award-winning picturebooks? This month Mary (an enthusiast), Christopher and Leslie (preservice teachers) share their takes on Schneider Family Award winning picturebooks. The perspectives for this month’s My Take/Your Take clearly show that regardless of the depth of knowledge one has about picturebooks, everyone has their own take on its merits. We begin with a discussion of Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Anne Thompson and Sean Qualls.

Based on true events, Emmanuel’s Dream tells the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah who rode his bike 400 miles across Ghana, spreading his message that “Disability is NOT Inability” ( Emmanuel was born with “two bright eyes… two tiny fists… but only one strong leg…” (Johnson, 2015, n. p.). Growing up, Emmanuel’s mother insisted that he learn to do things for himself. He did chores, attended school and learned to ride a bike. Determined to show others how he lives through his message, Emmanuel rode across Ghana in 2001 on a bike provided by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Emmanuel continues to advocate for people with disabilities in Ghana. Readers can find out what Emmanuel is doing to help people with exceptionalities by visiting the Emmanuel’s Educational Foundation and Sports Academy website.

MARY: The first story we discuss is Emmanuel’s Dream. What’s your take?

LESLIE: One thing that I notice looking through the illustrations is that the colors of the characters stay the same. There is not a lot of variance within the tones. They seem to be the same color to me. I don’t know if that is intentional by the illustrator. There is no difference between the characters’ physical features. The female characters, they all look the same except for the mother. She always stands out in some way, especially at the beginning of the story. In the beginning, she is a more prominent figure with Emmanuel kind of in the background. She takes up a lot of the space at the beginning.

MARY: A lot of physical space on the page?

LESLIE: Yeah, the way I see it, in the beginning the mom seems to be a big source of support for Emmanuel, so she has more prominence on the page. As Emmanuel grows up, he doesn’t rely on her as much, so she is portrayed as smaller. I don’t know if that is something the illustrator tries to convey through the size of the mom, but that’s what I get out of the illustrations.

CHRISTOPHER: What I see related to the use of color within the illustrations. Qualls only uses color when he is trying to point something out. Throughout most of the story it is the people who always have color. Within the background you see groceries or whatever without color. The illustrator is strategic with color in the illustrations.

LESLIE: The illustrations are not overwhelming. If you read just the illustrations, you see who the book is about. If the book had full color illustrations, it might be confusing.

(Leslie turns pages, looking at illustrations)

Even though this takes place in Ghana and I don’t have much background knowledge about Ghana, I imagine that you would mostly see the women carrying stuff on top of their heads, wearing dresses. From the illustrations, it looks like it’s probably a colorful place in real life. I don’t see it being similar to what we see in America. If I read this story to students, I wouldn’t want them to think the only way to get around is on bikes or that the women have to constantly carry stuff on their heads. No matter what town they are in I would want to see more than what might be stereotypical for people in Ghana.

MARY: Do you know if it’s stereotypical?

LESLIE: I don’t know. I don’t want to create that image for students.

CHRISTOPHER: If I shared this particular story with students, I would find out more about the country. I would investigate the setting or the time it took place since it’s based on a true story. When did this actually happen? If it happened in a certain year and time period, the illustrations might be accurate. On this particular page that we are looking at, the illustrations show cars, trucks and other parts of the city. These things are not emphasized with color, but they are part of the setting. Countries change over time, so it would be interesting to see when the story took place since it is a real story.

MARY: I like what you point out, Leslie, about how the visual narrative at the beginning of the story tells us what an important role Emmanuel’s mom plays in his life. She provides nearly everything for him. And she takes up most of the physical space on the page. But as Emmanuel becomes more independent, his image takes up more space on the pages. That is an important visual element in the story and something I probably would point out if I read the story aloud. They can see how the illustrations convey a message as well in this story. I also think it’s interesting, Chris, what you say about the things in the background of the story not having color to them. I wonder if that is the visual narrative indicating the most important part of this story are the people. I don’t know how children would interpret that, but it’s interesting.

(All look at illustrations)

Do you think the story is believable?

LESLIE: I think so. This story is more believable than the other story we will talk about in the next My Take/Your Take.

MARY: Why do you think that?

