My Take / Your Take 2016

Global Books that Won the Schneider Family Award
Maria Acevedo Aquino, Susan Corapi, Desiree Cueto, and Megan McCaffrey

The Schneider Family Award is administered by the American Library Association and given to a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and teen audiences. We selected five picture books to discuss throughout August that have international authors or a global setting.

Django: World's Greatest Jazz Guitarist by Bonnie Christensen

Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist, written and Illustrated by Bonnie Christensen

I happen to like biographies and I have a son who is a classical guitarist so Django caught my eye. It is the story of the guitar artist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) who was influential in the early jazz movement. Django was born in Belgium in a Roma community to a musical family. After he became a popular entertainer in Paris clubs, he lost the use of two of his fingers on his left hand as a result of a fire. He had to re-learn to play using a two-fingered technique different from the playing he did before. During WWII, unlike a lot of Roma in Europe, jazz-loving Germans in Paris protected him. He died in his forties but had tremendous influence on jazz music that still impacts musicians today.

One of the characteristics of all the people we will discuss this month is their determination to rise above their disabilities. That can be a huge challenge, certainly true for Django, as he had to learn to play all over again with fewer fingers. The challenge for the storyteller is to relate the challenges without making the narrative sappy. How do you think Christensen did that both in words and in art?

I do not believe Christensen presents the story in a sappy manner. If anything, the story presents the injury that led to Django’s disability as initially quite discouraging.

Django’s hospital stay only takes up six pages, four with pictures. Three of the four pictures are visually dreary. The first two pictures show the hospital ward with old cast iron beds in a row. The colors used are predominantly gray and a muted green. The hospital could easily double as a prison infirmary with bars on the window except for the visitors present. On the third picture page of his stay in the hospital, Django is drawn small and only he, his bed, and the window are shown against a black backdrop. In all three of these initial pictures Django’s hands are both completely bandaged and unusable. The last of the four hospital pictures provides a glimpse of hope. Django hands are unbandaged and he is holding his guitar. This picture has more color than the three previous hospital pages and Django’s image is large and takes up the page. Django’s face and hands are rendered in a bright peach color with his guitar in a yellow color. He is propped up against a white pillow. The combined effect makes this picture in the hospital much brighter than the others.

The words correspond with the discouraging pictures. Wording used on these pages includes: “useless,” “dreary,” and “hopeless.” On the second half of the last page of Django’s hospital stay the wording shifts. Three of the eight sentences begin with the word, “work.” Django slowly begins to work his fingers daily for months. The word “new” also appears twice. Django “finds a new way” and “he finds a sound unique and new.” Christensen shows that Django had to work for months under lonely, dreary conditions to regain the use of two of his fingers to create a new musical sound unique to him.

The final page of the story is a visual departure from the pages beforehand. Django is on stage, there is a vibrant blue backdrop with lights, and he is in a light colored suit. The use of these colors work to provide an uplifting end to the story. The story is far from sappy. The story is inspirational without sentimentality.

Yes! I agree, but it took your close analysis of the artwork to help me understand why I reacted so positively to the book. I reread the book yet again, this time paying close attention to Christensen’s artistry in words.

The narrative is a poem, sometimes rhyming, but full of musical syncopation with varied sentence lengths. The lines of the poem start short, representing the happy times of learning music as a child in a community that values music. The syncopation continues as Django experiences success in Paris clubs. The lines grow longer, conveying the intensity and drama of the night of the fire and remain longer in length as he recovers and learns how to fret with only two fingers. The lines then decrease in length as he once again becomes a beloved performer in family circles and in jazz clubs. The way the narrative is written reminds me a lot of a poem I had to memorize and recite as a child, Les djinns (Victor Hugo), which describes the approach and passing of evil genies. Hugo wrote the 15 stanza poem with increasing and then decreasing numbers of syllables in each line, moving from the quiet night to the hurricane-like force of their nearness, returning to the quiet of the night as they move into the distance. In both Hugo’s poem and in Christensen’s narrative, not only do the words convey the meaning but also the sound of the words and the syllable-count add emphasis.

School Library Journal celebrated Christensen with a glowing obituary when she died in January 2015. She was known for her picture book biographies. Reading the book and enjoying some footage of Django on YouTube has helped me appreciate the artistry of his music, but also the obstacles he faced. It never ceases to amaze me that a skilled visual and verbal artist can communicate that range of human experience in 32 pages!

