Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
Reviewed by Gesine Wegner, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: children’s literature; picture books; matters of representation; accessibility; education
It’s not easy to find a good children’s book that reflects the various ways people experience disability daily. “What makes a good children’s book?” you may rightly ask. In recent years, there has been much debate surrounding this question among scholars, teachers, librarians, parents, and, not to forget, children. From more general demands to diversify the characters and storylines of children’s and young adult literature (Garcia 2013; see also We Need Diverse Books™) to questions of authorship that have, for instance, been prominently addressed by the #ownvoices movement (see Duyvis): While there exist no clear standards by which to evaluate children’s literature, there is undoubtedly a need to consider the inequalities that shape the production of children’s books and are consequently reproduced by them. As a literary studies scholar, I remain reluctant to call a book “good” or “excellent” as these words seem relatively empty in the context of careful scholarship. However, as someone who has long been interested in the depiction of disability in Anglo-American children’s and young adult literature, I am enthusiastic about the 2021 publication of We Move Together by Kelly Fritsch and Anne McGuire for several reasons.
For one, there is the basic setup of the book, which is both simple and innovative. We Move Together counts 42 pages, of which 36 feature the storyworld/diegesis. In the beginning, readers are introduced to eight children (and a cat) who quite literally move across the pages and thereby discover many everyday places: from a park to a bus stop, from an ice cream parlor to a supermarket, etc. The children are shown to move in many ways and at different paces; some walk, others use a scooter, a wheelchair, a bicycle, or crutches. The children portrayed appear to be happy members of a larger community, making We Move Together quite unique among contemporary picture books. As scholars have noted, while negotiations of disability in children’s books have seen a notable increase in the 21st century, disabled children continue to be underrepresented and are frequently shown as isolated cases (Adomat 2014; Rana 2017). One of the many strengths of We Move Together is that it centers disability while considering a broad range of experiences. While disabled characters in children’s literature are predominantly white or white-washed (Cummins 2016; for an example of whitewashing, see e.g., Jun 2018), this publication takes intersectional concerns seriously and includes disabled children of color as naturally as it depicts same-sex parents. The book skillfully uses a vast set of main and secondary characters to reflect the diversity of people living in Canada without, and this seems important, creating a false image of “diversity” as inherent in one character or group. As the title suggests, the characters are moving together, yet they also wait, wonder, build, and solve problems together.
Throughout their journey, some places are shown to be transformed by the children’s movement. In one particularly memorable double spread, the characters are shown in front of a beige brick wall which, on the right hand page, turns into a circus tent full of stars and colorful costumes, also transforming the kids’ mobility devices in an artistic fashion. The basic message, it seems, is that the world becomes more colorful and exciting if we all move together. Firmly anchored in this idea, the book does not shy away though, to address the various barriers that keep people from simply enjoying life together. At the ice cream parlor, two of the guiding characters are visibly troubled because a woman cannot enter the inaccessible store with her wheelchair. What follows is a call to creative action that includes many characters and various forms of communication. At the end of the book, all of this is carefully framed by a section titled “Ideas and Illustrations: A Closer Look” that provides readers with an age-appropriate introduction to the language of disability culture and activism. Doing so, the book takes not only children but also their parents and other adult readers by the hand while also taking them seriously as (potential) members and allies of the disability community. Indeed, unlike many other books, We Move Together does not only include a diverse set of disabled characters, but also targets a diverse readership. Next to free text descriptions of all illustrations that are included in the book, the book’s website also advertises an accessible e-book version, recorded readings with captions, ASL interpretation, and audio descriptions that are soon to be published (Fritsch and McGuire).
Thoughtfully laid out, We Move Together shows the possibilities that are unleashed when disability experiences, scholarship, activism, and art merge into one. As devoted readers of DSQ may have noticed, the book’s creators are well-known in disability studies. Author of the award-winning book War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence, Anne McGuire has previously collaborated with fellow Canadian disability studies scholar Kelly Fritsch on a special issue of Feminist Formations titled “Queer/Crip Contagions.” Considering their professional background as educators, it is perhaps only little surprising that We Move Together comes with a well-structured Learning Guide and other additional material that can be freely accessed on the book’s official website (Fritsch / McGuire / Trejos 2021). Like the print book, the website features illustrations of multi-disciplinary artist Eduardo Trejos, whose captivating use of colors and eye for detail are central to making We Move Together such an enjoyable read. The website and book offer several fun activities for children, for instance, by including the names and images of prominent figures of disability arts and culture who can be found throughout the book. By combining aesthetic pleasure, entertainment, and education, the book meets a demand that Vivian Yenika-Agbaw already formulated back in the 1990s. In her postcolonial reading of children’s literature, she argued that to truly bring about change in “a world besieged by social injustices […] [e]fferent and aesthetic readings must be reinforced with readings that propagate social change” (447). With their book and accompanying website, Fritsch, McGuire, and Trejos provide readers with the tools to read both for pleasure and social change.
We Move Together is, as Lydia X. Z. Brown has aptly remarked, “a love letter to the next generation of disabled kids, and a provocation for their nondisabled peers to rethink an ableist society’s assumptions” (qtd. in Fritsch / McGuire / Trejos 2021). For anyone looking for a more diverse representation of disability in children’s literature, We Move Together is an example of crip futurity at its best.
Adomat, Donna Sayers. “Exploring Issues of Disability in Children’s Literature Discussions” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 2014. https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3865/3644.
Cummins, June. “The Still Almost All-White World of Children’s Literature: Theory, Practice, and Identity-Based Children’s Book Awards” Prizing Children’s Literature. The Cultural Politics of Children’s Book Awards, edited By Kenneth Kidd and Joseph Thomas Jr. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Duyvis, Corinne. “#OwnVoices” Corrine Duyvis. Website, https://www.corinneduyvis.net/ownvoices/. Accessed 15 Sep. 2021.
Fritsch, Kelly and McGuire, Anne (ed.). Special issue “Queer/Crip Contagions,” Feminist Formations, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018.
—. We Move Together. Website, 2021, https://wemovetogether.ca/. Accessed 15 Sep. 2021.
Garcia, Antero. Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature. Challenging Genres. Sense, 2013.
Jun, Nie. My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder. Trans. by Edward Gauvin. Graphic Universe, 2018.
McGuire, Anne. War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2016.
Rana, Marion. “Disability in Children’s Literature. Tropes, Trends, and Themes.” Interjuli. Internationale Kinder- und Jugendliteraturforschung, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 26-45. https://www.zora.uzh.ch/id/eprint/75903/1/interjuli_17_01.compressed.pdf
We Need Diverse Books™. WNDB, https://diversebooks.org/. Accessed 15 Sep. 2021.
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.
Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.