Honoured Canadian Books

Portrayals of Disability

Building Character: Caterpillars Can’t Swim

Ryan is a teen with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair to get around. He is also a strong swimmer who finds solace in the water. That is why he is by the river one morning when a classmate, Jack, deliberately walks into the water and does not resurface. Ryan saves Jack’s life, but what unfolds is not a story about heroism, but one focused on ordinary friendship. After that fateful day, the teens gradually bond over their shared experience of being seen as different in their small town: Ryan for his disability and Jack, who is gay, for his sexual orientation. Through much trial and error, they learn what it means to be a good friend and how to give and receive emotional support.

This novel, written by a former special education teacher, offers a positive portrayal of male friendship. Both characters behave in ways that are realistic: they say the wrong things, they hurt each other, but they also try to do better next time. Ryan’s disability is a well-integrated part of his fully-realized character.

Catalogue Excerpt for Caterpillars Can’t Swim by Liane Shaw (Second Story Press, 2017)

Caterpillars Can’t Swim by Liane Shaw is one of three exceptional Canadian books honoured in the 2019 IBBY Selection of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities for portrayal of disability.

We were grateful for the opportunity to chat with Liane Shaw about the inspiration for Caterpillars Can’t Swim, building the characters, and how her experience as a special education teacher inspires her writing today.

The germ of the idea for Caterpillars Can’t Swim came to Liane at a book signing. A woman approached Liane to ask if she knew of any books her five-year-old grandson, who has cerebral palsy, might relate to. The grandmother wanted to start a library for him that would include chapter books he could read when he was older.

Liane didn’t know of any but the need for such a book stayed with her.

Finding the voice

For over 20 years, Liane Shaw worked as a special education teacher with young teens. Liane speaks to her relationships with her students as being especially close: “These are kids with two challenges: typical teenage challenges — and the challenges of a being a disabled teen. The kids shared with me worries about social relationships and worries about how people see them. One thing I learned working as a special education teacher is the difference in perceptions in how they view themselves and how they see others viewing them.”

For Liane, setting Caterpillars Can’t Swim in a small town was very deliberate and allowed for a heightening of that disconnect and the perceptions of isolation, and being the only one, felt by the main character, Ryan and by Jack, the boy he saves.

Ryan is very attuned to how others view him in the small town where he lives. Told in the first person, in the early chapters of Caterpillars Can’t Swim, Ryan takes the reader through his emerging awareness of his disability and how the constraints of the environment — such as lack of ramps on buses, narrow hallways at school, narrow “pedestrian” bridges in parks — tell him he doesn’t fit in.

And the reactions of the people in the town to him, well, “people feel uncomfortable with me…”

But Ryan and his family have a different perspective on his abilities. “My mom started me in aquatic therapy around the same time that we got my chair, and I fell in love with the water instantly. Gravity was no longer my enemy and I could move around like anyone else.”

In the water Ryan finds a sense of freedom. And his gifts as a swimmer allow Ryan to do something unexpected and heroic in rescuing Jack, and maybe shift perceptions in how he is seen — and that he exists in a multidimensional way — he is the teen in a wheelchair … who is on the school swim team … who jumped in the river … and saved a life.

In her years of teaching, Liane used books as a way for her students to expand their horizons; for those who felt alone, books could show them that there is a world out there, that the things that are happening to them, happen to others — and that they are not alone in their experiences.

In that vein, Caterpillars Can’t Swim would be a great asset to a teen’s library; providing a wonderful opportunity for any reader to meet a boy who is complex and rich in character — and still trying to navigate being a kid.

Liane’s latest book, The Stone Rainbow (Second Story Press, 2019), continues with Jack’s story and also features Ryan — and their emerging sense of pride.

— Patti McIntosh, IBBY Canada Newsletter Editor

New Perspectives – Characters and Places in On the Spectrum

Sixteen-year-old Clara is reluctant to admit she has orthorexia: an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. She does not think there is anything wrong with her, but to escape her mother’s overbearing interest in her life, as well as a social media disaster, she agrees to spend the summer in Paris with her father and his new partner. There, she helps take care of Alastair, her young half-brother who is on the autism spectrum. As they explore the city together, Clara gets to know Alastair. Over time, she comes to see him as a whole person, not someone who has “something wrong with him.” Clara’s relationship with Alastair helps her understand what it means to accept others – and accept herself.

Alastair, who always speaks the truth about what he sees, is a refreshing and appealing character. The development of the bond between Alastair and Clara is believable. Readers will be inspired to think about what is and is not “normal” as they join these characters in their explorations.

Catalogue Excerpt for On the Spectrum by Jennifer Gold (Second Story Press, 2017)

“I don’t have an eating disorder,” Clara tells her half-brother Alastair.

“You’re on the spectrum,” he decides. “I’m on the autism spectrum, but I’m not autistic. You’re on the eating-disorder spectrum.”

Sixteen-year-old Clara and six-year-old Alastair are characters in Jennifer Gold’s YA novel On the Spectrum (Second Story Press, 2017). Clara is spending the summer with her father and his family in Paris. It’s a way to escape a social media scandal back home in New York. It’s also a way to get a little distance from her famous dancer mother, whose issues with food have contributed to Clara’s own unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, also known as orthorexia. In Paris, Clara is charged with looking after Alastair.

The dynamic between the two siblings was inspired by Gold’s “great relationship” with her own brother. Throughout the story, Clara tries to help Alastair better interpret social cues and deal with the bullying he faces at school. In turn, Alastair’s unflinching honesty pushes Clara to see the truth of her unhealthy relationship with food.

