Case Study 5.4: She and the Others
One of the many aims of the project was to find books which took more unusual and innovative approaches to the inclusion of disabled characters in books. The book selected for this case study undeniably falls into this category.
She and the Others (Heya Huma Hunna)
Nahla Ghandour (text), Janna Traboulsi (ills.)
Al Khayat al Saghir, Lebanon, 2010
Elle et les autres (French edition) Le Port a jauni, France, 2011
She and the Others is a two-chapter story featuring a character with a physical disability (depicted pictorially by the girl having a 'key' in place of one of her legs). The first chapter is written from the perspective of another girl and shows how she observes the new arrival in school before they start to become friends. The second story is written from the disabled girl's viewpoint and shows how she is forced to find her own solutions for the everyday challenges she encounters, such as how to get into class at the same time as the rest of her peers.
This book was first identified by OIW during a visit to the Middle East by Alexandra Strick to run a training workshop for the Arab Children's Literature Programme on making inclusive books.
Lebanese author Nahla Ghandour contracted polio as a child. She has spent most of her life working to improve the situation of disabled children. Having obtained a degree in computer science, she then specialised in occupational therapy for disabled children. Nahla now works as the Director of a rehabilitation centre for children with IMC (cerebral palsy). Lebanese illustrator Janna Traboulsi has illustrated many children’s books. She and the Others appeared on the Anna Lindh Foundation Arabic Children’s Book ‘Honour List’ in 2010. She and the Others was translated from Arabic into English for the project by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.
As well as obtaining feedback from our VFG, we also featured She and the Others in the two OIW book fair seminars in Bologna and London.
At the Bologna seminar we invited Mathilde Chevre, editorial director at 'Le Port a jauni' to take part. She had translated and published She and the Others from the Arabic into French. Mathilde also has a doctorate in Arabic studies specialising in bilingual children's books in both the Arabic and French languages. She has written extensively about the book in an online article, which we will go on to reference and summarise at the end of this case study.
Interestingly, Mathilde didn’t see She and the Others as being about disability but rather about difference. As she explained at the seminar in Bologna, although the protagonist is missing part of one leg; it is not an important part of the plot of the book but is simply accepted as part of the character and her situation.
Although the text was quite straightforward, the illustrations are full of symbols and metaphors. She described the graphic illustrations as "almost cinematographic".
In the seminar discussion, translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp agreed that She and the Others was an unusual book, crossing genres in a way which may be unusual for English books, with its deceptively simple language but very complex ideas and messages.
Ruth also observed the way in which we tend to assume that a picture book should be targeted at younger readers. This makes it challenging to identify a suitable audience for a book like She and the Others, which actually offers itself up to a much older and wider readership.
Mathilde Chevre described the book’s two stories as "exploring the school universe, a metaphor for the world".
Depiction of disability
Most of the VFG believed the book to offer a powerful message about disability. Beth Cox was pleased to see that:
"the message about how the friendship is formed based on things the children have in common, with no mention of the impairment. I really liked the problem solving aspect of queuing but it felt odd that although Nadia had made a friend at this point, she was doing it alone. Good to show independence though".
Professor Lathey liked the way the book does not explicitly mention disability. She felt that the result was a book which:
"sets children a challenge to interpret the pictures and has broad appeal".
Questions and concerns
Two of the VFG questioned whether people would understand the symbolism of a key. Patricia Billings said that on her first two reads she missed the fact that Nadia had an artificial leg and wondered whether a more direct approach might work better.
There was also a sense that the book might need more 'plot'. Dr. Butler describing the text as "oddly narrow" in its focus.
Karen Argent also questioned whether the focus on the challenges faced by the disabled girl might present a negative message.
Quality and effectiveness
Professor Lathey felt the book was original and the artwork highly innovative. Beth Cox also liked the illustrations as they were "quite different" to anything available in the UK but found the two parts of the book a little disjointed and wondered if readers would find it hard to follow.
Karen Argent was not a personal fan of the style of artwork but felt that it offered plenty of substance.
Patricia Billings had reservations about whether the artwork would work for a British market, but Dr Butler felt that:
"the illustrations are this book’s main strength, stylised and colourful, capable almost of carrying the weight of the text".
Appeal and viability
Beth Cox felt that the book had potential, suggesting:
"that this could work in the UK market, but possibly not as one book. I feel that the first story could be expanded upon to make a full picture book, perhaps better integrating the second story".
While some of the group felt the book would appeal to a niche market and could work as a picture book for older children, others didn't think the book was a good candidate for translation.
This book also intrigued the publisher focus groups, with one publisher in particular requesting contact details for the Middle Eastern publisher.
OIW were delighted to include this unusual book in the project. Written by the author who is herself disabled, we felt it offered innovative symbolism and multiple visual messages to explore. With its highly original style of artwork and short text, it could be a particularly distinctive and thought-provoking picture book to share with older readers. While on the surface, the book simply describes two brief moments from author’s own experiences as a child, in doing so it serves to highlight the immense physical and social barriers which face a disabled child at school – and could be seen as a wider metaphor for society’s attitude towards disability.
It appeared to confuse some of the VFG. There seemed to be a sense that the book was perhaps just too unusual for an English market. There were questions raised about whether children would make sense of it, and whether (on a more simplistic level) ideas such as the children queuing according to size would distract some of today’s readers.
It is worth noting that the author was writing about experiences from her childhood so the book is portraying an historic element (when writing about 'queuing' at school for example). The book is also from the Middle East where portrayal of disability may have been perceived in a different way and schools structured differently from those in the UK.
It is worth noting that some of OIW’s continued enthusiasm for the book may have come from having had a more in-depth opportunity to explore the book. One of the OIW team had the benefit of having heard the author speak in the Middle East, and we also had the advantage of reading the detailed blog about the book by the French translator (examples of some of the key points in bullet points below). This blog was not made available to the VFG to avoid influencing their judgment. However, with this material in mind, OIW considers this a book which has vast amounts to offer in terms of discussing the social model of disability, particularly with older readers and adults. It might be a particularly valuable title to explore with young people in mainstream settings, something we were unable to do in depth during this project.
Highlights from blog article by Mathilde Chevre
Summarised points from the blog on the first of the two stories in the book: