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Designing for (Dis)Ability: Children's Books and Blind Readers

August 23, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

From the Three Blind Mice to Mary Ingalls Wilder, blindness remains a rare -- albeit important topic in children’s literature. In the past, many literary representations presented blindness (and disability overall) as a tragedy or even as a public burden. Fortunately, readers can recognize some progress. According to scholar Donna Sayers Adomat, “In the past ten years, literature for children and youth depicts increasingly positive attitudes towards people with disabilities.” Fortunately, in many newer titles, authors feature blind children in school, with friends, and living fulfilled lives. However, most of these children’s books about blind characters are not designed for a blind reader.

I do not write about disability and the publishing industry without precedent. In Dust, Carolyn Steedman describes how bookbinders and papermakers experienced respiratory illnesses in the early ages of the European printing press. The dust from the paper manufacturing process clogged their lungs, a tangible example of how literacy and disability have been materially connected for generations. With children’s books, the bright colors and flat pages are not, in and of themselves, ableist. After all, many children learn best with visual stimulation. According to Maria Popova, “bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young” because young children “tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image.” Nonetheless, this visual communication evokes harm when children’s books use traditional illustrations to portray blind characters. In producing blind characters for abled readers, authors ostracize blind children who might otherwise find a valuable sense of community in the book.

Children’s literature relies on sight: bright colors, flat pages, full-page illustrations. Most children’s books featuring blind characters do not articulate self-awareness about their design. One book, Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon, positions itself as reflective analysis of blindness and literacy. Lucy tries to decide how she should paint a picture for her grandfather. Lucy isn’t convinced by the red, yellow, and blue paints: “they’re not right.” When Lucy asks if she can “stick things on” the page with glue, her teacher says, “You’ll have to move to a different table. There’s not enough room here.” She moves to an empty table in the corner of the room. Lucy closes her eyes and thrusts elbow-deep into a box of fabric and paper scraps, feeling with her eyes closed. Slowly and thoughtfully, Lucy collages materials into a landscape. Lucy spends her recess collecting sand and twigs for her picture. Finally, Lucy cuts her own hair to replicate the fur of her grandfather’s dog. At the end of the story, the reader finds out that the grandfather is blind and his golden retriever a seeing eye dog. “It’s the best picture I have ever seen,” says her grandfather.

Lucy’s Picture breaks ground by critiquing flat pictures and showing how blind readers can “see” texts in tactile ways. The text demonstrates an awareness of the pitfalls of flat images. This analysis provides a valuable springboard from which we can discuss book production and inclusive literacy. However, Lucy’s Picture centers the abled reader. Lucy’s Picture is produced for the Lucys of the world rather than the grandpas, so to speak. Lucy makes “the most beautiful picture” that her grandfather can “see” through the touch and feel components. Nonetheless, the book itself does not make the same multimodal accommodations that Lucy provides her grandfather. Lucy refuses to use red and blue paint because she understands that her grandfather cannot see these colors; they are “not right.” Ironically (and perhaps hypocritically), a reader’s first impression of this book is the bright color splashed across the cover. The children’s book continues to use these bright colors on every page. Lucy uses multimedia elements so her grandfather can touch and “see” her art, but Lucy’s Picture does not make this same use of media elements.

What does it mean to promote a new model of readership, of accomodation in publishing praxis? First, publishers and abled authors must work alongside disabled people to create multisensory alternatives. Menena Cottin’s The Black Book of Colors serves as an example. The text features Braille translations and full spreads of raised images, tangible pictures of leaves and flowers. Like in a colorful children’s book, these full illustrated pages engage the child and set the pace of reading. However, this book foregoes all color. Flowers and grasshoppers come to life under a reader’s fingertips. Even for seeing readers, these raised images are hard to spot with the naked eye. Seeing readers and blind readers alike find more meaning when their hands study the page. By avoiding bright colors, The Black Book of Colors promotes a similar reading experience among blind and seeing readers; children have a moment of kinship when they share this text. Chamari Edirisinhe, Norhidayati Podari, and Adrian David Cheok created a book prototype similar to The Black Book of Colors. In this multisensory experience, each page has English and Braille translations. Certain black pages are adorned with tactile materials, accompanied by sound, and even highlighted with scent. These sensory cues and reader questions all invite young readers to critically engage in the text. On one spread, a reader will touch a tuft of black fur. The text reads, “Alice’s friend is a playful cat. Did you enjoy it?” A book designed for a blind child may look very different than a mainstream picture book. This book rolls out flat like a scroll, the child moving across the room as they touch and read each page. Such a text demonstrates the ways in which abled bias permeate our reading experience, from character stereotyping, illustrations, audience, and even the codex form. Additionally, we can look at pop-up books, touch-and-feel books, and toy or moveable books to provide inspiration for ways in which we can design entertaining books for blind children.