“Most books focus on one difference of a character, which can have the paradoxical effect of singling that one person out within the narrative,” Gold said when asked why she chose to write about both orthorexia and autism spectrum disorder. “In life, many people have differences. I didn’t want to just write a story about a child on the autism spectrum. I wanted to balance that somehow, and show two people learning from each other.”

The Parisian setting is important in this story. Exploring the city together helps the siblings get closer. Gold also notes that attitudes toward food seem to differ in Europe versus North America, and that setting the book in Paris helps Clara get a new point of view. In Europe, “it’s treated as a cultural and interpersonal experience, not something you do on the go between getting off the subway and getting to work. I think the North American approach to food — stopping for takeout, always in a rush, often not sitting down to a meal — is unhealthy and perpetuates a negative relationship with food.” She points out, “of course you can’t ‘cure’ someone of an eating disorder with a trip to France,” but for Clara, the change of scene, a summer of exploration and her growing closeness with Alastair help her move towards accepting that she needs help — and that it’s okay to ask for it.

In writing this book, Gold also wanted “to drive the message home that many more people than you think can be struggling with something that you perhaps cannot see — even the so-called popular girl at school.”

— Emma Sakamoto, IBBY Canada Promotions Officer

Q&A with Shari Green, author of Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

This free-verse novel opens a window into the challenges faced by a young deaf person while navigating a hearing world. Macy went deaf when she was little. Now a sixth grader, she faces fresh challenges: a new home where she will live with her new stepdad and stepsisters, and a new school with a different sign language interpreter. After Macy’s mother insists that Macy help their elderly neighbour, Iris, pack her books for a move to assisted living, Macy’s world brightens. Iris does not know sign language, yet Macy discovers that she and Iris are kindred spirits – two book lovers going through unsettling times. As they share notes, cookies and favourite books, Iris and Macy find ways to face their futures with bravery and grace.

Different typefaces are used to highlight the ways Macy communicates with others. Words conveyed through sign language are in bold type, while the written notes that Macy and Iris share are in italics. The first person narrative, shown in a “regular” typeface, gives the reader important access to Macy’s emotions and impressions of everything around her.

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green (Pajama Press, 2017)

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green is the delightful and moving story of Macy, a young girl who is struggling with a major change in her life: her mother is getting re-married, and as a result they will be moving in with her stepfather and two new stepsisters.

Macy isn’t happy about these shifts in her comfortable life. She acts out, yelling at her mum, fighting with her best friend, and behaving in a rather beastly way toward her new family. But with the help of a new friendship she forges with her elderly neighbour, Iris, and their shared love of cookies and escaping into books, she learns to accept what’s to come — and maybe even get a little excited about her new life.

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess was chosen for the IBBY International Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities list, in part because Macy is deaf. We were lucky enough to have the chance to ask Shari Green a few questions about the book in a brief interview, excerpted below.

Q: In the book, which is written in verse, different typefaces are used to highlight the ways Macy communicates with others. Words conveyed through sign language are in bold type, while the written notes that Macy and Iris share are in italics. The first person narrative, shown in a “regular” typeface, gives the reader important access to Macy’s emotions and impressions of everything around her. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you and your publisher, Pajama Press, made these choices, and what impact they have on the book?

A: Writing in verse gave me the freedom to play with the layout a bit, which was great. I needed to find a way to keep things clear as the story moved between narrative, spoken dialogue, signing, and note-writing (plus the longer, hand-written stories Iris and Macy occasionally share — for those, I chose formal poetic structures to set them apart from the notes and from Macy’s narrative). In the end, the choices we made allowed me to visually represent the communication challenges of the two main characters, without bogging down the story with excess dialogue tags (she said, she signed, she wrote) and hopefully without being at all confusing.

Q: IBBY Canada was pleased and proud to submit Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess to the IBBY International Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities list. Can you share what it means to you to have your book selected for this list?

A: I’m incredibly honoured and, to be honest, astonished! As an author who is hearing, writing Macy’s story was a daunting challenge. No amount of research and imagining would ever be enough for me to truly see the world from Macy’s perspective, but I believed in her story and set out to portray her as honestly and accurately as I could. I believe in the power of stories to build bridges, to connect us with others who, on first glance, we may see only as “different.” If Macy and Iris manage to encourage readers to share a story and build a bridge, I’m grateful.

Q: Have you received any feedback from deaf readers on what reading Macy has meant to them?

A: A great many kids who are deaf don’t have nearly the support Macy does (such as family and friends who learn American Sign Language, and involvement in the deaf community), and communication challenges are often not so easily overcome. Nevertheless, Macy’s story seems to have been appreciated, and the feedback has been lovely and affirming — from the deaf teacher excited to share the book with her class, to the mom of a girl who is deaf and not particularly enthusiastic about reading, thankful for a story her daughter embraced. I’m so pleased that Macy’s story resonated for them.

Q: Macy and Iris share a love of books (as do most members of the IBBY community!). Why is a love of books such a powerful force, especially for young people?

A: I think we book-lovers get so passionate about books because stories enlarge our heart. They expand our capacity to feel — to respond with compassion, to weep for another’s pain, to rage against injustice. Loving books grows empathy, and empathy can change the world.

Many thanks to Shari Green for writing this beautiful book and for taking the time to speak with us!

Bonus: Shari includes a recipe for Iris’ magical sugar and spice cookies at the back of the book. Your IBBY correspondent had the pleasure of baking a batch, and they were… delicious! Photo evidence attached.

— Trish Osuch, IBBY Canada Website Editor

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