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A man with brown hair stands behind a woman in a wheelchair and two girls who are each holding a children's book
Bloom Blog

A child isn't responsible for your discomfort with disability

James Catchpole, standing, with daughter Viola, left, wife Lucy, centre, and daughter Ismene

By Louise Kinross

In the children's book You're So Amazing!, a boy called Joe is confused by people's reactions to him. Joe has one leg and gets around on crutches. Whether riding a bouncy playground toy or eating ice cream, kids and adults tell him he's "SO amazing!" The over-the-top attention makes him want to disappear. But when he retreats, he's seen as  "poor Joe." The book is written by James and Lucy Catchpole, who run a literary agency in England.

Kirkus Reviews described it as "a reassuring, if not empowering, exploration of the disability experience" and suggested "disabled readers may desire concrete tips for addressing awkward interactions." Over e-mail, James and Lucy explained their views on the role children play in navigating uncomfortable social situations. James has the same disability as the character Joe, and Lucy uses a wheelchair. 

BLOOM: What do you hope children and parents take away from the book?

James Catchpole: We hope to make readers aware of some of the ways people respond to disability.

As disabled people, we know that strangers often have strong emotional responses to us. I've known it since I was a child, when the sight of me seemed to make people feel things: sometimes sadness and pity; sometimes joy. I often found them confusing at the time, but those responses will undoubtedly have shaped who I was then and who I am now. People were happy when I walked fast on crutches, so I still walk fast.

We want disabled children to have a way of understanding these responses, and to know they're not wrong to find them confusing. The'll learn soon enough that people will hang all sorts of baggage on them—feelings and narratives that have nothing to do with who they are. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

And we hope that non-disabled readers might question their own attitudes and responses. Small children tend not to be weighed down by too much emotion, actually. They may be amazed and curious and express those feelings loudly and incautiously for a minute, but they don't bring the emotional baggage with them that older kids and grown-ups do. [The latter] can be just as othering as being asked the personal questions that little ones ask.

BLOOM: Kirkus Reviews suggests the book isn't empowering because it doesn't offer practical tips for how Joe, or other kids with disabilities, should respond to awkward comments. I'm assuming that was intentional, because I've read that you don't feel it's the child's job to educate others. Can you please explain your thinking?

James Catchpole: We don't think a disabled child has much chance of changing a grown-up's emotional response by explaining anything, even if that were their role! It would be asking a great deal of them. It's hard enough to understand what the older kids and grown-ups are on about, and in any case, they hold all the power. And besides, when did rational explanation ever overrule emotion?

In [our first book] What Happened to You? we were keen to let disabled readers know that they're not obliged to tell their stories. In You're So Amazing! it's more complicated, and Kirkus were right to point that out. But just because there aren't easy solutions, that doesn't mean the problem would be best left undiscussed. We still want kids like Joe to feel understood, and we want them to understand their own lives. Knowledge alone can be empowering. And of course, the onus is on everyone else to change how they respond.

BLOOM: It's common in children's rehab for parents to be encouraged to teach their child advocacy skills so that they can explain their differences. That puts the onus on the child to educate. Is there a better way?

James Catchpole: We believe those advocacy skills can become an obligation to respond to what are often personal and rude interrogations, by breaching one's own privacy. If we wouldn't offer up our most personal history, as parents, to satisfy a stranger's passing curiosity, then why would we encourage our disabled children to do so?

We think parents would do better by empowering their disabled children to draw their own boundaries. 'I don't want to talk about that,' is a legitimate—and empowering—response!

BLOOM: Is there anything else you'd like to share about how your children's books explore disability issues a bit differently from other books on the market?

James Catchpole: Most books about disability are written by non-disabled authors. And it shows. On the subject of personal questions, they tend to suggest that it's always best to ask. Better for non-disabled people who want answers, maybe!

But of course it runs much deeper than that. Disabled characters generally exist in storytelling, from Richard the Third to tiny Tim, as literary devices to incite emotion. They're there to make us laugh, cry or shudder. They have very little to do with the reality of the disabled experience. The phenomenon of disabled authors being granted the space to write truthfully about that experience is almost entirely a new thing. We're delighted to be part of a new wave of disabled storytelling, looking to overturn the old narratives about ourselves.

BLOOM: Lucy has a new book coming out in August in the UK, and in North America next year. Can you tell us about it?

Lucy Catchpole: Mama Car is a change from the other books. Unlike James, I wasn't a disabled child. I became disabled when I was 19. This book comes directly out of my experience as a disabled parent.

As a wheelchair-user, I've become used to navigating all the strange ways the world treats me. But for my children, I am as I am. Their love for my disabled body, and my wheelchair, was a wonderful shock.

A wheelchair is such an obvious, simple tool—it's literally a chair with wheels. Who doesn't like a chair, and who doesn't like wheels? But somehow, when you put the two together, you end up with something highly stigmatized. And when you use one, all sorts of presumptions are made about you.

But for our children, with a wheelchair-using mother and amputee father, disability is normal.

Mama Car is a small story really, of small domestic adventures seen through a young child's eyes. But the parents in it are disabled—like us. Disabled parents are, at last, finally becoming more visible. I hope this book can be a part of that. 

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