Social Media + Disability + Picture Books = Friendship! | Interview

Two authors, who met via social media in 2017 and have been friends since, both published books centering children who happen to be disabled. Here they are in conversation about the need to call disability what it is, and to allow those with disabilities to have the same story lines as everyone else. 

Adam Pottle and Dorothy Ellen Palmer connected via social media in 2017 and have been friends ever since. This spring, they each published a picture book spotlighting disability. With a look back to Disability Awareness Month (March) and a look ahead to National Social Media Day (June 30), this seemed the right time to find these two in conversation.

Born Deaf and raised in a hearing family, Pottle explores sign language via Butterfly on the Wind (Roaring Brook), illustrated by Ziyue Chen. In the story, the child creates a butterfly through sign language and sends it on a journey around the world.

Palmer, a scooter-user, wrote The Scooter Twins (Groundwood), illustrated by Maria Sweeney, which follows twins who get their very own mobility scooters for the first time.

SLJ: First, can you both briefly outline your paths to publication?

Adam Pottle

photo credit: Jae Kim

Adam Pottle: Bit of a story here: I’d published a children’s book in 2020, but I disowned it for reasons that have since become well publicized. My publisher at the time made a lot of questionable moves, and, as a result, I felt like I’d been robbed of my own story. I encouraged people not to buy the book, and because it was an unusual thing for an author to say, I ended up being interviewed by so many different publications, including the The Times in London. Amidst all the clamor and backlash, I wrote another children’s story as a means of reaffirmation.

Connie Hsu, the editor at Roaring Brook, which was a different publisher from the one before, reached out to me out of the blue and asked if I’d had any other children’s books cooking, and the story I’d recently written was Butterfly on the Wind. I sent it to her, and, four years later, here we are.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer: As a former teacher with very fond memories of reading to my own two children, I have always wanted to write a picture book. I also identify with Adam in how he sees his book as reaffirmation. When Deborah Dundas published a survey on diversity in children’s books in the Toronto Star revealing that despite the fact that disabled people are 27 percent of the population, disabled children were only 2 percent of characters in children’s books, I vowed to write one to help correct that underrepresentation. The Festival of Literary Diversity offered me a session with Karen Li of Groundwood Press, and The Scooter Twins was born.

SLJ: How did you two find each other? We talk about the downsides of social media but perhaps you can speak to the positives?

AP: Like many disabled people, we rely on social media as a means of building and maintaining community. If I remember correctly, we connected via Twitter in 2017 when Word on the Street [a book festival] in Saskatoon dropped me from their roster after I asked them to make my panel session accessible. Dorothy and I share a mission in making literary events accessible, and the work continues.

DEP: Adam and I were some of the first openly disabled and proud writers in Can Lit [the Canadian literature community] to both create work including disability and raise issues of accessibility in the arts. As he says, social media is an absolutely vital tool for the international disabled community to connect, share, and learn from each other. It has helped me find disabled friends and allies like Adam, and done the all-important job of helping me to realize I’m not alone. I belong to a vital and thriving disabled community.

SLJ: James Catchpole, whose children's books are about a boy, Joe, who has one leg, wants the questions to disappear. He doesn’t to be asked, "What happened to you?" but instead "What are we going to play next?" And he doesn't want to be told "You're so amazing," because that's condescending. Talking "around" disability doesn't work. Is there a way to facilitate allyship?

Dorothy Ellen Parker

AP: It’s difficult to tell who your allies are, especially since most people believe the pandemic is over. When it comes to health or infrastructural or economic crises, disabled people are among the first to sound the alarm, and the last to be saved. People have by and large stopped masking, so the bare minimum of allyship with disabled and immunocompromised and chronically ill people is not being met.

The vocabulary people use also reveals the lack of solidarity: ableist language is virulent.

Just living day-to-day is enough for disabled people without having to take on the extra work of educating people. The resources are out there. Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Disability Visibility by Alice Wong. The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Wang. Disfigured by Amanda Leduc. Care collectives, nonprofits. Buying our books is great, but learning from them and taking their messages to heart is even better.

DEP: To riff on my hero, the fiery and funny disability activist Stella Young, "No amount of positive thinking is going to grow Joe another leg." In other words, the material reality of disability, both in our bodies and in the world, means that you're so right—we must never "talk around" disability. We must talk about it openly, explore all its barriers and joys. Historically, abled people have controlled the narrative about disability in books for all ages. To reclaim our own stories, to share disabled stories authentically with children, we first need to choose the language we all use. The disability community embraces the word 'disabled' with disability pride. We see euphemisms created for us by abled people as everything from diversions, reframing, and/or slurs. Phrases like 'differently abled,' 'handi-capable,' or 'ability challenged,' all erase disability pride, downplay ableism, and frame disability as an individual problem. Disability is a collective experience and ableism is a collective struggle. Our language must never talk around that reality.

As for the second part of your question, I also agree with Adam that it is very hard mid-pandemic to facilitate allyship. There has been a backsliding and open backlash against accessibility. After vowing “never to go back to normal because normal wasn’t working,” much of Canada and Can Lit rushed guilt-free back to events that are doubly inaccessible: physically inaccessible in venues with stairs into buildings and onto stages, and medically inaccessible with no masking policies. Many disabled activists feel like we are shouting into an uncaring void, that the eugenics of pretending COVID is over and expanding MAiD [Medical Assistance in Dying] are winning. That is why it is even more important to support and share the work of disabled writers with audiences of all ages. We absolutely appreciate the critical allyship role that librarians play in sharing the diversities of disability with children.

SLJ: What are the questions you both wish were asked about representation in books for young readers—from picture books to YA? Or, if you prefer, what do you want to see?

AP: I’d like to talk about disabled kids behaving badly. In books, disabled kids aren’t allowed to just be kids—they have to be little angels, because nondisabled people want us to be simple, and because disabled people want us to set good examples. But I want books about disabled kids setting off firecrackers or throwing rocks through windows or putting spiders in the ketchup bottle. I love talking about craft, about the art of putting a story together. I also like discussing Easter eggs. Butterfly is full of little nuggets.

DEP: Representation in all books, including kids' books, is too often framed as a binary: that the book is either an “issue book” all about the disability, or one where disability is “incidental” and the emphasis is on how “normal” the character really is. Instead, I’d like to see the full continuum between these binaries represented, because that is accurate representation. We all need books that show the issues and how we struggle with them, and books that show the joys and fun and friendships of disabled life that battle the stereotypes that our lives are sad, lonely, and dismal. This is why the twins in The Scooter Twins are so different, offering different reactions to choosing and riding and living with their scooters. Disabled experience is an emotionally and intellectually diverse experience and I’d love to see more books that explore that diversity.

SLJ: What are you both working on now?

AP: I have a few things cooking, but I’d like to keep them under wraps for now. I like surprising people.

DEP: I’m currently working on two sequels to The Scooter Twins. I’d love to age them into chapter books. We’ll see.

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