At the Lion and Lamb Peace Arts Center of Bluffton University, director Louise Matthews is quick to raise the significance and relevance of children’s books for learners of all ages. After perusing the center’s collection of children’s books about disability, I would agree. I discovered a remarkable parallel between these books with simple language and bold pictures, and the scholarly works on disability written by theologians I was studying in graduate school. Despite the absence of pictures and the need for a good dictionary and hours of study to explore their content, the theological books shared a striking similarity with the picture books: the message.
Kathy Dickson is a Field Associate for ADNet, a graduate of Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and attends First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio.
Throughout my seminary education, I had opportunities to learn from scholars of disability and theology from across the United States and Europe. Through careful reading of scripture and theological questioning, these theologians reaffirm the inherent worth of persons with disabilities, created in the image of God. They work to dismantle ableism: the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities (see www.stopableism.org). They invite faith communities to be more than simply accessible or inclusive, but to become places of thriving and growth. They envision communities that affirm the worth and dignity of all, while encouraging mutual relationships between all kinds of people.
The picture books on disabilities at Lion and Lamb similarly increase awareness and understanding of the mental, physical, and learning disabilities that are a part of God’s good creation. Such books inspire new perspectives about disability and broaden our understandings about individual lives, bringing an accessible and relevant message that helps to inform the actions of young and old.
The Gift of an Ordinary Life
Bill Gaventa, a well-known writer on disability and theology, has often said what a gift it is to be able to live an ordinary life. Similarly, Don’t Call Me Special, a children’s book by Pat Thomas, declares, “Everybody in the world is unique. That means that each one of us is a little different from everyone else” (12). “Too many people with disabilities dislike being called special because it makes them sound too different from everyone else” (19). Don’t Call Me Special argues against using the word special to separate a person with a disability from being ordinary. See our Resource Suggestions below for a link to more titles that portray children with disabilities living ordinary lives.
The Gift of Friendship
Scholars Hans Reinders and L’Arche communities founder Jean Vanier write about the gift of friendship. Through mutual relationship between persons of differing abilities, they argue, we can learn better what it means to be human. Several picture books illustrate such learning. In Be Good to Eddie Lee (by Virginia Fleming), a young girl befriends a boy with Down syndrome, and they discover nature’s wonders together. Their budding friendship allows her to overcome the prejudices of another child, and allows her to more freely discover the world.
In Ian’s Walk (by Laurie Lears),an older sister lets go of her own ideas about how her brother with autism should act and respond to the world. She instead tries to experience the world as he does. In doing this, her perspectives of the world around her (and her brother) are transformed. Aaron Ratzlaff’s Quills introduces us to a porcupine who is surrounded by friends who love her unconditionally and help her through the grief of losing her quills.
Gently Teaching God’s Love
Children’s books like these offer a non-threatening introduction to disability. They help children and adults alike to understand disability as a part of ordinary life, but not by glossing over its challenges. They tell stories of real people and their friends and families. They inherently break stereotypes created by ableism and gently teach us to embody God’s love for all through friendly characters. All congregations could grow from savoring their wisdom and their at times whimsical ideas.
We hope we are inspiring you to start or expand a collection of these delightful books in your congregation’s library as a resource for enriching worship, Christian education, and family life.
Kathy Dickson's reviews of 25 children’s books on disability.
Hans Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship (Eerdmans, 2008). Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, (Anansi, 2008).