How some books tell stories without words

Tactile books and wordless stories aimed at young people with disabilities are challenging perceptions of what it means to read


When was the last time you were encouraged to fold a page or poke the pictures of a library book?

Ali Khodaee’s Are You A Stork Or A Woodpecker? invites readers to do just that. The book contains only four sentences, but you can reveal the story by folding the pages to transform swirling shapes into animals.

This interactive, inclusive approach to reading is at the core of the IBBY Collection for Young People with Disabilities. A selection of books from the collection are on show at the Toronto Reference Library’s TD Gallery (through January 26), but the full collection is open to the public year round at the North York Central branch. The exhibit You, Me, Us: Outstanding Books For And About Young People With Disabilities fills the gallery with picture books from around the world, but the show is not just for kids. The tactile pages and wordless stories on display push the possibilities of what a book can be.

There are more than 4,000 books in the IBBY collection in over 40 languages as well as other formats such as Braille and sign languages. The exhibit highlights works in translation from languages including Korean, Chinese and Italian, as well as original texts in Spanish, Dutch and Farsi. But regardless of what languages you speak, the show demonstrates how books can communicate without words.

Every two years, Leigh Turina, lead librarian for the IBBY collection at the Toronto Public Library, receives submissions of books for and about children with disabilities from around the world. Even after years of experience as a children’s librarian, Turina still remembers thinking “That’s a book! I can’t believe it,” as she unwrapped a package from Japan.

That book is just one example of the creative formats on display: designer Junko Murayama’s Touch Picture Book With Braille: Mazes By Touch 2 uses raised dots to create mazes that readers can decode with their fingers instead of their eyes. The experience has been recreated on the walls of the gallery, which are printed with the book’s hypnotic maze patterns punctuated by clear plastic circles.

Many of the books are designed to appeal to children with vision loss or developmental disabilities, but they also expand ideas of what it means to read. A book from France retells Little Red Riding Hood using only textured dots. In this wordless version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Warja Lavater and Myriam Colin create an intricate accordion binding that allows a single page to unfold, charting the character’s path through the woods.

For readers who can see, framed illustrations emphasize the role of pictures in telling stories. Colourful prints invite viewers to examine an Italian city from the perspective of a guide dog, puzzle over how dyslexia scrambles the letters in a word or follow a pink-haired teenager to summer camp.

Curators Debora Pearson and Wendy McPhee, along with the TD Gallery staff, ensured the exhibit is accessible by hanging prints at a lower height for children or people using wheelchairs. Each item is accompanied by a description in Braille.

But making books accessible extends beyond inclusive formats and into authorship.

In contemporary publishing, Angelo Muredda, a film critic and educator whose PhD thesis examined the figure of the disabled child in Canadian literature, is excited to see writers with lived experience of disability creating more complete characters with disabilities.

For Muredda, “a willingness to go into the dark gallows humour of being disabled in a world that doesn’t really understand you” is at the core of books from within the disability community. One example from the exhibit is Shane Burcaw’s Not So Different, which combines photos of the author’s everyday life with tongue-in-cheek captions that provide authentic answers to questions kids might have about having a disability: “How does your chair work?” or “How do you play with your friends?”

Although You, Me, Us celebrates stunning books for and about children with disabilities, the next step is for readers and writers to explore the experiences of disabled characters without categorizing them based on difference.

Murreda recognizes the educational value of picture books but looks forward to more interesting literary characters.

“I want a little bit of both where we can have texts that are educational but we can have the option of making texts that have rich, disabled characters who aren’t trying to teach any lessons.”

@emilyamacrae

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