Thursday, December 01, 2016

Books Featuring Characters with Physical Disabilities

Simply Nanju
Image courtesy Duckbill
By Zainab Sulaiman
Published by Duckbill Books
Ages 9-12

When was the last time you came across a diaper-wearing hero in a middle-grade novel? While picture books published in India feature diverse characters, it’s not often that one encounters an older protagonist with special needs and a name like Nanjegowda. Nanju has a spinal defect that makes him walk funny, and his father happens to be a tailor. 

It doesn’t end there - Nanju’s best friend is wheelchair-bound and his arch enemy has lost use of his arm. The new teacher is from Nagaland … The story is set in a school with differently-abled children, where the kids are full of mischief, just like children anywhere else. Friendship, fun, fights, infatuation - differently-abled or not, kids everywhere have the same preoccupations, and that comes through beautifully. The interactions with the teachers - Asha Miss and Theresa Miss - are heartwarming. The language the kids use is authentic and makes the characters all the more adorable. At times, the author gets bogged down in details, but it’s obvious that it is with the best of intentions, making it easy for the reader to be forgiving.

Simply Nanju is a school story and a mystery rolled into one. When Aradhana’s books begin disappearing, Nanju is the prime suspect. If he doesn’t nail the real culprit, he might end up being packed off to Unni Mama’s all-boys hostel.

The book doesn’t rate highly in terms of plot, but makes up for that by being all heart. That was the picky nine-year-old’s verdict too. ‘I recommend the book,’ he said, ‘Children should read it.’ Zainab Sulaiman deals with issues like disability, poverty and abuse with lightness, and the Indian context makes Simply Nanju a must-read for this age group. 

A cheery book, just like the lovely sunshiny cover. Oh, and the back cover says the royalties earned by the author go to the Fledgling Nest India Foundation, which works with destitute children.

By Jacqueline Wilson
Illustrated by Nick Sherratt
Published by Young Corgi
Ages 9-12

Adoption, abuse, alternate sexuality, divorce, death… there’s no topic Jacqueline Wilson hasn’t dealt with in her books. Sleepovers has the humour that is characteristic of her writing. Daisy is part of a secret club. When the bunch of five decides to have a sleepover party for each of their birthdays, Daisy finds herself in a spot. She cannot have a sleepover. Daisy’s older sister, Lily, is eleven, but she cannot walk or talk. 

What is it like caring for a child with special needs? It’s not easy on anyone in the family and the author captures the dynamics with sensitivity. Daisy realistically alternates between being a bit selfish and feeling guilty about it, tugging at your heartstrings.

The author takes care to ensure the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the special needs theme. She gets the bickering and the politics of the girl gang just right. Amy, Bella and Emily have their birthday sleepover parties - dancing, swimming, picnicking and having fun. Then the mean Chloe has hers, a make-your-own-pizza party that doesn’t go too well for poor Daisy. Finally, it is Daisy’s turn; her friends will have to meet Lily. 

As always, Jacqueline Wilson strikes the perfect balance between funny and touching. Very readable and entertaining.

Red Sky in the Morning 
By Elizabeth Laird
Published by Macmillan

Elizabeth Laird’s novels are exceptionally perceptive; right from the start it was clear this one would be too. Red Sky in the Morning is the moving story of Anna and her severely disabled brother Ben, made all the more poignant by the author’s revelation in the preface - Ben in this book is her brother Alistair.

Writing in first person, in Anna’s voice, the author takes us back to the day Ben was born. Anna is eager to be in charge of the house while her mother is away. Almost immediately, you fall in love with the twelve-year-old. This is a girl who’s not quite grown up, but can’t wait to be.

The doctor says the baby is going to be disabled, but they don’t know just how much. Anna decides she loves him anyway. It’s only later that they realise Ben has hydrocephalus and is going to remain badly disabled - mentally and physically. But that only makes Anna even more protective of him.

Anna’s concerns change with age - exams, underarm hair, boys, looks, getting a weekend job … Meanwhile, it looks like Ben has to go into hospital … Elizabeth Laird shows us the best, the most positive - perhaps the only - way of dealing with loss. 

It’s wonderful to see the world through Anna’s eyes. The parents’ difficulties, seven-year-old Katy’s pangs of jealousy, the reactions of friends and responses of passers-by are all captured beautifully. There are lines that leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling and characters who remind you of the goodness in the world. This is a book that stirs and inspires. Real, emotional and uplifting.

Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the 1989 Children’s Book Award.

Two other books for tweens and teens that feature characters with physical disability, but it is not the dominant theme, are Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari about Didda, the crippled princess who goes on to rule tenth century Kashmira and Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan, in which the teenaged Afghani protagonist has cleft palate.

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