For our last My Take/Your Take discussion of Schneider Family Award winning picture books, Mary, Christopher and Leslie share their takes on Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Boris Kulikov. “Too small. He won’t survive!” cluck visitors looking into Louis’s bassinette. Readers follow along with Louis as he grows from a small baby into a healthy, curious toddler. Tragically, Louis’s curiosity leads to an accident that eventually results in him being blind.
At first, Louis struggles to adapt to darkness. But with the support of his family and community, Louis overcomes many obstacles. Despite his accomplishments, Louis longs to learn to read and write. For this, he needs to attend a special school in Paris that has special books written for students who are blind. He is an exceptional student at the Royal School for the Blind, but he finds reading the large wax letters too cumbersome. Inspiration for creating the Braille code first comes from a system of dots and dashes used by the French Army. Louis spends nearly 5 years refining his code before adopting a system that is basically the same as the code used today.
MARY: You both seem excited about this story! What makes you excited?
LESILE: It is interesting because Louis is the one who tells me the story. This makes me feel engaged throughout the whole story. I don’t feel like I am watching things go on. I feel that I am there with Louis. None of the other stories that we talked about have that aspect to them, and that makes us feel like outsiders.
MARY: We watch the story unfold. But with this one, it feels like he is talking to us?
LESILE: Yes, exactly.
CHRISTOPHER: Biographies are interesting. Like Leslie states, the fact that Louis is the one telling his story, you get to engage with what he goes through. That’s something that I enjoy, seeing the story from the character’s point of view.
MARY: I like the first page where Louis’s father introduces him to the people in the community. His gaze is somewhat down, but he’s looking out at us. The father’s gaze extends that invitation immediately for the reader to jump into the story and to participate as an insider rather than an outsider, like what you are talking about, Leslie.
(Leslie nods in agreement)
I appreciate that invitation. I feel that connection right away with Louis. The emotional impact for me happens on this double-page spread where the background goes from white to black to signify the darkness Louis now lives in. That is a real emotional shift in the book. It is effective in letting us know that Louis’s whole world is changing. I am captivated by the chalk-like images in the background of the illustrations. It makes me think that the objects around Louis are hard for him to find. I wonder if these illustrations symbolize how Louis feels when he is trying to look for things.
LESILE: The illustrator uses darkness to put us into the position of what Louis is going through. When Louis feels that he is part of a world doing what everybody else was doing, the illustrations are colorful. When he starts to feel alone and isolated, he disassociates from everything around him. Then the background in the illustrations turns dark.
Louis tries to fill himself with hope by trying to develop some type of reading and writing system, so he can feel like he is just like everyone else. He longs to be part of that literate society. The change from light to dark throughout the story symbolizes Louis’s feelings. There are parts of the story where there is still darkness around, but his image in the illustration is surrounded by the light.
CHRISTOPHER: A great use of color by the illustrator, definitely. The illustrator’s use of color helps us imagine how it might feel when Louis starts going blind. Especially that emotional shift. Louis’s whole world changes and that is an emotional time when something like that happens all of the sudden. When Louis has support from his family and the community, the illustrator lightens the pages, symbolizing the support. It’s not going to be as dark and gloomy as what it was before.
MARY: Staying with the light and dark idea to symbolize emotions, it was interesting that when Louis goes to the school in Paris where he talks about how the teachers are mean, and the boys tease him and steal things, the background is still white.
(Christopher and Leslie nod in agreement)
MARY: I would think that would be a dark time because it wasn’t what he expected. But because of the illustrator’s use of a white background, it signifies hope. Louis still has hope when he is at to this not-so-wonderful place.
LESILE: Yeah, and it states right here, “I stayed because somewhere in this old moldy building there were books for the blind. ‘Only the best students were allowed to read them.’ My friend Gabriel told me. ‘Then I will be one of the best,’ I replied”. This shows me that Louis feels hopeful. He still hopes he’ll be able to read. Louis tries to stay positive when everything else around him isn’t positive.
CHRISTOPHER: That continues the optimism he has!
LESILE: Did you also notice in the illustration on that page, the books that are floating in the air? They have no writing or anything on their pages. I didn’t notice that until now!
(All talking at once about the illustration)
LESILE: They’re blank, but they’re floating. Maybe Louis imagines some books, but he doesn’t know what is in them.
MARY: Why do you think it is so important to Louis that he learns to read? I was thinking of the time period and when Louis was born. Was literacy so important at that time? He could’ve learned a trade. Louis could have worked with the leather like his father. Why do you think it was important to him to learn how to read?
LESILE: Thinking about myself as a younger version of who I am, I used to read all the time. I would create a different world within my mind and travel to that place, to have different experiences. Maybe Louis knows that through reading and writing he has that opportunity to visit other places other than what’s present.