You bring a whole different aspect of the book I did not attend to during my first couple of read throughs. I had to go back and read the story again, paying attention to the sentence length, word choice, and rhythm. When I read through the story again what struck me most is the repeated use of words ending with the suffix “ing” in both verb and gerund form throughout the story. On the fifth page of the story there are no less than 12 out of 34 words ending with an “ing.” The story definitely makes use of the repetition of the “ing” suffix. I think the use of this technique gives the story a singsong quality that is appropriate for the story of a musician.

I also think that there is another disability in this story that I may be stretching to call a disability but one that I firmly believe. Django is never taught as a child to read or write. From the story, I gather this was true of the culture at that time. Many of the members did not read or write and those skills were not passed on to the next generation. There was a time when individuals could exist without these skills but in today’s world the lack of reading and writing skills is a disability. In today’s world Gypsies or Travelers still exist and I hope reading and writing are part of their education.

Good point, and one that introduces the next book by British author/illustrator Clare Alexander.

Back to Front and Upside Down by Claire Alexander

Back to Front and Upside Down by Claire Alexander

Students may empathize with Stan the puppy’s frustration when he is initially unable to form letters correctly. Stan is in the middle of Miss Catnip’s reading circle when Mr. Slippers, the principal-hound, enters the classroom and invites the class to his birthday party. Miss Catnip suggests making birthday cards for Mr. Slippers that have, “Happy Birthday,” written on them. Stan immediately feels panicked. He stares with great concentration as his attempts come out rather strange. Stan has trouble copying the words Miss Catnip wrote on the board. Stan’s letters come out backward, upside down–and some don’t even resemble letters. Stan is unsure what happened to his letters or what he should do. A flood of emotions causes Stan to worry. At recess Stan tries his best not to cry and finally confides his problem to his friend Jack freeing himself of feeling alone.

Once in from recess Stan asks for help and discovers that he isn’t the only one struggling with writing his letters. His fellow classmate, Mimi, chimes in that she is also having difficulty. Stan and Mimi get extra assistance. The book emphasizes that getting help is normal and writing letters correctly can take lots and lots and lots of practice. While Stan’s improvement is a little too quick to be realistic, the message is clear that practice pays off.

This book is a good tale for struggling students. Stan’s biggest fear is that his classmates will poke fun at him, yet he learns that everybody asks for help at times. Students with dyslexia will especially benefit from this book as it specifically addresses a literacy skill.

Alexander uses soft watercolors that progress to darker tones until a two-page, black background spread shows a small Stan sitting dejectedly off to one side. The illustrations lend themselves to Stan’s state of mind during the story. The color ranges from soft pastels to dark tones while Stan struggles and back again to softer tones when his problem is being resolved. Alexander’s use of anthropomorphism helps to soften what could be a difficult topic.

Stan’s quick success is somewhat misleading. Disabilities are not typically so easily remedied. Do you think Alexander realistically portrays Stan’s disability and remediation in both words and pictures?

I was drawn to this book because it features a character who has dyslexia. Very few people know this, but when I was in elementary school, I was pulled out of class for “resource support.” Now, I have an MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D., but I still struggle with reading and writing. I say this to emphasize that dyslexia is a lifelong disability/disorder. While Alexander is correct in saying that practice helps and a good teacher can make all the difference, it certainly did for me, Stan’s proficiency seems to be achieved too quickly. A more realistic portrayal might have included a few letter reversals and/or misspellings in the card he gives to Mr. Slippers at the end of the book.

That said, the illustrations do a lot to balance the pace of the book. In the beginning, Stan is dwarfed by the looming image of a clock. He looks side to side and sees his classmates busy at work. Alexander brilliantly captures Stan’s emotions. His sense of shame, panic and frustration are palpable, “Stan’s paws began to sweat and his heart pounded loudly in his chest. He wanted to ask Miss Catnip for help. But everyone will laugh at me, he thought.” Most children will relate to Stan’s trepidation and will empathize with him.

There is also a two-page spread of vignettes or spot illustrations that depict Stan and Mimi receiving additional support from Ms. Catnip. I made an immediate connection to this scene and the strategies used to support children with dyslexia like writing letters in the sand, drawing and painting, and then, “lots of practice….”
Although the book wraps up too neatly with Stan turning in his perfectly written card, I find myself celebrating when he announces, “I wrote it all by myself!”

Do you think this book would serve better as an invitation to explore relative strengths and weaknesses with young children? Or, considering the intended age range (PK-2), does it do enough to specifically address dyslexia?

