Today we’re pleased to welcome Ann Clare LeZotte to the WNDB blog to discuss her middle-grade novel SHOW ME A SIGN, out now!
Mary Lambert has always felt safe and protected on her beloved island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her great-great-grandfather was an early English settler and the first deaf islander. Now, over a hundred years later, many people there — including Mary — are deaf, and nearly everyone can communicate in sign language. Mary has never felt isolated. She is proud of her lineage.
But recent events have delivered winds of change. Mary’s brother died, leaving her family shattered. Tensions over land disputes are mounting between English settlers and the Wampanoag people. And a cunning young scientist has arrived, hoping to discover the origin of the island’s prevalent deafness. His maniacal drive to find answers soon renders Mary a “live specimen” in a cruel experiment. Her struggle to save herself is at the core of this penetrating and poignant novel that probes our perceptions of ability and disability. It will make you forever question your own ideas about what is normal.
What inspired you to base your book on Martha’s Vineyard in a thriving d/Deaf community? Can you tell our readers more about the real community that it’s based on?
I lived on Cape Cod in the 1990s. When I first visited Martha’s Vineyard, a cab driver told me about the island’s history of deafness! I bought and read Nora Ellen Groce’s ethnography, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness of Martha’s Vineyard and did research in the Chilmark library. English settlers from Kent brought over the recessive trait of deafness and a village sign language that became Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). Starting in the early 1700s, there were a high percentage of white deaf residents, and deaf and hearing both signed. Deaf people were independent and fully participated in daily life. That was a stark contrast to the rest of the U.S. What a setting for a story with a deaf (signing) main character who is self-possessed and curious!
Why did you feel it was important to have Mary be a part of such a strong d/Deaf community and to have other d/Deaf people in their life, as opposed to many common portrayals of d/Deafness and disability where the character’s world is mainly full of hearing and/or nondisabled people?
Early on, my editor Tracy Mack noted, “You’re turning the narrative on its head.” I didn’t want to follow the familiar paradigm of a d/Deaf child mainstreamed into a hearing school who is bullied and then receives broad acceptance. I don’t know any kid whose life follows that simple path. I navigate between Deaf and hearing culture every day. Deaf kids don’t get to see representation where their lives and language are normalized—and they’re doing fun things like haunting and spying adventures, or even having fights with their besties in sign! For young hearing readers, it’s an introduction to the concept that d/Deaf culture exists and it’s not something to feel sad about, except when the wider world calls it abnormal and wrong. I want them to become so comfortable in Mary’s deafness that Part 2 is a terrible shock to them.
Mary and her family have recently experienced the loss of her brother. How does Mary grieve this loss and what do you hope readers take away from this book about the experience of mourning?
It’s such a painful subject. I lost my brother, so I don’t come to easy conclusions about it. I’d tell young readers that it’s not their fault, as Mary believes. Guilt can be powerful. And you have a right to live your own life afterward. Family members and friends grieve in different ways. Give them and yourself time. Hold tight to your memories—the good ones. My brother and I dissected owl pellets like George and Mary in SMAS. That’s a memory I treasure.
Mary’s primarily d/Deaf community offers a window into the social model of disability and the impact it has on people when they have equal access to communication and their accommodations are not viewed as a “burden.” How are those themes important for d/Deaf and hearing readers?
Villain Andrew Noble represents the medical model of disability—with its diagnoses and cures. The social model centers social structures as the problem, which is evident in the book. But there is a third model with deafness—the cultural model. Within this model, Deaf people see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority. Even within the inclusive island life of Show Me a Sign, Mary signifies who’s deaf and her signing isn’t the same with everyone. I also sign differently with Deaf and hearing friends. Mary expresses how she sometimes feels left out when hearing peers are talking together, and her hearing mother angrily yells at her with her back turned. The novel shows how society can remove most communication barriers between the d/Deaf and hearing without undue burden, but it’s also a proud appreciation of Deaf history.
How has your work as a librarian impacted your writing? Have you taken any lessons from your lived experience as a librarian in the writing of this novel?
It’s been tremendous! My work at the library is primarily children’s and teen programming with a focus on inclusion. I teach intergenerational ASL literacy. I’ve done disability sensitivity and anti-bullying presentations in the schools. I’ve seen what materials young readers are looking for, and I know what is and isn’t on the shelves. I brought parts of SMAS into a Teen Creative Writing Club. I received shrewd feedback, especially from Native teens. The biggest lesson was that I wasn’t just writing the book I needed as a kid but the one they want to read now.
From a technical perspective, how did you incorporate sign language into a text-based narrative?
In the Chicago Manual of Style, there isn’t one agreed-upon method of denoting ASL in writing. We decided to go with quotes rather than italics and to indicate at certain moments how MVSL differs from English speech and varies depending on the signer. People have complimented how smoothly it flows. Here’s the real advantage of Own Voices: to work out the logistics of conversations, I just put myself in the character’s position and it flowed naturally. It’s harder for me to write characters who, say, hear ambient noise!
SHOW ME A SIGN also deals with colonization and the Indigenous Wampanoag people. Mary’s family history is tied in with the English settlers. How does she come to terms and take accountability for her role as a white person on Native American land?
When I first envisioned the story, it was as a Deaf utopia. Then I realized that Mary and her family and friends are settlers on Wampanoag land, and I couldn’t ignore that layer of the story. I also discovered that freedmen were marrying Wampanoag of Gay Head (Aquinnah) women in the early 1800s. I’m not trying to draw comparisons between different systems of oppression (anyway, I think ableism or audism is part of white supremacy). I wanted to depict people who co-existed at a certain time and place. Mary also learns by stumbling, being taught and corrected by first-hand sources, and developing empathy from her own ordeal. By the end, she’s willing to speak up and take a stand even if it’s not popular with everyone. That’s difficult for any young person.
What other middle-grade novels do you think that SHOW ME A SIGN is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for other middle-grade and/or historical fiction novels that you’ve read and loved?
Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck was the book that made me feel I might have a chance of finding an audience for this story. There’s amazing work being done by Indigenous authors and illustrators, like Michaela Goade, Carole Lindstrom, Andrea Rogers, and Traci Sorell. Years ago, when I was looking for d/Deaf and disabled Own Voices at the library, I came across Blind/HOH author Sally Hobart-Alexander. Her Laura Bridgman biography is excellent. Recently, I loved Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit and All the Way to the Top, a picture book biography about Jennifer Keelan. There are so many stories that haven’t yet been told. Like Mary’s vision in the last chapter of SMAS, I’m looking ahead with amazement at the d/Deaf and HOH writers of all intersections who are coming next.
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Ann Clare LeZotte is a Deaf librarian, and the author of T4, an ILA Notable Book for a Global Society, which Booklist called “a powerful debut.” Her second novel, Show Me A Sign, received three starred reviews and was hailed by Kirkus as “a must read.” For years, Ann has given book talks, and disability and anti-bullying presentations in American Sign Language (ASL). Ann says, “I never had a romance about being ‘special’ or ‘different.’ I wished long and hard to be normal. A waste of time and a heartbreak I don’t want other young people to experience.” In her free time, Ann enjoys swimming and walking her dog Perkins. She lives with her family in Gainesville, Florida.