LESLIE: Because it’s a story about a real person. There are real accomplishments. The author describes the challenges Emmanuel encounters throughout his life. The story tells how it affects him, the way people perceive him and how he overcomes obstacles to prove that he is able even though he has a physical disability. He can still do what everyone else does. The story is believable. It does tell how Emmanuel works constantly, we see that his accomplishments don’t happen overnight or within a couple of hours. It takes a while to get to that point.

CHRISTOPHER: I agree. The reason it is believable is the fact that the author spends time explaining Emmanuel’s struggles and how he continues to practice. There is a part where he describes how he specifically sets himself up on the bike. So, with the author going into that detail, it allows me as a reader to say, “Okay, I see what he had to do to be successful. I see where his confidence comes from.”

MARY: The first part that shocks me is when Comfort tells Emmanuel, “If you want something you have to go get it yourself.” He learns to crawl. He learns to fetch water and climb coconut trees. He learns to shine shoes. Do you think you could do that as a parent?

LESLIE: I don’t know! Of course, you want to teach your child they can do anything. I don’t know if I could just say, “Okay, you’re on your own,” and that’s it. I would probably help that child more, I guess scaffolding in a way. But just to say, “Tomorrow, I am going to wake up and have him do everything on his own,” is not as believable. I probably wouldn’t do it. It is not as realistic.

MARY: That is another part, the realistic part. Do you think that she knows the culture is such that people with physical disabilities like Emmanuel’s wind up being beggars? She knows what his future might be if she doesn’t help him immediately figure out how to be independent. Maybe that is realistic in this context, I don’t know.

CHRISTOPHER: When I read it, that is the take I get. The story shows how the society is over in Ghana and how the culture is at the time. Then it made sense, because sometimes people with exceptionalities end up having to be beggars. Comfort knows that for Emmanuel to be successful, she has to teach him independence at a young age. If this story took place in America or in another setting where there are more opportunities available for people with disabilities, then it can be, well, you know. Then again, maybe it is not as realistic. But they kind of went into that. So, okay, I see why she did it that way.

MARY: I also like that Comfort foresees Emmanuel’s future. Being a child with an exceptionality could spin Emmanuel’s life in a direction she doesn’t want it to go. But he doesn’t end up being a beggar. Instead he gets a job and proves that he doesn’t have to live this foreshadowed life that other people figured out for him. He can do whatever he wants. I wish I had more information about where Emmanuel gets the idea to get a bike and ride. For me that is a bump in the story. Sometimes with in-depth stories like Emmanuel’s, it’s hard to condense it into a picturebook.

LESLIE: Another part that stands out is how they initially think of Emmanuel when he is born. His disability is seen as a curse and that is the reason why his father leaves. That is surprising because I imagine that happens all the time. That sticks out at the beginning.

MARY: As master’s students with Special Education backgrounds, have you read any research that examines children with exceptionalities being abandoned in the U.S. or other countries? Are there statistics about that?

LESLIE: I don’t know any statistics offhand in places other than the U.S. I guess you can look into the academic setting. It doesn’t have to be a family setting only. Students with disabilities and exceptionalities are often pushed to the side. They don’t get the services they should be receiving. That kind of goes with every environment whether it’s the workplace, school, family life. It is hard to say exactly.

CHRISTOPHER: I don’t have any statistics offhand, but I can see where it can happen. It can be something to look into. I can see where a having a child with an exceptionality might be major factor for one of the parents to leave.

MARY: The other part I found interesting was that this story has a narrator. Comfort is not telling the story. Emmanuel is not telling the story. I’m just guessing that the author investigated Emmanuel’s life to tell an accurate story. I’m going to note who tells the story in the other books we talk about for My Take/Your Take. What do you think about the story being told by a narrator? Do you think that makes a difference?

CHRISTOPHER: When the person tells their story, I’m more connected to what is going compared to if a narrator tells it. Even if I’m engaged, I’m positioned where the narrator is, kind of looking in as well.

MARY: Do you think it would have been more engaging if one of the characters had told the story?

LESLIE: Yes! Especially if Emmanuel had been the one telling his truth. When authors decide to write about a person, they take the voice of the actual person, their real struggles. Authors make assumptions about some aspects of the person’s life. So that person’s truth isn’t really out there describing what they see. It might not be accurate, especially for someone who has gone through as much as Emmanuel has. The author tells one side of the story. Emmanuel should be able to speak his truth freely because the author can pick and choose what to share about Emmanuel’s life rather than Emmanuel deciding what he would like to share.