Megan: For the age level intended, the book and illustrations address Stan’s challenge well. The message of this story is that everybody needs help at some point during their lives and that to ask for that help is alright. Stan’s obstacle in this story could be substituted by another and still send the same message–we all need help at times. However, I do appreciate including a disability or challenge that is not found in an abundance of books. The more commonplace reading about and discussing disabilities becomes, the more individuals who have needs feel safe asking for help. Too often students feel they may be ridiculed for asking for help because it can highlight a weakness. The greater message is that we all have weaknesses (some more evident than others) and seeking help to remediate a weakness makes that individual stronger.

This book would be useful as part of a text set that investigates student disabilities to showcase how varied and vast disabilities are. I am torn as to whether I would create a text set that shows both student strengths and weaknesses together. One way to show the range of disability is to solely focus on each. I would emphasize the predominance of their existence throughout society. What do you think would be the best use of this text?

Your instincts are spot on in terms of focusing on the predominance of disabilities–those that are more easily detected and those that are subtle. Historically, disabilities have been treated like dirty secrets that no one wants to acknowledge. Children’s literature has helped to change that. Thank goodness! However, based on the age range (PK-2), I would begin by talking about relative strengths and weaknesses or by asking students to brainstorm what they find to be difficult in school. Once students make personal connections to the overarching theme or big idea, I would introduce this book and then the word, “disability.” It is important that students understand the difference between relative weaknesses and disabilities, for example the difference between reversing a lowercase “b” and “p” and dyslexia. Discussions about this book and other related books in a text set will help students develop a deeper understanding, share personal connections and grapple with tensions that arise throughout the inquiry.

Also, this is a good time to talk about representations of individuals with disabilities in children’s literature. This must be given significant consideration because the use of these books may influence how young children come to understand disability. Teachers should be mindful to choose books wisely to avoid stereotyping, oversimplifying or evoking pity rather than empathy or understanding. As I read books for this issue of My Take/Your Take, I concurrently read the “Guidelines for Evaluating Books that Address Disability,” which is posted on the Anti-Defamation League’s website. There are also a number of websites that include teaching tips that can be used to support students’ inquiry into disabilities including: Teaching Tolerance and Bright Hub Education, a site designed by and for teachers.

Back to Front and Upside Down could be read alone or as part of a text set to inspire students’ inquiry into a range of disabilities. Given the expanding publication of innovative books representing a vast number of disabilities, my preference would be to include this book as part of a text set. The next book that we introduce would pair well with Back to Front and Upside Down. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is about a protagonist who lives, courageously, with a physical disability.

Emmanuel's Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson with illustrations by Sean Qualls

In this biography of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Thompson’s simple storytelling and Quall’s line and mixed media illustrations come together beautifully to capture the human ability to triumph over setbacks. Born with a deformed leg, Emmanuel is deemed useless and a curse by most people in his Ghanaian community. Throughout the book he faces adversity and discrimination on a number of fronts–his father leaves him shortly after he is born, his classmates shun him, some shopkeepers refuse to hire him and others mistake him for a beggar. Yet, he proves to those around him that, “being disabled does not mean being unable.” When his mother, who is also his #1 supporter, becomes ill, Emmanuel boards a train to Accra to seek employment. His determination to persevere pays off and he gets a job at a food stand to support his family. After his mother dies, he decides to honor her by spreading his message all across Ghana. Emmanuel seeks national and international support to obtain a bike and to train for a long ride. On his one good leg, he pedals nearly 400 miles, visiting government officials, royalty, religious leaders and other people who are living with physical challenges. In the end, “the young man once thought of as cursed was becoming a national hero.” This book has both local and global cultural appeal. The author’s note indicates that Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah succeeded in getting the Ghanaian Parliament to pass fair treatment legislation for people with disabilities and continues his political activism.

I enjoyed this book and think it is particularly important given the problematic and unfavorable depictions of disabilities that have been presented in the past. This story certainly serves as a counter narrative that may help produce fresh meanings about disabilities. However, my critical eye also read it as a variant of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” This idiom has meant different things throughout history–the most popular interpretation is to improve one’s situation by one’s own efforts without any help from other people. In the book, Emmanuel’s mother tells him to, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up.” What are your thoughts about this message? Do you think that what Emmanuel did was possible for all people with disabilities? Is it always just a matter of hard work and perseverance?