While the history of disability representation has changed for the positive over time, educators, authors, and publishers alike can adopt a better design model for all young readers. By working alongside disabled creators, we can create new texts specifically for -- not just about -- disabled children.

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Second Grade Haiku

August 2, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

With the new school year just around the corner, I thought it might be fun to offer up a poetry lesson for elementary school. I find this lesson on haiku fits well into the second grade curriculum with a focus on syllable count. I like to include games and art as a way to make syllables a little bit more fun and interesting for the young student. Below are the notes behind my lesson plan which I hope will be useful to those teachers interested in incorporating poetry and art. (Also, I have used it with high school students in the past and had excellent results! Haikus are timeless, easy to introduce and fun!)

Part One: What is a haiku?

First, I describe the characteristics of a haiku. It will be important that they remember three key elements: syllable count, line structure, and that it conveys an image.

Typically it is a poem with three lines. The first line has 5 syllables. The second line contains 7 syllables. And the final line has 5 syllables again. This pattern mimics the way that we speak. Also, three lines is short enough to remember, but long enough to paint a picture. While syllable count is important, it is not very strict. Sometimes, a haiku will have 3-5-3 or 5-3-5. Also, a haiku often describes a thing, paints a picture, or gives a concrete description of something. It may convey a single idea, like a bird in flight, or a baseball player at bat.

Part Two: Is it, or is it not, a haiku?

This game is meant to open up the idea that poets are often playful. As often as they adhere to strict rules, they break the rules and that can be fun too. For the game, I show five to eight haiku examples. The first haiku follows all of the rules. In my game, I increasingly move into abstract examples and often end with a favorite haiku of mine by Cor van den Huevel which consists of one word: “tundra.” Kids should try to count the syllables to see how closely each poem follows the rules. They can discuss and argue about syllable count and make a decision as to whether or not the poem is a haiku. At the end of each poem, I have the kids vote Yea or Nay.

Part Three: Imagery and art

Because the next phase of this project incorporates materials, I preface the art project with the idea that words are materials. I explain something like:

I like to think of words as a kind of material. Words build important things. Each sentence weaves a tapestry, paints a picture and cements a wall. We physically create communication. Sentences are the buildings that structure ourselves and the information that we want to communicate. All materials work this way. All materials convey meaning. They give information. They communicate. They have strengths and weaknesses.

Depending on time, have the students brainstorm: construct sentences, write down ideas, use venn diagrams, etc. If you do not have time for it, skip on to the project!

Part Four: Art and Poetry project

Materials: cloth (felt, silk, burlap, patterns with animals or sports, etc), cardboard backing, cardstock, string, glue, scissors, markers. Use anything that gives a tactile experience but can also be glued. I often add tinfoil, wax paper, shredded paper, wood chips, pipe cleaners, etc.

Procedure: I allow the kids to choose to start with either the art project or the poem.

For the art project: have them use the cardboard as a background which will hold their designs. They can glue the fabrics on in any shape or design that they want. I love three dimensional projects, or one which uses movement such as flapping fabric. By using the strings, they can make it into a purse, a rocket, a tapestry, etc. Or they can simply create a one-dimensional scene such as a garden or pattern.

For the poem: After finalizing the a rough draft, find space on the art project to write or attach the poem. This can be done by writing it directly onto the cardboard, or by hanging it from a string. At the end of the lesson, the students will have created a piece of art that speaks to or reflects their poem. The poem should resemble a haiku, ensuring that they are also practicing syllable counts.

Total lesson time is about 1-1.5 hours.

I am a huge advocate of incorporating art into the classroom. This project can be done with minimal supplies and fits into any time of the year. If you use this lesson plan, please let me know how it goes! Enjoy the new school year!

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The Form of Sound

July 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Forms have recognizable shapes. Typically we speak of visible forms, such as the difference between smoke and a cloud. These two share commonalities, but also have some very recognizable differences. Sound also has a shape of its own, though it is rarer to discuss forms of sound than visual forms. Musicians, however, are tasked with the goal of modeling sounds which create recognizable forms for the listener. I love to listen to film scores in order to gauge the shape of a movie. These scores give hints about the emotional content of the film. More than that, however, they often shape the film for the viewer – as if able to encapsulate roughly two hours of content into a single melody. In order to better understand how this is possible, I will focus on the way that musicians have demonstrated the form of water.

