Welcome to Picture Books for All

Children of all abilities should see themselves in the books they read. That's what makes reading fun. There are many picture books that include characters with disabilities; some are excellent in terms of their portrayal of these characters, some are pretty good, and some miss the mark. This blog features these picture books and evaluates them based on standards for quality in children's books that portray characters with disabilities. For more information, see the first post entitled "Welcome to Picture Books for All." (Click here) Welcome to Picture Books For All

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Interview With Illustrator Lea Lyon

I would like to welcome Lea Lyon, illustrator of Keep Your Ear On The Ball, to Picture Books for All. Lea is fulfilling a childhood dream by being a children’s book illustrator. She has had several other careers, from substitute teaching to running a small doll and puppet cottage industry, to getting an MBA and working in high tech. Now she uses her creativity and business skills in the field of children’s books.
Thank you for being here with us today Lea. Could you tell us what you like best about being an illustrator?

I love painting people, especially children, and telling stories through my art. It is a challenge I really enjoy to put images to other people’s words.  My favorite part, though, is working with real children--my young models--to set up the scenes for the stories. We have so much fun.

How did you get the job of illustrating Keep Your Ear on the Ball and did you have total freedom with the illustrations?

I had illustrated two other books for Tilbury House before Keep Your Ear on the Ball--Say Something by Peggy Moss (about bullying) and Playing War by Kathy Beckwith (a book that shows that war is not a game). So the editors knew my work, thought it would be a good fit for this story, and contacted me to illustrate this book.  The way they first found me, though, was from sample images I sent to them in 2003.  I included a postcard of one image, which the editor put on her bulletin board. When she got the manuscript for Say Something, she contacted me to see if I was available.  It was my first book.

I had much freedom with the illustrations, but I looked at it as a team effort and welcomed any suggestions from the publisher.  I showed them the various stages of the work as I went along to get feedback. The author, Genevieve Petrillo, was not involved, but we emailed, and I knew she loved what I was doing with her book. I found a classroom at a local school that had visually impaired children in the regular classes. I “borrowed” a class to act out the story and took hundreds of digital photos. They even played a kickball game for me. And they really got into the characters, and treated Mohammed, the blind student in their class who played Davey, like Davey.   

Fascinating!  I notice that your illustrations depict an ethnically diverse classroom. Was that a decision you made together with the author? Was it based on an actual classroom?

It was based on an actual classroom that I used for models, but I, personally, choose to have ethnically diverse characters in my books if possible, and I know that Tilbury House prefers that too. In fact, I had to add some Caucasian children to the classroom because the real class I used, in the San Francisco Bay Area, didn’t have “enough” to seem real for the rest of the country.

In your opinion, do the illustrations have the potential to influence how readers connect with a character, especially if that character has a disability?

My goal was to make Davey, and the others, as real and accessible as possible. I wanted the readers to be able to form a connection with each of the characters, to see themselves or someone they know in the book.  I think my realistic illustrations, showing many emotions, help to achieve this.  I especially wanted to show that Davey was “blind, not an Alien”--just another kid.

What was your biggest challenge in illustrating Keep Your Ear on the Ball and how did you address it?

I had a rather funny challenge for this book. The blind student in the class I used for models was Middle Eastern, Mohammed, and the protagonist in the book is Caucasian with “medium brown hair and medium brown eyes.”  It wouldn’t have mattered except that this story is based on a real person. So, what I ended up doing was to use Mohammed’s body, for the body language, and another student, Lawrence’s, head. I explained why and Mohammed thought it was funny.  I made sure that Mohammed was in the book as one of the other, sighted, boys on as many pages as possible. When you are dealing with real people as models, you have to be careful and fair.  

What a great anecdote!  Are you working on a project currently?

I am currently working on illustrating and co-writing a book for middle schoolers and older students about the Holocaust. It is a novella with poems and illustrations. We have an agent for the project and are hoping it will, indeed, find a publisher. I also illustrated a book that was released last October called Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee (Reach and Teach) about siblings who talk their two mommies into getting married while they can, before Proposition 8 in California is passed.

Wow! I hope your agent finds a publisher soon. Would you welcome the chance to illustrate another book that portrays a character with a disability?


Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?

I am so happy to be doing what I love, and being published and recognized, and illustrating so many books about social issues. It is nice to feel I am helping children and parents, along with entertaining them.