As somebody who starts life being able to see and then going into complete darkness, Louis is no longer able to see what things look like around him. When things are described to somebody through writing, they can picture it their minds. That could be one of the reasons why Louis wanted to read, so he could see things in his mind the way he used to.
CHRISTOPHER: The fact that Louis is just a boy who is so engaged in his world, playing and engaging with the people in his community. Once he becomes blind, that is shut down for a while. He still believes there’s a way that he can read. It’s not only going to unlock the cognitive freedom, but it’s going to give him freedom that’s now lacking because of his impairment. It was a mission that “if there’s a way that I can read even though I’m blind, it’s going to give me some of that back.”
MARY: Why couldn’t Louis have settled for being a musician and playing the organ? Or a slipper maker? In the story, they teach him how to make slippers and musical instruments. Why couldn’t he have just settled for that?
CHRISTOPHER: I’m looking for a line in the text that could help with this. But I want to say that I think he wanted to. . . (turns pages). His whole mission was “I don’t want to just put myself in this box, I want to do more. I want to be able to change lives. I want to be able to have that level of intellect where I could do more than just settle for that.”
MARY: Is the message you’re saying that reading changes lives?
CHRISTOPHER: I don’t know if that’s the direct message, but I could see that being an indirect message. Reading does change lives. It’s important to read, or be able to read.
LESILE: It changes his life!
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, it does!
MARY: mm-hmm (yes).
CHRISTOPHER: Especially if we’re looking at the time period. It’s kind of similar to Emmanuel’s Dream (Thompson, 2015), the story we discussed three weeks ago. People with impairments had to settle for doing a trade or had to settle for a life that was limited in the sense of what society would allow them to do.
CHRISTOPHER: That is the message in this time period, and in general. Reading can take you to a level that you might not have if you weren’t reading.
LESILE: Right. Louis wanting to change his reading opportunities was on the page where he finally gets to read the books that are available at the Royal Academy for the Blind. When he is reading them, he notices that the words in the book are wax letters and they are huge. It takes a few pages to finish one or two sentences. That isn’t what Louis wants. He knows that by reading books with that type of print, the amount of information that he will gain will be limited. He wants more than what is offered to him.
At the beginning of the book, the author describes a lot of talents that Louis has and his various abilities. It seems that he wants to learn more. This theme carries on with Louis reading a book with large wax letters that fills half the page. He wants more. Even though Louis could have grown up to be limited in society in certain ways, he doesn’t want to be limited in how much information he is getting.
CHRISTOPHER: The connection that I made to that part of the book, when Louis is able to use the books even though they are limited, is to the materials or curriculum that students with certain exceptionalities are getting in schools today. The special education curriculum isn’t helping them. It’s not putting them in the best position to succeed. It’s just like saying, “okay, we’re going to give you materials that are three or four grade levels below” instead of making some accommodations to the curriculum.
Of course, teachers have to consider the students’ strengths and weaknesses. However, it’s not always tailored or differentiated to what students need. That’s the same thing as I’ve seen in certain special education classrooms where they have middle school students working with second or third grade content.
MARY: Do you think that’s because the content hasn’t been developed for middle school students with special needs or because school districts can’t afford to purchase the materials that have been developed?
CHRISTOPHER: I think it could be both. It’s just doing that research to see why. In this day and age, there’s plenty of people that have developed curricula. With so much emphasis on differentiation, it’s out there. Maybe it’s just that the school doesn’t have the necessary funds to purchase the materials. Or maybe they’re not putting as much emphasis as they could on the issue or their focus is on other things.
LESILE: I was recently reading a text for class where it mentioned that over time, the emphasis to provide resources for middle school and high school students who are receiving special education services, that the amount of resources they have received has slowly diminished. As a society, it just shows that there hasn’t been importance set for students with exceptionalities. It’s sad to say. I hope in the future things change. We shouldn’t limit somebody’s opportunities for them to develop into the people that they want to be. Just like Louis, he wanted more. So, he went out and did it. For our students today, we have to be those advocates for them, to help them get the resources they need.
CHRISTOPHER: Exactly. I’m not sure which century this story takes place, but this is some centuries ago. What they have Louis doing, tracing wax letters with his finger, some of the strategies I’ve seen in a special education classroom where it’s not too far off from this. And we’re talking about possibly 200-300 years later with modern technology, breakthroughs and new theories in education. The fact that some of these practices for different exceptionalities, some of these ‘trace and repeat’ or ‘skill and drill’ type of strategies are still being used is perplexing especially when there is more that can be done.
MARY: (searching online) The internet says that Louis was born in 1809 and died in 1852 (Biography, 2018, para. 2 & 3). He was about ten or eleven when he went to the school around 1820. That was almost 200 years ago.