After reading the book I went directly to and found a powerful video in which Emmanuel shares about his life and his dream of building a school in Ghana. Multiple ideas came to my mind as I finished the story and I’m glad that your questions relate to them. The quote, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up,” is grounded in values that many readers connect with. The individual context makes this quote even more powerful because, as the story describes with detail, Emmanuel’s social context had different and lower expectations for him. For example, he could have reacted and responded disrespectfully to those mistreating him. He could have forgotten about his family due to multiple life stressors. And the community’s lack of awareness and resources encouraged him to give up, which required lots of courage to live by those values. I wonder about the role of family members and other significant people in supporting children and adults discovering their abilities and finding their voice.

I’m thinking about your last two questions, because hard work and perseverance are indeed important dispositions to have in life. However, I do not know if every child with a physical disability, like Emmanuel, will be able to do what he did, not because of lack of ability but because of the larger context and the kinds of support systems that the child will be able to navigate. My concern with statements that position hard work and perseverance as the main ingredients for accomplishing a goal is that they only seem to measure hard work if or when the goals are met. For those who work very hard but for different reasons do not reach their initial goal, or might have to reshape their goals, they might not be considered as hardworking. It sometimes sounds like an attempt to provide a magic formula that mistakenly assumes that everyone will have the same results if they work hard and with perseverance. That could be misleading.

I’m glad you mentioned the significance of Emmanuel’s social context. After reading your response, I did some online research around individuals with disabilities in Ghana. It was interesting to trace the progress this country has made in terms of its treatment of individuals with disabilities. One article states that Ghanaian citizens with disabilities were once tied to trees, given electric shock and even drowned in the river at birth. The article asks if Ghana was the worst country in the world to be disabled. For a moment I thought, yes, and then I thought again. It is easy to fall back into the habit of “othering” when we read about cultures different than our own. I followed up by replacing “Ghana” with “The United States” in the search engine. Not surprisingly, multiple screens popped up that outline more than a century of mistreatment of individuals with disabilities in America. From gross neglect and fear of Americans with disabilities to banishing disabled infants to asylums, our country has often mirrored what has taken place across the globe. This information further highlighted the enormous strength and resiliency Emmanuel displayed. He is an example for all of us.

I want to talk about how we might present Emmanuel’s Dream in light of the issue of “othering.” One idea is to look at Emmanuel’s life and how his actions served to influence policies that have improved the lives of persons with disabilities both in Ghana and abroad. What are your thoughts about a global inquiry into disabilities? How do we best present a balanced and critical portrayal of disabilities using global literature?

Great invitation, Desiree. Maybe we can start by looking at how the five books we analyze could work together. Each of the books contributes a perspective around the importance of practice in order to discover or strengthen a new ability, develop self-awareness, and finding a voice:
Kami and the Yaks (Nepal-Sherpa) describes the development of self-awareness at home as family members learn from and with each other about their unique abilities and the instances when they all might need support. I wonder about the perspective of the father and the brother, what are they thinking? How are they feeling?
Back to Front and Upside Down (England) addresses the importance of school as a supportive context for holistic development; even as a safe place for children to see differences as the norm, rather than as an obstacle. This story highlights the role of teachers in creating a welcoming classroom environment. I wonder about the stories of teasing, bullying, and deficit views of children with disabilities that children and teachers experience daily.
Django (Belgium) highlights self-awareness from the perspective of someone who was somehow forced to learn and create a new ability as an adult. I wonder about the tendency to limit people in general to develop and maintain a specific set of skills throughout their lives. For example, you are a teacher, an engineer, a secretary, etc.
The Boy and The Jaguar (Belize) describes a child who promised himself and others that he could find his own voice to advocate for those who are or might feel voiceless. What’s voice without purpose? Who gets to describe the purpose?
Emmanuel’s Dream (Ghana) can support readers in looking at how individuals can create a social awareness that has political implications and therefore generate social transformations. I wonder how can individuals support social awareness to continue coming from “disability” to deep understandings around human’s hundred languages, multiple intelligences, and incredible capacities.

Kami and the Yaks by Andrea Stenn Stryer

Kami and the Yaks by Andrea Stenn Stryer with illustrations by Bert Dodson

This week we take a closer look at Kami and the Yaks, a story about a young boy living on the Everest region of Nepal, who teaches his family about the many ways in which children (and adults) learn about the world. Kami’s family earns their living by supporting climbers with, among other things, food, shelter, guidance, and general safety and well-being. The family job depends on their four yaks, which go missing early one morning. Using his shiny tin whistle Kami finds the yaks and is able to seek the additional assistance that the animals needed to return home.

