The hero of a new picture book is a girl in a red wheelchair
By Louise Kinross
Last year every Grade 1 student in Canada received a copy of Fast Friends, a picture book about classmates Suze, who uses a red wheelchair and doesn't speak, and Tyson, her best friend. The book, selected for the TD Grade One Book Giveaway, was written by Peterborough, Ont. resident Heather M. O’Connor and inspired by her daughter Suze. Yesterday a sequel called Friends Find a Way! was released. This time the pair are on a school trip to the zoo when they get separated from the class. We spoke to Heather (photo above right) about the series.
BLOOM: How did you get the idea for this book?
Heather M. O'Connor: My daughter Suze was doing some rudimentary pointing when she was about that age and we used picture symbols. I thought it would be neat to have a story where she could take a bigger part and be the hero of the story. How many books do we have where a non-verbal child who uses a wheelchair is the one who saves the day? For kids like Suze, I really hope they see themselves.
Our family used to go to the Toronto Zoo all the time and I thought Suze could point to the symbols on the zoo map. I thought this story was a great way to show what Suze was capable of, how clearly she could communicate, and the beautiful communication between her and Tyson. In this book you see non-verbal communication.
BLOOM: Was there anything challenging about publishing these books?
Heather M. O'Connor: I took Fast Friends to Scholastic at a writer's conference and the editor said 'This is a personal story isn't it?' I said yup, and then she asked if it was available and we talked about the book and its potential. With one in five Canadians having a disability, it was a natural step to include children with disabilities.
Scholastic was very supportive all the way. The fact that it was nominated for the TD Grade 1 book was really exceptional. It means a book with a child with a disability who is non verbal and uses a wheelchair and a g-tube is going to every Grade 1 student in Canada. Think of all of those teachers and parents who have read the story at a time when their students and children are just starting school and meeting kids of all different abilities. That's how you change the world.
BLOOM: So I'm hearing that it wasn't a challenge to sell the book!
Heather M. O'Connor: Not even a bit. They were delighted to have these stories of representation.
BLOOM: What's been most rewarding?
Heather M. O'Connor: In many ways it was that it was a TD Grade 1 book. TD even made the characters part of a float in the Santa Claus Parade, which goes by SickKids Hospital. I don't know if there's ever been a kid in a wheelchair on a float in that parade. The book went out in Braille to kids who needed Braille. You can listen to it as an audio book. It's in French and English. That reach I think will change the world. By introducing kids at a young age to characters like Suze and Tyson, I think that's how you change things.
BLOOM: What do you hope children take from the book?
Heather M. O'Connor: First, I hope kids like Suze see themselves and feel they're empowered and they can do anything. I hope for other kids it encourages them to strike up a friendship with someone with disabilities. They may have more in common than they realize. And I hope that seeing people with disabilities becomes a regular, ordinary part of life. I hope it opens students' minds to what the world should look like.
BLOOM: Can you tell us a bit about your daughter Suze now?
Heather M. O'Connor: She's 33. She's non verbal and uses a wheelchair. She goes to a great day program in Ajax called Tania's Place. She has a really good group of friends there. They're like family.
When Suze was seven she developed a seizure disorder, so she's not as perky as she used to be. She's on three anti-convulsants just to keep things on an even keel, and every few years we end up in hospital for a while because her seizures won't stop.
She likes Disney videos and going for walks and hanging out with her friends.
BLOOM: What Disney movies does she like?
Heather M. O'Connor: Robin Hood has always been a favourite, and Winnie the Pooh. And 101 Dalmations. She's a really sweet kid. She's more of a watcher than a doer. She watches our dog and our dog gets upset if she's crying and will sit right under her wheelchair. I have five kids and Suze was the easiest of them all.
BLOOM: What does she think of the new book?
Heather M. O'Connor: She likes it. We just read it to her. She came to one of the book presentations I did at the zoo and I was able to say 'This is the real Suze.'
BLOOM: Are there plans for future books?
Heather M. O'Connor: Yes. One is a Halloween story about trick or treating together at a community centre. Kids with wheelchairs often have a hard time trick or treating because everything is inaccessible.
The second one takes place at Centre Island at the amusement park. Suze used to love going on the little rollercoaster there and the flume ride. She's a bit of a speed demon. Kids are always surprised to learn she likes rollercoasters.
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