We often think of Caldecott books as the gold standard for picture books. Here the authors of “10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Ableism” look at what these prize-winning books tell young children about disability.
As regular readers of Rethinking Schools publications, we have benefited from many strategies for addressing the prejudices of racism, classism, and sexism. We wondered, however, about a parallel prejudice that rarely gets attention: ableism, or discrimination against people with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Using a set of 10 guiding questions we developed (Rethinking Schools 2009), we decided to explore ableist stereotypes in winners of the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded annually to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Caldecott winners are often endorsed by schools and libraries, and therefore purchased by many families. Unlike books intended for older audiences, picture books rely heavily on visual art to convey meaning. Children can read these picture books on their own; they don’t necessarily have meanings mediated by an adult. Books with the Caldecott seal may provide children with their first impressions of our diverse society. What hidden messages will they learn about disability?
1. Does the book promote ableism by ignoring people with disabilities?
Sometimes what is not present in a book is as important as what is included. For example, So You Want To Be President? makes no mention of disability in any of the U.S. presidents. After contracting polio at age 39, well before he became president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never able to move or stand again without the assistance of a wheelchair, braces, or another person. Yet So You Want To Be President? fails to depict or acknowledge his disability.
2. Do the illustrations promote ableism by addressing disability in stereotyped ways?
Look at the hidden messages in images, even among the onlookers in the text. For example, in Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle and Gloria, a young girl in the audience watches in a wheelchair, enjoying the hilarious safety duo as much as everyone else. She does not assume any major role, but is simply there, included without comment as any other child would be. Rathmann’s drawing normalizes disability and reinforces a sense of inclusivity rather than ostracism. Compare this illustration with one towards the end of Madeline’s Rescue that depicts the tiny figure of an elderly lady being pushed in a wheelchair with a neatly coiffed poodle on her lap. The illustration emphasizes dependence, for she is purely tangential, being vigorously pushed by a man in uniform, alone and disconnected in a bustling cityscape.
Throughout art and literature, people with disabilities have often been stereotyped as being less than human, as dangerous, or as eternal children. Such negative portrayals are illustrated by the dwarf in Saint George and the Dragon, who is pictured in servitude, rarely referred to in the text, and never given any dialogue. Without his own agency, he is infantilized: His only eye-to-eye human relationships are with children. The visuals in this text support a diminishing cliché that adults with disabilities are simple, dependent children who need to have others make decisions for them.
3. Does the story line promote ableism?
Evaluate the standard for success for characters with disabilities. The title character in The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, for example, has to exhibit extraordinary qualities in order to gain acceptance and approval. Since he is so “simple,” he does not have a concept of what is impossible. Only by attempting and succeeding at the impossible (flying a boat) does he gain acceptance, make friends, and win the hand of a beautiful princess.Can people with disabilities gain the right to inclusion and love only if they have superhuman powers? If they lack preternatural gifts, is society to shun them?
Also assess the credibility and three-dimensionality of characters with disabilities. For example, in Paul Zelinsky’s aesthetic masterpiece Rapunzel, the prince secretly marries Rapunzel. When he returns to the tower, he encounters the sorceress and plunges to the ground. Although the fall is not fatal, it leaves him blind. He wanders in the wilderness for over a year before he hears his wife’s voice and runs toward her. Rapunzel’s tears magically restore the prince’s sight so that he can admire his wife and children and lead them all “out of the wilderness toward his kingdom.”
The disability of blindness is incorporated into the story as a literary device to symbolize inner struggle, impotence, and even punishment for stealing Rapunzel’s chastity. Ability (lack of disability)—the restoration of the prince’s sight—signifies enlightenment, the power to lead, and forgiveness. The prince becomes blind in order to see.
In contrast, despite having lost an eye, the likeable Etienne in The Invention of Hugo Cabret has an instrumental and well-rounded role to play in the story. He appears in the pictures, text, and dialogue, and is a positive force in Hugo’s life. After losing his job at the movie theater, Etienne studies to be a cameraman and tells Hugo that the eye patch “actually makes it easier to look through the camera—I don’t have to close one eye like everyone else.” He reframes his “disability” as an “advantage.”
