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Karthika Gopalakrishnan was at the Children First session at Vidya Sagar, Chennai, and kindly wrote this summary for us. Karthika is a reader, writer and seller of books for children at the Book Lovers’ Programme for Schools and iloveread.in.

When Zai Whitaker began to think of an idea for a book featuring a child with a disability, she realised that she didn’t want the child to be a character who was extraordinarily gifted or special.

“What will happen to the other children who don’t have a special talent but do live with a disability?” she added, pointing out that she didn’t want to repeat the “Taare Zameen Par phenomenon.”

Her book, Kali and the Rat Snake, is about a boy from the Irula tribe (a tribe of snake-catchers) who is discriminated against but comes to his classmates’ rescue when a snake enters their classroom. “The boy on whom I had based the character is 30 years old today. When he heard this story, the real-life Kali said, ‘What about all the other Irula boys who can’t catch snakes?’”

Zai mentioned this when she shared the stage with Zainab Sulaiman, Sujatha Padmanabhan, and publisher Shobha Viswanath—who have all written and produced books featuring children with disabilities—at Children First, a panel discussion organised by Vidya Sagar on November 5. Special education consultant Namita Jacob was also a member of the panel while Anushka Ravishankar, writer and co-founder of Duckbill Books, moderated the discussion.

The panelists agreed that stories featuring children with disabilities do not have to be stories of big heroes or achievers. They need to be stories woven around characters whom children anywhere can relate to.

Zai’s most recent book, Kanna Panna, is about a boy (Kanna) with a disability who realises his self-worth as the story progresses. He finds himself in a situation where his disability gives him an edge over the others in his family. Kanna uses it to help them out of a tight spot. Zai said she took some time and a few drafts to create a setting where it would be natural for Kanna to use his ability.

Namita, who is the founder of Chetana Charitable Trust, an organisation that works to create accessible play and reading materials for children with disabilities, noted that some books are easy to convert and make accessible to children with visual or multiple disabilities and some aren’t.

She took the audience through one of her favourite children’s books, Press Here by Herve Tullet, that “was a pleasure” to work with. “Once you start, you cannot stop interacting with the book,” she said, as co-panelist Shobha Viswanath excitedly flipped through the pages, holding the book up for the audience to see. However, Namita found that it was almost impossible to convert this book into a form that would be accessible to the blind and deaf-blind. Whereas a book on bugs that was all about texture easily lent itself to such a conversion.

Sujatha Padmanabhan’s first book, Chuskit Goes to School, originated from a trip to a village in Ladakh. She came upon the story of a girl in a wheelchair, who was able to make the trip to school because the villagers built a bridge that allowed her to get there.

Her more recent book, Bumboo… The Donkey Who Would Not Budge, came from a trek to the mountains as well. She was part of a group travelling to a remote village with a donkey loaded with their supplies. “However, we had to stop as our guide told us that we wouldn’t be able to move after sunset. The donkey had night-blindness and would not take a step forward after dusk,” Sujatha said.

Little Vinayak by Shobha Viswanath also revolves around an animal with a disability. Vinayak, the elephant, has a trunk so long that he trips and falls whenever he walks. However, he meets a friend who offers an unusual solution to his peculiar problem. Interestingly, in both books—Bumboo and Vinayak—the panelists noted that disability was seen as a solvable problem instead of as a liability for life.

In this context, Shobha touched on the idea that using animals [in a story] can help start a conversation about disability without distressing the reader. However, this would probably need to be explained by an adult as a child reader might not make the connection by herself.

When writing about children with disabilities, the writers unanimously agreed that it’s very, very important that children with disabilities be treated as children first.

Zainab, whose book Simply Nanju, is based on the years she spent working as a special educator, said she had to work really hard to get that balance right: the disabilities of the children could not be ignored, but she wanted to treat them a matter-of-fact way.

“They [the children at her school] were as naughty, fun-loving, wonderful, manipulative, and thoughtful as any other child. I just gave the story a plot,” she remarked.

The writers shared their thoughts in the context of a fiction writing contest for authors interested in writing stories featuring children with disabilities. The contest, announced by Duckbill Books and supported by Parag—an initiative of Tata Trust, invites manuscripts for picture books, illustrated books, and chapter books.

As Duckbill hasn’t published picture books so far, a member of the audience asked what would happen if such a book was chosen for publication. Anushka said that they would publish a picture book if they liked it enough.

The contest was declared open on November 5. The deadline for submitting applications is until midnight on December 10.

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