The spy who can't run away

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan taps into a project to inspire stories with disabled characters

The story starts with a spy. Charlie asks for, "A good spy and a bad one."

John wants, "A spy in a wheelchair pretending to be disabled, and there's a person who really is in a wheelchair and it's a girl and she's got a boyfriend and he turns into a scary monster at night called Rex." More ideas are dropped into the pot: "The spy needs a sidekick"; "The spies want to catch the monster."

There are 11 young writers aged between 10 and 17, all with physical disabilities and varying reading ages, in a workshop at Thomas Wolsey special school in Ipswich. They are writing a story with author Heather Maisner, who has recently helped two groups of primary schools in west London to publish their own story collections. She is skilled at drawing the pupils out and managing the deluge of suggestions: "Romeo and Juliet"; "A bit of a thriller"; "Could we have some fighting?"; "And snogging"; "Could, like, someone die?"

It's established that the heroine is called Jessica, in jeans and a navel ring. The spy is called Jason. They meet "on a desert island after their boat crashes"; "He's going to do his job, but he falls in love with her."

"They have to get off the island and go to Spain to catch the monster".

And, because this is the sort of story the Thomas Wolsey pupils would like to read but usually can't find, both Jessica and Jason are wheelchair users (although Jason has, in fact, adopted his disability as a disguise), but it's no big deal. There's no less snogging, fighting or spying. The wheelchairs are visible in the story, but not the point of it.

The workshop was held last term as part of a consultation project on the portrayal of disability in children's books, set up by the Booktrust charity, funded by pound;12,000 from the Quentin Blake Award (part of the Roald Dahl Foundation).

As well as organising eight writing sessions with authors in special and mainstream schools, Alexandra Strick, the project co-ordinator, has been canvassing views and surveying children about their early awareness of disability in books. She will report in April but, halfway through the workshops, with responses from 30 schools, the messages are clear.

"There are simply not enough characters with any kind of disability in children's books for any age group, and it's very rare that the disability is introduced casually and naturally," she says. "This is what children with disabilities most want to find in books, and the absence of it increases their isolation."

She argues that although some prominent children's books, in which a character's disability is an important theme, might lead to wider public understanding (as in, for example, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Ron Koertge's Stoner and Spaz and Terry Trueman's Stuck in Neutral), they did not necessarily make disabled young people feel more included in society.

"We have talked to some young readers who want to blend into the crowd and others who want the characters with disabilities to be the heroes. While the days of Heidi and The Secret Garden are over, the most obvious absence is examples of some disabled people achieving everyday success: going to university, having good careers, reading books, making decisions, not always being pushed in their wheelchairs."

Back at Thomas Wolsey, when Jessica wakes up in the flat where she lives with her friends Katie and Rachel. "She gets dressed by herself," says Saeeda. "She could take her friends on the boat - that would make it more interesting."

The girls miss breakfast to catch their taxi to the quay (Jared thinks the driver should be a spy too). Once aboard they head for the cafeteria ("for a fried breakfast", says Leon) where Jessica sees Jason sneak a notebook into his pocket before wheeling himself away. "What about Rex? When is Rex coming?" says Daniel.

In the final scene - for today anyway - it's full moon on the island.

Jessica has left her wheelchair on the ship and is able to take a few steps if she holds on to trees. The monster has "huge horrible teeth, a spiky tail and a super-powered gun", but, when he sees Jessica, he runs away.

There's more to come, it's called Jessica's Journey to Happiness with a Twist.

Meanwhile at St George's Church of England school in Gravesend, Kent, a humanities college, teachers are running their own project with Sue Reed of Gravesend public library, sparked by the Booktrust consultation.

Year 9 pupils studied how disability was portrayed in picture books, then produced their own artwork in the style of artists including Nick Sharratt, Anthony Browne, Lauren Child and David McKee.

"I'm now thinking much more acutely about the need for our stock to reflect this," says Ms Reed. "I realise now how little there is available."

St George's assistant head, Andy Southgate, says the work would be used for a My Gravesend project, "which will build up an archive of memories of Gravesend incorporating all kinds of cultural diversity".

Scope has lottery funding for a three-year project, In the Picture, to increase positive images of disability in books for pre-school children.

This will include a free image bank as a resource for illustrators and publishers "who are nervous about getting disability wrong", says Ms Strick, "and so tend to steer clear of it altogether" .

Contacts

For all aspects of reading and disability and recommendations by young readers, go to www.bookmark.org.uk

Books by young writers with disabilities can be ordered from the charity WhizzKidz, which supports children to achieve independent mobility. See www.whizz-kidz.org.uk

IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) produces an annual catalogue of "Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities". The 2005 list has just one UK title, A is for Africa by Ifeoma Onyefulu, although other English language books are included. For details of the next catalogue, go to www.ibby.org

To keep up to date with the Quentin Blake Award project, contact Alexandra Strick: AJStrick@aol.com

Scope's In the Picture project. Email susan.clow@scope.org.uk; tel 01858 463489; or go to www.scope.org.ukearlyyearsparentspicture.shtml

CASE STUDY

Leon Denny, Year 11, Thomas Wolsey school

Leon has Goldenhar syndrome, which causes facial disfigurement and speech difficulties. He uses a Dynawrite keyboard-based communication device.

I spend a few hours daily on my website, leonscreations.co.uk, and I help on the school website, so I like reading web design books and manuals. I buy Web Designer, PC Plus and PC Format every month as soon as they come out.

Leonscreations is going live later in the year. I'm going to have a discussion board about trains, my other interest. It's hard to find good magazines about trains and they are overpriced. My favourite train is the Class 170. They are fast and I like the livery: light purple with yellow, pink, green and blue stripes.

I choose books from the school library. I've read a lot of the Factfile series (Kingfisher Books). I don't read much fiction but I like adventure stories. My best recent book is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (an abridged edition by John Grant in the Usborne Library of Fear, Fantasy and Adventure). I liked the scary bits and the monster and now I want to read some of the others in the series like Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

It's hard to cover disabilities in books because, really, you should have everybody's and that would be too difficult.

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