(Christopher and Leslie nod)
MARY: I want to mention that in the author’s note at the end of the story, Bryant talks about great inventors. She mentions that when we talk about inventors, we don’t often list Louis Braille. But we should because he invented this code of communication. That was interesting because it shifts the focus from Braille as a person trying to overcome an exceptionality to Braille as an inventor. Someone who has contributed significantly to our society. Did you get that feeling at all? That this book was about an inventor?
LESILE: I didn’t initially. But later on, as he started to develop the actual Braille code, I start to see him like that. I also start to see his figure mature as he began to see himself as somebody who could invent something. I didn’t get that until the end. In the beginning, I was getting information about him and watching him try to overcome this issue that he was struggling with.
CHRISTOPHER: Same. I had background knowledge going in so that helped. But if I didn’t have background knowledge initially, I would have just thought it was about somebody who was overcoming their impairment. Near the end it makes sense. It was like, “okay, this is how Braille was started.” It starts to make sense about how the Braille code became what it is.
MARY: I would read this story in a classroom. Because of the author’s note, I would probably use it as the author had intended – as a book about inventors. I like that shift in focus so that we can help students understand that people with disabilities have abilities despite how they are portrayed in society.
LESILE: That would be a good talking point for students. It could even lead to a discussion or a lesson about inventors of items that we don’t normally think about because we don’t use them every day. But we do see how it’s helpful to others. Let’s say a wheelchair or something like that. Individuals who invented items such as wheelchairs don’t get the recognition they deserve. They are helping millions of people every day. The type of inventors discussed are usually Thomas Edison, or whoever else it may be. We need to talk more about the people who aren’t getting the recognition they deserve.
CHRISTOPHER: You could definitely use this in a text set or develop a unit where you could narrow it down to inventors who have overcome obstacles. Or if you can get your hands on the literature, and I’m not sure there’s a lot out there especially in the form of a picture book, about inventors that have had an exceptionality. If there’s not the literature out there to support that, teachers can put a text set together about inventors who overcome obstacles.
(Mary and Leslie nod in agreement)
MARY: Anything else?
LESILE: It was interesting that in one of the illustrations, the piano and slipper fabric is shaped like a book.
MARY: I didn’t notice that!
LESILE: The narrative says, “When he was flying his fingers across the organ keys, and when he was making slippers he imagined he was reading and writing” (Bryant, 2016, n. p.).
MARY: I love this! It expands the definition of literacy. Literacy includes music. Music becomes a text. Even if you don’t have the sheet music in front of you, you can still read the keys of an organ or a piano. Do either of you play one of those instruments?
LESILE: I used to.
MARY: You can feel where your fingers are based on where the other keys are, so you have to be able to read the keyboard. When making slippers, you have to be able to read the fabric to make them. You might read the fabric to determine if it’s being pulled too tight. You might read the fabric to determine if it’s strong enough to be made into slippers.
LESILE: I didn’t notice it until we were talking about the page with the blank floating books. I look at the illustration, and I notice that there is a book spine at the bottom of the drawing. But it is something that I overlooked until now.
MARY: I overlooked some of the illustrations too because I am so captivated by the narrative.
LESILE: There is another page that I want to talk about. Here, “A noble lady living nearby” (Bryant, 2016, n.p.). If she hadn’t heard of the student, Louis, what would have happened to him? Would he have been limited in the way that we were talking about?
MARY: Right, because she sent the letter of interest…
MARY: …asking if Louis could attend Royal School for the Blind in Paris.
LESILE: Would Louis have still created the Braille system, but nobody would’ve known about it? It just makes me wonder what would have been if the lady hadn’t gotten involved in his life.
MARY: That kind of segues into one of the last things I want to talk about. I love how this whole community, this whole village, has come together to support Louis. His father makes a cane for him. Louis’s brother and sisters help him. The priest and people in the village help. This noble woman writes the letter to the Royal Academy. I love how this community comes together to support him. We could do a better job nowadays of coming together. We need to support everyone, exceptionalities or not. I like that part. The narrative doesn’t feel didactic to me. It just feels natural. Maybe that’s because this story is a biography. It actually did happen.
LESILE: It could be. Whereas in other stories, it did seem forced or we were made to feel sympathy for them, whoever the character was. Here, everyone was genuine towards him.
MARY: The power of community. It takes a village.
LESILE: Really. It takes a village.
CHRISTOPHER: It really does.
-Schneider Family Children’s Book Award (ALA)
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Boris Kulikov
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
This is the final installment of February 2018’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, start with Emmanuel’s Dream, then Back to Front and Upside Down, and then The Pirate of Kindergarten.