Kami experiences and learns about the world beyond oral language and sounds. He sniffs the moistness, feels the thunder like the vibrating drumbeats at the temple festivals, wonders why the yaks don’t come down by themselves, sees that one yak’s hind leg is stuck deep in a crevice, and imitates the yak’s horns with his arms. Kami teaches his father and brother that there are many means for thinking, understanding, communicating, and belonging. As an educator, Kami encourages me to question my teaching: do I offer multiple opportunities and means for children to make meaning, or do I privilege language while silencing other sign systems? How do I encourage children finding, creating, and sharing their own shiny tin whistle and other resources? Kami reminds me that all children come to school with stories and knowledge. Yet, in the United States, the first word that Kami’s teachers would probably read or hear would be “deaf”. What happens with the story?

Wow, you bring up a good point that I had not thought of in terms of this book. The story of Kami demonstrates the multiple ways the boy uses his senses and creativity to understand his world and communicate with others. I appreciate the question you ask—do I give students multiple ways of knowing and creating meaning as we interact with texts? You also bring up the point about how we THINK ABOUT students: do I think first of their limitations (e.g., deafness) or do I think of their creativity and communication skills? Those questions need to sit on my desk as a constant reminder to create learning environments that encourage kids to keep pushing against real or perceived limitations.

One additional thing I appreciate in your response is pointing out the language of the storyteller. The verbs and metaphors are rich! I am always on the hunt for mentor texts to model rich use of vocabulary and writing techniques and your response makes the potential of this book leap off the page.

At the beginning of this month of discussions I asked about the way disabilities are portrayed in the various books. I appreciate the spin you put on the ways Kami learns to negotiate his surroundings, demonstrating his creativity, communicating with his father and brother, and taking initiative and action. However I struggle with one thing in this book and I wonder what you think. I am bothered by the portrayal of Kami and his family. Never having been to Nepal, I searched for information and images of current Sherpa, paying attention to clothing and use of yaks. The book does not have a designated historical time-period, but the clothing looks traditional. The author’s note implies that the portrayal is current, but I think it is from a time in the past. It feels stereotypical. This seems especially true when we find out that Kami’s brother is named Norgay! It is a challenge to portray a people accurately, so a teacher using this book would have to pair the book with current photos.

I have been thinking about the portrayal of disabilities in Kami and the Yaks. One of the things that I appreciate from the author is her vivid description of Kami’s struggles and successes. Towards the end of the story, the family’s shared experience creates a new space for learning from and with each other. I wonder if this could be an invitation to reflect upon Kami’s and his family’s learning as a life journey with challenges and triumphs.

This time, I went back to the book and looked closely at the illustrations completed in 2007. I also searched for narratives and photos of contemporary Sherpa. I agree that the illustrations in the book create an outdated representation. I came to that conclusion after reading the online article, Sherpa: The Invisible Men of Everest (National Geographic, 2015). This piece describes some of the current struggles that Sherpa mountain climbers face and how their job affects their families and community. The photos support creating a more updated representation of the community. Comparing illustrations and photos can be engaging and informative for students!

I also wonder who decided to use the name, “Norgay”: the author or the editor? Nepalese Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and New Zealander Edmund Hillary became the first climbers to summit Mount Everest in 1953. What kind of connection does the story aim to encourage by calling the older brother Norgay?

Your invitations around representation make me think about the importance of pairing this book with current photos of Sherpa families and their ways of living beyond mountain climbing. I would also be interested in additional texts that represent the strong cultural diversity within Nepal and the Nepalese and Nepalese-Americans living in the United States.

I appreciate you bringing up the learning that each character does in the book. It demonstrates that learning is lifelong. The book focuses on the growth that each person experiences: Kami learns that he can be an integral active member of the family business and the father and Norgay learn more about communicating with Kami and valuing his knowledge about the yaks. The focus is on the learning and the valuing and on the action each character takes–not on Kami’s disability. That is an element in these stories that I appreciate. Yes, a disability has to be a part of the story, but the story is larger than the disability. It is about learning to work with dyslexia, or a loss of a limb, or a loss of hearing. Yes, the disability may change the approach to problems, but it does not define the person or limit what the person accomplishes. The next book about Dr. Alan Rabinowitz is another good example of the disability having an impact on but not defining the person.