4. Do loaded words convey negative messages about disability?
Adjectives can diminish and restrict our view of people with disabilities, as we see in The Rooster Crows. A little girl in one of the rhymes is called Peep Peep because “the poor little thing has only one eye.” Her very name is a word play underscoring her visual challenge: Peepers is slang for eyes. Provided with this diminishing description and an illustration of Peep Peep isolated on a mountain top, the reader is likely to see her as pathetic and separated from the world.
Descriptive words can also incite our greatest fears. Shadow, a story translated from the French, draws upon children’s fascination with and fear of shadows. The mysterious shadow“is mute . . . never speaks . . . is blind . . . has no voice.” We also learn that it “could prick . . . or bite” and that it “cast[s] a spell over you . . . mocks you and makes a fool out of you.” Do the repetitive literary associations among shadows, disability, and danger help maintain societal apprehension about people with physical and intellectual impairments?
Figurative language can underscore negative values and beliefs about disability. The very title of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is an example of overtly dehumanizing language about intellectual disabilities. An early classification of intellectual disability was “natural born fool.” The image of the “ship of fools” is iconic in literature, theater, film, and art. Fifteenth-century woodcuts show depictions of people with various disabilities (“fools,” “cripples,” etc.) being cast off from one port and sent on to the next as ship captains were paid to remove undesirables. This is the tragic history evoked by this figurative title.
5. Are characters with disabilities portrayed as three-dimensional people who belong or as flat, stereotyped outsiders?
When books portray disability in superficial and stereotyped ways, readers learn misleading information about the lives of people with disabilities. Pressing concerns of people with disabilities—such as employment, personal relationships, housing, transportation, and health care—that would shed light on their lifestyles and, moreover, their humanity, are largely avoided in Caldecott selections.
6. Who in the story has agency? Are people with disabilities always the recipients of the efforts of others or are they portrayed with value?
Dipping into the first pages of Saint George and the Dragon, we soon observe the social hierarchy and the positions of power. The noble knight, George, is followed by Princess Una, whose innocence is underscored by her steed, a little white donkey to which is tethered a white lamb. Bringing up the rear is a bedraggled dwarf hunched under the bundle of food he is carrying for the brave couple. It is hard not to interpret the pecking order: man, followed by woman, then animal, and, at the very
bottom, the person with disabilities. It is the able-bodied characters who have agency. Although the dwarf remains faithful throughout the book, the reward for his own loyalty and help on the treacherous journey is more servitude. At the end of the story he is pictured carrying a decanter to the table of the royal family. Meanwhile the king tells George that his reward will be rest, Una’s hand in marriage, and eventually the throne.
7. Are characters with disabilities ever in the role of hero or are they always victims to be rescued by the hero?
There were no credible heroes with disabilities among the 72 Caldecott medal winners. We believe that a hero needs to be a protagonist whom children will want to emulate. Etienne’s role in The Invention of Hugo Cabret is too minor to be counted. The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is so “simple” that we doubt many children would dream of following his example. The prince’s blindness in Rapunzel is fleeting, unbelievable, and connected to his “wretched-[ness]” rather than his heroism. If children have aspirations to be like the prince, it seems more likely they would associate with the prince in his sighted, handsome, and commanding form.
There was, however, potential for discussing heroism simultaneously with disability in the Caldecott books. In So You Want To Be President?, FDR is portrayed as a hero, but his disability is never mentioned. This omission seems all the more negligent considering the discussion of difference towards the end of the book:
Every president was different from every other and yet no woman has been president. No person of color has been president. No person who wasn’t a Protestant or a Roman Catholic has been president. But if you care enough, anything is possible. Thirty-four presidents came and went before a Roman Catholic—John Kennedy—was elected. Almost two hundred years passed before a woman—Geraldine Ferraro—ran for vice president.
