New children’s books by Maine writers, illustrators tackle disabilities, with uneven success – Press Herald

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“Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott” by Joyce Scott, with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet. Art by Melissa Sweet. Alfred A. Knopf. 48 pages. Ages 4-8. $17.99

“Unbound” is a story that packs a wallop on many levels. It would be powerful enough if it were merely the true-life tale of an artist finding her voice. What makes it so deeply compelling is the impact that comes from having the tale told by the artist’s own twin sister; from gradually learning that the silent little girl at the center of the story has serious disabilities; and from the vibrant art provided by Caldecott honoree and Portland resident Melissa Sweet.

“Before we know the touch of air on our skin, my sister and I know each other,” Joyce Scott starts her story. “We are each other’s worlds.” There is no mention of disabilities – the only clue being that Judith is depicted as far smaller than her twin – until it’s time to start school. We learn that Judith has never spoken and has “what will come to be known as Down syndrome.” The doctors hold no hope for improvement, “but they don’t know Judy like I do,” says Joyce. “She is perfect.”

Nonetheless, at age seven, Joyce awakes one day to find that Judy has been sent off to the Columbus (Ohio) State Institution (previously called the Institution for the Education of Idiotic and Imbecile Youth). This imposingly grim and Gothic edifice is rendered by Sweet in both photo collage and bleak watercolor – the “colors of gone.” Looking at it today gives you shivers.

There, instead of getting help, Judy is deemed “unmanageable” and “not appropriate” for any education. Her twin, grieving their separation, is finally allowed to visit. She is shocked to find her sister still unable to talk and living in a “horrible gray place” with “no playground, no chalkboards, crayons, or colored paper.”

As an adult, Joyce brings her sister to live with her. Only then does she learn Judy is deaf – something that had gone undiagnosed for decades.

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Needing a place for her while she works, Joyce enrolls Judy in the Creative Growth Art Center, a studio that encourages adults with disabilities to express themselves through art. But as far as Joyce knows, Judy has never made so much as a crayon drawing. What happens next is truly amazing.

For nearly two years, Judy sits alone, looking at magazines, never participating and showing no interest in creating art of any kind. Then, just before the Center can suggest that she leave, Judy observes a fiber art class. Spontaneously, she starts wrapping some twigs in yarn and twine, adding nails and pins, and finally painting the whole. “Just like that, a form emerges.” From then on, she is unstoppable. She “wraps and weaves, creating fantastic cocoon-like shapes filled with color.”

What the authors hardly mention is the acclaim that comes to Judith from her art. They seem more interested in the human side of the story, moving fairly quickly from the moment of Judith’s artistic breakthrough to her death 18 years later, entwined in each other’s arms. Only then does Joyce divulge, briefly, that Judith has become a celebrated artist whose “fame still grows.” And only by reading the book’s back matter do you discover that Scott’s work is now exhibited in many major art museums – which is a shame for children who don’t read end notes.

“Unbound” is a children’s version of Scott’s adult memoir “Entwined.” It is generally told in a tender and poetic way with the emphasis is on the strong sister bond: the depth of their love, the pain of their separation. But Joyce’s anger at the treatment of the disabled – especially children – is always there. Usually it simmers, as when she notes dryly that when Judy was sent to live with her, the promised escort from the Institution had never materialized – Judy had been left to fly to California alone. But occasionally the anger bubbles over: “How dare they label my sister,” she fumes, “and deny her the right to learn?”

The joyful heart of this book is the recreation of Judith’s art. Melissa Sweet’s gift for mixed media and collage, as well as her adept use of color, has rarely been put to better use than here, as she re-imagines Judith Scott’s fiber sculptures and incorporates some actual art from other Creative Growth artists into the illustrations as well. My favorite is a double-page spread of an enormous room, its walls filled with wild art and tables filled with busy artists. (Sweet also collaborated with Joyce on the story, along with writer Brie Spangler.)

This is a fine book that is not just about accepting people with differences but about embracing and celebrating them.

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“We Want to Go to School! The Fight for Disability Rights,” by Maryanne Cocca-Leffler and Janine Leffler. Albert Whitman & Co. Ages 4-8.

$16.99

“Best Buddies,” by Lynn Plourde. Illustrated by Arthur Lin. Capstone Editions. Ages 3-5. $17.99

Two other picture books by Maine author/illustrators echo the same themes as “Unbound,” but with somewhat less satisfying results.

Like “Unbound,” “We Want to Go to School” is a family affair.  Portland-based author/illustrator Maryanne Cocca-Leffler and her daughter Janine, who was born with cerebral palsy, collaborated on this history of disability that is both personal and public. Janine starts by describing her pre-school life – “I needed lots of help” – and then her journey through school. She needed help there, too, but the main thing was, “I learned side by side with my friends … I was always part of the class.”

When she discovers that it wasn’t always possible for children with disabilities to get educated the way she was, the book veers in a different direction, with Janine giving us what proves to be a history lesson on the disability rights movement. She draws comparisons to the civil rights movement and uses the seven children whose families first sued for these rights to add context and, literally, put a human face on this dry legal drama, bringing it to life. In this she is greatly aided by Cocca-Leffler’s drawings of all the different faces and families including, in one notable instance, all 18,000 plaintiffs.

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Will four-year olds be gripped by reading about class action lawsuits and Brown vs. the Board of Education as it pertains to disability rights? Probably not. But they will get the general gist of the book – everyone deserves an equal education – and their parents and teachers can fill in as needed, using the book’s extensive legal and historical end matter, which go so far as to include a note from the attorney in the landmark lawsuit.

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The jacket of Lynn Plourde’s “Best Buddies” claims it’s about a boy with Down syndrome. The storyline is simple in the extreme: a boy and the family dog bond from birth, not unlike the twins in “Unbound.” As in “Unbound,” they are forced to separate when one goes off to school. The “best buddies” then find a cute way to cope with missing each other. That’s it.

The curious part is that there is no indication in either text or illustration that the boy is anything but a “regular” kid. Which may be the whole point – kids with disabilities are just regular kids – but it seems a bit baffling. Is the adult reading the book meant to explain to the child about Down syndrome? Or is this just a book about learning to separate from family when it’s time for school?

Plourde, a Winthrop resident and former school speech-language therapist, usually has a good sense about books that appeal to the school market, and that may be her goal here. Or perhaps, as hinted by the jacket, this is just an introduction to the buddy duo and further books will delve more deeply into the challenges of a child with disabilities.

Unfortunately the story is not well served by the illustrations. Arthur Lin’s cloying art has the weightlessness of a comic strip – think Fred Basset meets Family Circus – in stark contrast to Melissa Sweet’s treatment of the same theme.

For the usually reliable author of such Maine favorites as “Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud,” this one disappoints.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance  writer and children’s author. She may be reached at [email protected]


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