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz with illustrations by Catia Chien

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz with illustrations by Catia Chien

This is another biography, a genre that I use frequently in my teaching. Scientist Alan Rabinowitz struggled with stuttering from early childhood yet became a world-renowned voice for the 37 species of wild cats in the world. This particular picture book tells the story of his childhood and early adult life, concluding in his meeting with government officials of Belize during which he convinced them to create the first reserve in the world for the jaguar.

What fascinates me in the narrative is how talking to his array of household pets or to the big cat at the Bronx Zoo are the only times that Alan did not struggle with stuttering. The book portrays the way his family sought medical help and the way Alan learned to hide his disability to function in a school world. It also tells how his feeling of connection to the “voiceless” jaguar in the zoo is what gives him the courage to approach officials to protect the wild cat species.

I am reminded of an article in library literature that I read years ago that made an indelible impact on my thinking about reading and education. Public libraries set up events for children to come in and read books to dogs. The dogs are docile and sit while enjoying the human contact. For the children who do the reading, the experience is wonderful. There is a live being who listens in a non-judgmental way, so the reading practice becomes pleasurable instead of painful. I wonder if Alan’s pets served the same purpose: they would listen in a non-judgmental way so that Alan could speak without being stressed.

This story, along with the other books we have discussed, makes me wonder what gives people the drive to persevere in spite of whatever limitations. Do limitations make us push harder to rise above them? Most of the limitations I have are small compared to being born without a limb or learning to succeed in spite of stuttering. What is it that gives the Alans in the world the drive to keep pushing?

To a large extent the Alans of this world benefit from a strong support system. Yet, many great success stories come from individuals who did not have any kind of support system. Those individuals are extraordinary and must possess an inner strength beyond average. There are individuals who defy the odds, but I think most need support and those without support usually do not flourish and/or overcome.

I am latching onto your use of the word “voiceless” and reread the story to see if that word was used. My first reaction to reading the word was to think, “No, they have a voice; they don’t have words.” It took me a minute to realize that you meant figurative voicelessness not literal voicelessness. It took a second for me to understand the irony–a man with a speech impediment becomes the voice for those without one. Each time I read this story I am amazed at the courage it took for this man to not only persevere but to lead.

I am also impressed with the charcoal and acrylic illustrations that provide a sweeping scenic view of the jungle. Many of the illustrations contrast the large background against the smallness of Alan’s image and yet allude to his harmony with the nature in which he is surrounded. The illustrations span from the Smokey Mountains to Belize and cover both city and jungle. The story and illustrations progress from dark and sad to the final page filled with color, light, and hope. The last page reminds me of the saying, “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Though Alan struggles throughout his life, and surely has dark periods when he feels broken, he ultimately finds light for both himself and the animals he loves.

Powerful question, Susan. Like Megan, I think that people rely on support systems to provide them with tools and strategies for finding their voice and overcoming challenges. I would like to add another layer into our conversation around voice. I find interesting the connections between voice, purpose, and home. Alan wants to find his voice and he promises his pets to be their voice. In his journey, he also learns when to be quiet. He finds home “alone in the forest” and feels more alive than ever in the jungle. Towards the end of the story, Alan encounters a jaguar with eyes that ignite strength, power, and purpose.

Alan wants a voice, not for the sake of having a voice, but because his voice is grounded in purpose, in keeping a promise of hope. He finds himself, his strength, in the silence of the forest, the jungle, and his bedroom. He finds his unique colorful voice even in the dark echoing voice of the crowd. Alan makes me wonder, “Am I taking my voice for granted? Does my voice have a ‘sureness of purpose’ or is it echoing big crowds without clarity?”

This conversation speaks to the weight and substance that children’s picture books carry. Even as adults, we find ourselves reconsidering how we exist in the world. When I first read this book I thought Rabinowitz attempted to cover too much ground as he dealt with stuttering, wildlife conservation, isolation and voicelessness. But, it all came together. When I reread, I connected the central themes of voice, purpose and home that Maria discusses. This is particularly evident midway through the book when Alan realizes, “I can speak, but nothing has changed on the inside. I still feel broken.” It is not until he fulfills the promise he made in childhood to speak on behalf of voiceless animals that his journey is complete. I agree that it is the interconnectedness of Alan and the jaguars that drives him to push beyond the limits of his disability. Perhaps this is the deeper message in all of the books we have read for this issue–We are all connected, despite our different life circumstances. It is together that we are made “whole” and together that we are at “home.”

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