Were the author and illustrator to update this book in light of the results of the 2008 presidential election, this summation would have to be revised, but would it occur to St. George and Small to portray challenges based upon disability in addition to gender, skin color, and creed? Clearly, an opportunity to teach children about leaders with disabilities was missed.
8. Does the book promote positive self-image for people with disabilities?
Can children with disabilities form a positive self-image by seeing characters like the dwarf in Saint George and the Dragon andthe "fool of the world"in the Flying Ship, orfrom hearing fear-evoking descriptions of disability in Shadow? Will these children develop a strong self-concept if the few characters they see who have disabilities are so undervalued? What lessons will children without disabilities learn from reading books like this? In a classroom with a student who is blind or who has a learning disability, what will these portrayals mean? Do they offer teachers an opportunity for a productive discussion on disability or do they create conditions for more fear and misunderstanding?
9. Is there something in the author’s and illustrator’s backgrounds that recommends them to writing about the disability experience accurately and with sensitivity?
One might reasonably expect specific insights into sexism from a woman author, and into racism from a black author. One might also expect authors and illustrators with disabilities to have a different approach to disability than others. Within this Caldecott collection, we found no information about the authors and illustrators (on the books’ jacket flaps or back covers, or in their forewords) that mentioned any connections to disability.
10. Look at the copyright dates.
The copyright date is a good clue to how disability will be portrayed in very early Caldecott medal winners like Animals of the Bible (1937). This first Caldecott medal winner uses quotations from the King James Bible, including the passage, “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart and the tongue of the dumb sing,” which connects the “lame” and the “dumb” to the “oppressed” and “afflicted.” These passages from Isaiah have troubled biblical scholars and disability activists alike. Do they imply that disability is a fallen state and that people with disabilities must be redeemed? Reviewing a book from 1937, which quotes a scriptural text nearly 3,000 years old, points out the dilemma of reviewing an older work and judging it by today’s sociopolitical standards.
While copyright dates do not guarantee that disability representations will be negative or positive, they do help us place the text within a social context. The publication date may also become part of a discussion with some students, as parents or teachers attempt to put the book in context.
We found few representations of disability in this famous collection of picture books. Representations were limited in variety, with physical and sensory impairments most commonly portrayed. Portrayals were also limited in depth, rarely giving insight into the lives of people with disabilities, instead tending to reinforce stereotypes or use disability as a literary device. Within these award-winning books, inclusion of disability—and even the obvious exclusion of it—is generally compatible with the argument of ableism. In place of broadening understanding about disability, most of the few Caldecott winners that portray disability do so in ways that distort perceptions and help maintain societal biases.
These popular books have a good deal to offer young readers, but they are not perfect. As when encountering sexism or racism in children’s literature, we recommend that adults consider the subtle and not so subtle textual messages contained within any children’s book. We call upon parents, caregivers, and teachers to provide a lens through which the children process the images and stories; mediation by an adult can make all the difference. Only by critically engaging children in reading the world within the text and illustrations can we hope to create a more equitable society for people with disabilities. Failure to do so is getting in the way of changing our ableist society.
Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline’s Rescue. New York: Viking Press, 1953.
Brown, Marcia. Shadow. New York: Scribner, 1982.
Hyman, Trina. Saint George and the Dragon: A Golden Legend . New York:Little, Brown, 1984.
Lathrop, Dorothy. Animals of the Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1937.
Ransome, Arthur. The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.
Petersham, Maud, and Miska Petersham. The Rooster Crows. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Rathmann, Peggy. Officer Buckle and Gloria. New York: Putnam, 1995.
Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York:Scholastic, 2007.
St. George, Judith. So You Want to Be President? New York: Philomel, 2000.
Zelinsky, Paul. Rapunzel. New York: Dutton, 1997.
Hehir, Thomas. “Eliminating Ableism in Education.” Harvard Educational Review 72.1 (2002): 1-32.
Chloë Myers-Hughes, an associate professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore., teaches literacy and diversity classes in the Division of Teacher Education.
Hank Bersani Jr. is a professor in the Division of Special Education at Western Oregon University and teaches graduate classes in special education.