What Happened to You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George, is on sale now. Order it here!
By James Catchpole
When my eldest daughter was two years old and just discovering words, my wife managed to capture the moment when she first asked me The Question—the question all visibly disabled people know so well. She must have already noticed that I’ve fewer than the traditional number of legs and apparently she’d been quietly formulating her own theories as to why.
Children’s innocent curiosity is a part of life for all visibly disabled people —we encounter it daily—and for me, never more than at the playground. What happens is: My kids are hurling themselves around with all the others, and then someone’s child catches my eye, does a double-take, yells, “That man’s only got one leg!” (which stops the rest of them in their tracks), and then the inquisition begins. As a grown-up with a disability that is relatively easy to compute (kids tend to be fascinated more than alarmed), I don’t find it too hard to deal with this. But it does remind me of when I was a disabled child, and the playground was my native habitat, and the interrogation was relentless.
The current consensus when it comes to educating children about disability is that they should march right on up to a disabled person and ‘just ask!’ Curiosity is natural and to be encouraged, you hear people say, and far better kids should ask questions than point and stare.
But why are these the only two options? And why should the (yes, necessary) job of educating children fall to the disabled child?
‘What happened to you?’ is a deeply personal question, which taps into all sorts of vulnerabilities. And there’s a rule about personal questions: We don’t ask them of people we don’t know. Children do learn this, however natural their curiosity. But the injunction to ‘just ask!’ makes disabled people an exception to this rule. And that explains why disabled children can expect to be asked that question by their peers every time they go into the playground, and why disabled adults can still expect to be asked it by their own peers (yes, really) at the bus stop, or in the supermarket, or the post office queue.
As an agent for children’s books, I realized there was something I could do to try to change this consensus. I wrote a book. First I thought hard about what sort of book might have been helpful to me as a disabled child, and then I wrote a book. (Technically I wrote a book and then spent four years rewriting it before I got it right—writing books is hard, it turns out.) And the book I wrote goes like this:
Joe is in the playground playing his favorite game. It has sharks, and possibly crocodiles. But crocodiles and sharks are easy compared to kids Joe hasn’t met yet. There are a few of these about, and eventually, one of them notices Joe and yells, “You’ve only got one leg!” You probably know by now what happens next.
Except that Joe doesn’t do what I did and tell the other kids what happened to him. Because he doesn’t feel like telling that story. And anyway, people don’t really want to hear the real answer—that usually just makes them awkward. They want something more exciting, and Joe lets them run through a few suggestions: Did it fall off? Was it a Burglar? Was it a lion? Was it—sharp intake of breath, here—a thousand lions? (Writing this part was easy; I just wrote down some of the questions kids have asked me and then put those kids in the book, too.) But much as the other kids are enjoying themselves, Joe is the hero of this story, and so we get to see how the interrogation makes him feel. And eventually, the other kids see it too. They also see, for the first time, that Joe’s playing a pretty cool game, and then it doesn’t take long for the kids that Joe doesn’t know yet to become kids that he does.
I hope this story will both reassure disabled children and empower them to set their own boundaries. But it has a message for nondisabled readers too, both young and old. For every kid who yells questions at me in the playground, there’s an agonized parent mouthing, “Sorry!” Often, they come over and ask, “Help! What should I do?” The answer’s simple—sure, educate your child about disability (“Some people’s bodies work differently” and so on) but more importantly, see if you can get your child to empathize by asking them, “How would you feel if you had to answer that question several times a day?” See if you can get them to walk for just a moment in my shoe.
That’s what books do, of course: Lend readers other people’s shoes. And that’s the power of diverse books. In this case, stories written by disabled writers for disabled readers. Because those are the ones that will have something true to say to disabled and nondisabled kids alike.
James Catchpole was destined to be either an itinerant singer or an amputee footballer. He managed to get off the substitutes’ bench a couple of times for the England Amputee Football Team, and also busked around Provence with a guitar (another profession where it actively helps to have one leg), but reached the limits of his talent in both fields by his mid-twenties, and so joined the family business of children’s books. He now runs The Catchpole Agency with his wife Lucy, and represents authors and illustrators of children’s picture books, non-fiction and novels, including Polly Dunbar, SF Said, Michelle Robinson and David Lucas. Lucy and James live in Oxford with their two young daughters, the eldest of whom is firmly convinced she will be joining the business too—but at five, she has plenty of time to recant.