From the Editor: A Place in the Reading Community

Book Links March 2009 (vol. 18, no. 4)

by Laura Tillotson

M y son George is one of the happiest people I know, and books are some of his favorite things. I often come into his bedroom in the morning and find him already awake, sprawled out on his beanbag chair surrounded by books. He especially loves books with flaps or other interactive parts, books with lots of photos, books with textures, stories based on songs, and books about animals, cars, trains, or daily routines. Favorites include
Hello, Day! by Anita Lobel,
Eyes, Nose, Fingers, and Toes by Judy Hindley, and anything by Helen Oxenbury, whom I recently had a chance to meet. She enjoyed seeing George’s dog-eared copy of
Tickle, Tickle, which is held together with packing tape.

What might surprise you after hearing about George’s love of books is that he has a chromosome disorder and is developmentally delayed. He isn’t able to talk, and he has both vision and hearing loss. In short, he might not strike you as a child who would love books.

I bring George up because it’s so easy to underestimate a child with special needs, and when it comes to inviting kids with mental or physical challenges into the reading community, I worry that all too often they are left out in the cold. In a school setting especially, given the broad spectrum of disabilities in any given student population and the time constraints educators face, many of these kids don’t ever discover the pleasures of books and reading. Something that could help them connect with their peers—the power of story—instead becomes just one more thing that sets them apart.

Most youth and school librarians don’t receive much training in dealing with kids with special needs. Just as with typically developing children, if you’re not familiar with a particular child, it can be hard to know what approach might work in introducing good books. As a parent, I’ve learned to think outside the box and be flexible. Types of content that might attract reluctant readers would be an obvious place to start, as well as working to capitalize on a child’s interests. George’s love of airplanes has us searching for them in every picture book we come across, whether or not he is ready to handle the story.

A wide range of formats—interactive books, Web sites, audiobooks, and graphic novels—gives kids with special needs lots of options; these formats can help dispel the intimidating images of reading they might have. It’s also important to keep in mind that kids with special needs may enjoy books on a different level and on their own terms. For instance, the somewhat abstract fabric art in Anna Grossnickle Hines’ 1, 2, Buckle My Shoe is a bit of a challenge for George to decipher, but he loves paging through the book and searching for the buttons that appear throughout the pictures. For now this book is a find-it game, and someday it may also become a fun read-aloud as he becomes more familiar with it.

Every child is unique, kids with special needs no more nor less so. As we search for creative ways to turn children on to the joys of books, I hope we can give them all the chance they deserve.