I want to thank you, Lea, for being a guest on my blog today.  Illustrators deserve as much credit as authors for their contributions to picture books, yet often times the illustrators are overlooked or not recognized. Your comments and insights are much appreciated. Best of luck with your new project, and please stop back and let us know when you find a publisher!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Book #3 Looking After Louis

This book falls short with regard to the standards for good literature that portray characters with disabilities (see second chart below). While adults will understand, enjoy, and even be moved by the story, children may walk away with a narrow or unrealistic impression of autism and/or a neutral to negative feeling about the character. The author seems to be striving for a message about inclusion and tolerance of the character with a disability, and the professional reviews suggest that she has achieved her goal (see links to reviews in the first chart below). I would argue that we need to do more in picture books than show that tolerance is enough. We need to strive for real, reciprocal, meaningful relationships for characters with disabilities. We need to show their strengths and find ways to bring out the positive aspects of their personalities. We need to show that there is much more to them than their disabilities.

Read this book and leave your comments. Different people with different backgrounds have different opinions.

Related Information
Name of Book:
Looking After Louis

Lesley Ely
The author is a clinical psychologist.
Polly Dunbar
Illustrations are childlike, cartoon drawings. Louis stands out and looks somewhat different from the other students.
Albert Whitman & Co.

Year of Pub:


Age range

Type of Disability

Fiction or Nonfiction

Category:  B

A)books that provide factual information about a disability

B) books that provide information about a disability in a story format in which the character with a disability is integral to the plot

C) books that provide stories that have a character with a disability who may or may not be integral to the storyline and who has been added to the story to achieve diversity and reflect reality

Annotation:  Narrated by a girl in Louis’s class, Looking After Louis is the story of a boy who has autism and how he is received and perceived by the other students. On the playground, Louis darts in and out of the recess soccer game oblivious to the other students’ stares, giggles, and annoyance. In the classroom, he stares at the wall and repeats the ends of phrases uttered by the other students. A few very mature classmates include Louis in their play and look for the positive aspects in his drawings. The teacher, motivated by the desire to give Louis opportunity for positive social interaction, bends the rules and lets Louis play soccer during class. The narrator comes to understand that there are “special rules for special people,” and she herself feels special for her tolerance and mature handling of the situation.
Link to publisher:
Links to professional reviews:

There is a Spanish edition: Cuidando A Louis


Standards for Quality Portrayal of Characters with a disability
1. Promotes empathy not pity
Difficult to say

2. Promotes acceptance, not ridicule
Louis is clearly accepted by at least one of his classmates, who exemplifies maturity beyond his age by playing with Louis and including him in a soccer game.
3. Emphasizes success rather than, or in addition to failure
This character does not have any clear successes, like making a goal in the soccer game or having his artwork displayed.
4. Promotes positive images of persons with disabilities or illness
Realistic but not necessarily positive
Louis could have been portrayed more positively by smiling or making a goal or learning to reciprocate a nice gesture (like a high-five) to one of his classmates.
5. Assists children in gaining accurate understanding of the disability or illness
Louis has some very specific characteristics such as parroting (repeating others’ words), which is not one of the universal criteria of autism spectrum disorders. He does not display original utterances, which is typical of some children with autism but not all. We see only two activities he enjoys—playing soccer and drawing—which may or may not represent the extent of his interests.
6. Demonstrates respect for persons with disabilities or illness
Hard to say, although tolerance toward Louis does develop in the story.
The other children giggle, smirk, and display mild annoyance at Louis, and it is not clear from the story how they get over this and move to tolerance and acceptance. I'm not sure they really achieve respect for Louis, as respect requires some kind of interaction or reciprocity.
7. Promotes attitude of  “one of us” not “one of them.”
Despite Louis’s clear differences, inclusiveness is emphasized in the story.
8. Uses people-first language
9. Describes the disability or person with disabilities or illness as realistic (not subhuman or superhuman)
Limited portrayal of autism.
10. Depicts people with disabilities as more similar to than different from other people
Louis’s differences are very pronounced here.
11. Shows peoples’ strengths and abilities along with their disabilities
We see Louis’s abilities in drawing and soccer, but we are not sure how to evaluate those abilities.
12. Represents characters as strong, independent people who others can admire or learn from
13. Represents people with disabilities from different racial and cultural backgrounds, religions, age groups, and sexual orientations
Character is white. Classmates are culturally diverse.
14. Shows people with disabilities in integrated settings and activities
One of the themes of this story is inclusion.
15. Shows people with disabilities in valued occupations and diverse roles.

16. Shows people with disabilities in reciprocal relationships
Shows Louis playing and presumably enjoying soccer with another boy, but no real reciprocity.
17. Main character develops and grows emotionally as a result of what happens in the story
Not obvious from story