The Emma Press

Image of Jean Little holding a book and smiling into the camera.

The Singing Words: On Jean Little and Belonging

About two years ago, I set about finding disabled poets who were writing for younger audiences. I contacted over six hundred specialist libraries, authors, illustrators and children’s laureates from over a dozen countries. The answer was unanimous: no, we don’t know of any authors, but there should be some.

While I didn’t find the trove of poets that I’d hoped to find, I did find a long history of the voices of disabled kids themselves, asking where they were in literature. I found nine year old Celine, who punched the air every time she saw disabled kids in books and said ‘yes, we’re in there!’[1] I found Becky, who Jacqueline Wilson remembered took ‘me to task about the way about the way I don’t have enough children with disabilities in my books, and when I do try, I don’t actually get it spot on.’[2]

I found a classroom in the early 1960s, in the Rotary Crippled Children’s centre in Toronto. I found a teacher reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1958 novel, Warrior Scarlet. (Sutcliff was a pioneer, and her disabled characters are alas too numerous to list here). The book is set in the Bronze Age, and follows a boy named Drem, who only has the use of one arm. I found six year old Paddy, who sat up straight, eyes wide after hearing Sutcliff’s description of Drem’s arm read aloud. I found Brian, who began to feel his own hand, ‘checking to see if it felt like Drem’s.’[3] I found the teacher who wrote of the class, ‘My kids had far more in common with him than they did with Mary Poppins.’[4]

The teacher’s name was Jean Little. Little had been born blind in Taiwan, in 1932. When she was seven, Little’s family moved to Canada, to the small town of Guelph, where she lived for the rest of her long life. ‘As a child,’ she said, ‘I always went around with a black smudge on my nose from the ink, from holding the book so close.’ She never forgot that in the books she loved to read, ‘There were cross-eyed clowns, and once in a while cross-eyed villains, but never ever was there a heroine with strabismus. I did not brood over this fact, but I did notice it.’[5] Little began to search for books to read to the children she taught. She found several books that featured disabled children ‘who completely recovered before the book ended.’[6] In a 2016 lecture, Little recalled that ‘The kids I taught, they were very sceptical about the books, because in The Secret Garden, Colin can’t walk and then all of a sudden he’s running races. In Heidi Clara can’t walk and all of a sudden she’s running races. And they said, ‘Ms. Little, they didn’t even have any therapy.’[7] Little began to wonder, ‘Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me.’[8]

Little dedicated the rest of her life to giving disabled kids happy endings in stories. Little focused on writing good stories, ‘not a prescription to solve a child’s problem.’[9] By the time she died in 2020 aged 88, she’d written over fifty novels and picture books, three collections of poetry and two volumes of memoirs. In the novels she encountered, disabled kids were ‘often saintly’[10]. Little wanted her characters ‘to be real. To me that meant they’re telling lies, being mean, stealing sometimes, and being fallible, like me and my readers.’[11] Even today, the trope of disabled kids being angelic persists. Over forty years after the appearance of Little’s first novel, a teenager said in a Book Trust report that ‘Disability is too frowned upon, people forget that we are people too. They also think that we are all innocent, which is just so wrong.’[12]

Little first novel, 1962’s Mine for Keeps, tells the story of Sally Copeland, a girl with cerebral palsy as she moves to a new school. Reflecting on her first novel in her later years, Little remembered that ‘Mine for Keeps ends with Sally standing with her crutches, and filled with joy.’ To this day, a novel that ends with joy and no miracle cure is a marvel. When the book came to be translated into Japanese, the title was rendered as ‘goodbye to the crutches.’ Up until 2021, Scholastic, one of Jean Little’s publishers, labelled books featuring disabled as ‘overcoming disabilities.’ (The label has now changed to simply ‘disability’). None of Little’s characters ‘overcome’ their disability. They overcome hostility from peers, they overcome isolation and fear and loneliness, but they don’t ‘overcome’ their disabilities. Little ‘decided someone had to write a realistic book. I wanted kids to find children like themselves in stories they read.’[13] 

Toward the end of Mine for Keeps, Sally sees herself in a mirror. Little writes, ‘Sal was not used to seeing herself in a looking glass. At school she had practised walking in front of one, but the therapist had always been telling her to watch her knees or keep her elbows in. Over the years, Sally had grown to look at herself a piece at a time. She had come to have a vague picture of herself, a girl all elbows and knees and crutches, with a face and clothes too ordinary to notice much.’ When a disabled child looks into your story, your pages, your words and your illustrations, will they see themselves? Will they see just pieces of themselves at a time as Sally does, or will they encounter a full picture? Or will they see nothing at all, or worse yet, a distortion of themselves?

In my signed second hand copy of Little’s 1995 novel His Banner Over Me, Little signed her name followed by a large smiley face that would often accompany her signatures. Below the title, she has written ‘fly that banner!’ If we fly our banners a child may see themselves, perhaps for the first time, as they stumble around the World Book Day fair thumbing their book token. An adult may find themselves or someone they know and love deeply on one of the display tables at Waterstones, or among the few racks of bestsellers at Tesco. Little remembered that on a rainy afternoon at nineteen years old, ‘I discovered a perfect book.’[14] The book was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Armourer’s House.  She didn’t want to put the book down and ‘let its magic end.’ Little loved Sutcliff’s historical settings, characters and plot, but most of all ‘the words themselves sang.’ Little read Sutcliff’s work for the rest of her life. If we fly our banners, our stories, our illustrations, and our words may be the ones that adults and children alike hold close. A reader might find what Little once called ‘the belonging place’ in our stories. A reader – young or old, or both – might find themselves singing in your words.

[1] In the Picture, Celine’s Story

[2] In the Picture, ‘Picture This!’ Jacqueline Wilson Speech

[3] Jean Little, Stars Come Out Within (Viking: 1990), P.12

[4] Little, Stars Come Out Within, P.11

[5] Little, 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture

[6] Little, Little by Little, (Viking Kestrel: 1987), P.224

[7] Little, 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture

[8] Little, Little by Little, P.225

[9] Little, 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] The Quentin Blake Award Project Report: Making Exclusion a Thing of the Past, P.12

[13] Little, 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture

[14] Little, ‘A Long Distance Friendship’ Canadian Children’s Literature, Vol. 34, 1984, P.23

Karl Knights was born in 1996 in Suffolk where he still lives. He describes himself as an ‘autistic writer with ADHD and Cerebral Palsy’, and has written for The Guardian and several journals. He has volunteered for mental health charities and appeared on BBC News in July 2021 discussing the impact of COVID on disabled people who were shielding. Karl's debut pamphlet Kin, won the New Poets' Prize in 2021. Karl has a big following on Twitter where he posts frequently about disability and about poetry –
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