(Christopher and Mary nod in agreement)

I wonder about what Emmanuel’s siblings’ perspectives are when their mother dies. How do they see their brother? The only mention of the siblings is brief, when they were young (points to page). I wonder what they think of Emmanuel as they grow up and see his accomplishments when their mother isn’t there anymore. I wish we had a more holistic picture.

MARY: I wonder if his brothers and sisters have a more open perspective of people with exceptionalities because of Emmanuel. When they see another person with an exceptionality, the siblings know that person is capable of doing more than they are expected to do. What do you think about the way the exceptionality is portrayed? How did that strike you?

LESLIE: It doesn’t stick out to me that Emmanuel’s exceptionality is going to get in the way of his life. It isn’t portrayed that way. He has some minor obstacles to get over and he’s getting over them. The book is kind of about him and his exceptionality. It doesn’t feel like something that was huge.

MARY: Do you think that is because we are from a country where we have supports available and laws protecting individuals with exceptionalities? It doesn’t raise concern for us in the same way it does for people living in places like Ghana.

CHRISTOPHER: Even just how the book portrays it. At the beginning, the story tells of the trials Emmanuel had to go through but for most of the story it is a positive story. His exceptionality doesn’t hold him back. He is able to work. He is going on a great expedition on his bike. That’s how I feel the book portrays it. I finished the book feeling like his exceptionality isn’t restricting him.

LESLIE: I do understand what you are saying with the laws that have been passed. Because I am reading as if it is happening here in the U.S., I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, it’s no big deal.” Even though Emmanuel has a physical impairment, he can still get a job and do what he wants. Now that I am really thinking about it and trying to get into that perspective of where he is, getting a job is a big thing. Emmanuel gets a job out of all of this when the majority of people with some type of disability become beggars and they don’t have that privilege of being able to go and apply anywhere.

MARY: The seriousness of Emmanuel’s exceptionality is conveyed at the beginning of this story when the father sees his son is born with “two tiny fists, and one strong leg.” It is so devastating for Emmanuel’s father, that he leaves. He abandons his wife and new born child. That is my first signal that it is a really big deal. One of the things I need to be cognizant of is that I am reading this from a position of power. I am in a country where supports would be put into place to help this child be successful. In Ghana, his father is so overwhelmed with grief and sorrow he abandons his wife and new born infant.

(All pause to ponder)

This is a good book. Some of the subtleties we are talking about would be lost on the individuals in the U.S. Pull into the conversation the different things like the visual narratives where the mom is bigger at the beginning of the story and she slowly shrinks in the illustrations until she dies. We would also have to discuss the lack of support that makes this so devastating that the father leaves so some of the context is put into place, especially for younger readers. Chris, like you were saying, its motivational. Would you share this in a classroom?

CHRISTOPHER: I would! This is a good book for maybe second grade or first. This book shows that people with exceptionalities have a lot of strengths and can do what they want to do. Using a picturebook like this to build understandings is important, especially for students whose families don’t have these conversations with them. They are not exposed to that so it’s good to give them exposure in a way that’s motivational.

LESLIE: Like you said, Chris, I would present this to first and second grade. But not just focus on the obvious issue in the book. I would talk about privilege. That’s a huge lesson I would teach to my students, the difference with privilege here in our country. If Emmanuel would have been in the U.S., how would his life have been different? Maybe doing a compare and contrast. That is something in the Common Core Standards–being able to compare and contrast. That is one of the biggest take aways I want for my students. Who is privileged and how are they privileged.

MARY: I agree that Emmanuel’s Dream could serve as a springboard for conversations about privilege. There’s so much more to this story than meets the eye!

-Schneider Family Children’s Book Award (ALA)
-Notable Children’s Book for 2016 (ALSC) 
-Eureka Honor Award from the California Reading Association

Title: Emmanuel’s Dream
Author: Laurie Anne Thompson
Illustrator: Sean Qualls
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
ISBN: 9780449817445
Date Published: January 6, 2015

This is the first installment of February 2018’s My Take/Your Take. To follow these continuing conversations, check back every Wednesday.

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