By identifying some of the key features used to imitate water I realize that I am ignoring the fact that sound can represent many things simultaneously. I do this only because I wish to trace a single thread, namely, the way that sound literally shapes an idea. Furthermore, the shaping of an idea (such as water) carries emotional connections which music ably conveys. While I focus on contemporary music due to time and space limitations, I do also understand the very healthy and necessary historical understanding of why and how sound evolved. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to look into the more historical elements of sound for cinema, the form of sounds, and emotional response to sound. Finally, I just want to note that the many links embedded in this post may appear tedious, but the soundbites are worth the time if you are at all interested in my argument, sound, and/or film scores.

First we must ask about water’s essential characteristics. Water is often moving, it is liquid, elemental, often depicted as blue, though we also know that water can be dark, muddy, green or sparkling. We sometimes describe water as: tinkling, running, falling, rushing, rough, swollen, winding, flowing, gushing, gurgling, brackish, fluid, murky, etc. In order to visualize water, we think in terms of waves and crests, rivulets, riverbends, droplets. Water can also be calm, choppy, ferocious, salty or fresh. Different types of animals live in freshwater versus saltwater. This abbreviated list alone demonstrates how water can be many things. If it assumes so many forms, how is it possible to know - and represent - its form?

And yet, water does have an essence. The following movies focus on water’s force in one way or another, as is reflected in their soundtrack. I made a few notes about the musical elements that caught my attention, but it is interesting to listen to these songs back to back in order to hear a possible version of the shape of water.

1] James Horner’s “Hymn to the Sea” from Titanic

It begins with a peaceful, calming human-like voice. The bagpipes indicate the tradition of a funeral hymn. Why is it titled Hymn to the Sea? Was the Titanic a sort of offering? Does this hymn personify the sea? Is the voice meant to be human or sea or ship? Is it meant to be female? The bagpipes incorporate the melody, and then many voices sing out in chorus. There are no words. This is a burial at the hands of the sea.

2] Alan Silvestri’s “Main Title” to The Abyss

It also begins with siren-like voices similar to the beginning of Horner’s “Hymn.” The voices gain force crashing into drums. What do the drums represent? Horns end this main title, accumulating into a clash of elements. It feels unsettled and gives the impression of the heartbeat. How does the music move from one element to another? How does this one incorporate ideas of water? Is water tied to fear?

3] Roque Banos’s “A Thousand Leagues Out” from In the Heart of the Sea

Intense from the beginning, a little percussion underscores the intensity and action. Ideas of size, perhaps of the whale, are implied. The music moves through all sorts of depths very rapidly, demonstrating change of water, emotions, situations. The music is meant to convey the spirit of depth, the unknown, mystery, fear and perhaps power, moving in and out like waves.

4] Johann Johannson’s “Into the Wide and Deep Unknown” from The Mercy

Piano music over a driving beat demonstrates both action and emotion. Then higher notes tinkle across the top, much like in Finding Dory, which implies a bit of love, hope, light, or whimsy. It ends with the lower notes on the piano and a sense of foreboding.

5] Thomas Newman’s “Main Title” to Finding Dory

Often watery sounds are expressed by the higher notes on the piano and/or keyboard, as heard here. The tinkling piano sounds seem to imitate the way that sunlight reflects off of water. The music also includes a structure that may refer to a whale song, or the sound of things that live in deep water.

6] Mark Isham’s “Haunted by Waters” from A River Runs Through It

Strings underscore a back and forth movement. Does the sound move over these strings in the way that water runs over rocks? It is as if the strings carry us, willingly, across the terrain. Does the fly fisherman’s hand and string move in a way that resembles water, and if so, are the sounds of water literally connected to the fisherman? The haunting of this song feels much less dangerous or fearsome than with some of the others, perhaps that is an essential difference between deep ocean water and rivers. The track title mentions haunted, but perhaps it is a necessary or beneficial haunting, as in the way that rivers define human lives.

7] Alexandre Desplat’s “Main Score” from The Shape of Water

An electronic human-like voice washes in and out of the melody. It comes and goes, not quite an eerie sound, but not fully human either. Voice and piano move up and down the scale in tandem for a short section of the score.

What is the essence of water? Does this list help to understand the way that humans see (or hear) water?


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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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