Case Study 5: Alice's Heart
The project also set out to identify books featuring forms of disability that rarely, if ever, appearing in children’s literature. This case study highlights one such book. In this example, disability is a primary theme within the book, and therefore represents a contrast to some of the other case studies in which the disability is not overtly referenced.
Alice’s Heart (Coeur d’Alice)
Stéphane Servant (text) Cécile Gambini (ills.)
Editions Rue du Monde, France, 2007
Alice cannot walk, run, jump, dance or balance; however she can do lots of things in her wheelchair. Like everyone else, she loves the simple pleasures of life, like feeling an ant or grass tickling her feet. She often breaks things when she gets cross. She sleeps, she cries, she faces challenges, she has secrets, she imagines, she can count, she can spell, she remembers everything - good or bad, she loves and hates ... just like everyone else.
Alice’s Heart was first suggested to OIW by Dr. Penni Cotton. We were able to obtain a copy from the publisher and an English translation was then provided by Alexandra Strick.
French author Stéphane Servant studied English literature, before devoting himself to writing and illustration for children and young people.
Cécile Gambini studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Aix-en-Provence and is a graduate of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg. She illustrated her first book 1999 and continues to illustrate children’s books.
Alice’s Heart is one of two titles identified by the project offering a metaphorical quality in terms of both text and illustrations. There was a lot of positive feedback for this title from the VFG.
Depiction of disability
There was much discussion about the way disability was portrayed in this book, with many feeling that the book had a lot to offer in terms of presenting the 'inner life' of the disabled character.
For example, Professor Adomat described it as unique, observing that:
"even though Alice can only say a few words, she has a rich imagination and is able to understand so much. In her wheelchair, she is able to travel everywhere. The beautiful, fanciful illustrations underscore the imaginative world in which Alice spends her days. As lovely as that world is, it is a lonely one, and Alice is quite isolated within it".
Karen Argent agreed that there was plenty to praise, describing Alice's Heart as "a really affirmative and positive book with lots of layers to deconstruct".
Several of the group noted the references to Alice in Wonderland, Professor Lathey describing the book as transporting the reader:
"right into the imaginative world of Alice through text and pictures, with many visual echoes of Alice in Wonderland. Opening emphasis on sensations in Alice’s feet precedes later realisation that she cannot walk. Physical limitations are secondary to the world of Alice’s thoughts, dreams, plans, and philosophical questions and, occasionally, her pain. This is an unusual perspective on disability in that the focus is entirely on the child’s own inner world and not on the reactions of those around her".
Joanna Sholem observed that the character of Alice isn't perfect; she breaks things and shouts and some of it is uncomfortable. This challenges assumptions and reminds us that communication is about more than speech.
Karen also praised the book for acknowledging Alice’s anger and frustration when she breaks things:
"I think that children would empathise with this. She is portrayed as having agency throughout and that she is capable of communicating to those who will listen. The emphasis is also on the infinite possibilities of the imagination that transcends any disability which is a powerful message. She is in control and can show her vision of the world to others. Towards the end the reader learns that she is a wheelchair user and that this can take her anywhere".
Interestingly, however, other members of the VFG were not so sure, questioning whether Alice could have a stronger voice. For example Dr. Butler observed:
"The reader is told that though she cannot walk or speak, in her wheelchair she can do anything. But no interior monologue is provided to substantiate this claim; everything is 'she' and nothing is 'I' ".
Joanna Sholem commented on the atmospheric and almost 'experimental' feeling about the book, and commended it for avoiding simply giving the reader a "happy story".
Questions and concerns
Patricia Billings felt it was quite a 'complicated' book. She was a bit confused by the first several spreads, which don’t show Alice with her feet or as a whole, and felt that this 'dissected' the character a little.
There was a sense that the book might risk being seen as having fallen into the common trap of suggesting disabled characters need to ‘compensate’ for being disabled. For example, Patricia Billings noted the heavy emphasis on all the other ways in which Alice does things well "despite" her paraplegia.
Professor Adomat wondered whether Alice could feel less isolated as a character had she been shown within an environment in which people fully understood and accepted her strengths and needs.
Dr. Butler observed that:
"The wheelchair is depicted as a magical way of coping with all impairments".
She felt this was an unrealistic, perhaps misleading thesis.
Quality and effectiveness
The VFG were very positive about the quality of the illustrations, which they felt offered plenty of food for thought.
Patrica Billings felt that the illustrations were modern, complex and challenging. Karen Argent related the style to that of illustrators like Sarah Fanelli and Lizbeth Zwerger.
Patricia Billings also loved the translation, with Karen Argent agreeing, observing that the text was translated in a way that retains the modern fairy tale storyline effectively.
Audience and viability
Once again, this was a book which split opinion.
Patrica Billings commenting on the style of the book wondered whether its prime ‘moment’ might have passed, and whether it might be a little dense, even ‘dreary’ to appeal to young readers.
Karen Argent on the other hand, thought that Alice's Heart would sell very well because of its aesthetic appeal.
This was a book, she felt, which added to the wealth of post -modern picture books that challenge readers of all ages because of its visual complexity. She believed the book would appeal to readers of all ages for its story content and its artistic qualities:
"I can see it being used as a text to explore and interpret in great depth. It would also be a starting point for lots of related creative writing and art work".
Joanna Sholem wondered if it might be:
"too subtle for children, then again, would love to see how they respond to it – if I am being too pessimistic about their understanding".
The illustrations by Cécile Gambini are unusual, rich and colourful, and were commended by many of those we consulted. The book is very intriguing and the gentle references to 'Alice in Wonderland' offer great additional interest. Historically, books have rarely included children with more complex forms of disability in stories, and as such, OIW praise this book for choosing to do so. However, where the positivity of this depiction was concerned, there were clearly some mixed views within our team of experts. As such, OIW feels it might benefit from some rewording were it to be published for a contemporary UK audience, to ensure the messages are as effective as possible. This is a book which clearly offers a wealth of material in terms of discussing the portrayal of disability.