Jessica’s Box: Understanding justice through children’s literature
Children with disabilities have a hard time finding books that include characters with disabilities and especially those where the focus is not on the disability.
When I was introduced to the Sacred Worth Books catalog my passion for the disability community and for education rights was excited and I became instantly invested.
Since my introduction to this Church and Society project my efforts have been focused on finding children’s literature with characters with disabilities.
The purpose of the Sacred Worth Books is to collect children’s literature with diverse characters, authors, and illustrators so that children can see themselves in the stories they read. It is essential to the self-confidence and identity of a child to see themselves in the people, places, and things around them, especially their books. Reading is a powerful way to impact how kids see themselves and can influence their educational success as well.
The disability community is certainly affected by this. When searching for books, I had a very hard time finding kids’ books with characters with disabilities. When I did find a couple, most of them were about the disability, the struggles the child faces, and the questions they are asked about their life.
When kids with disabilities resort to these books to find themselves, they are left with a narrative of pity, confusion, and hardship. If this is the story told to you about people like yourself, it can be hard to see your own agency and gifts.
While I was feeling disappointed in the success of my search, I walked into Hooray for Books! bookstore in Alexandria, VA. And I could have stayed for hours.
There I found several representative books, including the moving Jessica’s Box, written and illustrated by Peter Carnavas.
Jessica’s Box will forever be at the top of my list of recommended books now. It stars a young girl named Jessica who is facing her first day of school. With nerves about making friends, she tries different strategies to get the other student’s attention, but each strategy fails to foster any friendships. Wishing she could just disappear at the end of the story, Jessica is pleasantly surprised to make a friend without preparing any strategy at all.
Jessica uses a wheelchair, but the story does not mention it. Jessica is not pictured as incapable or pitied. In fact, she participates in all the activities of the other students and characters.
Jessica’s Box represents a child with a disability, yet the story is about troubles that all kids face: the anxiety of making friends on the first day of school. Her need to be with her box at all times and her depressing thoughts could resemble personal characteristics that kids whom society labels as disabled might find familiar, too.
Interestingly, the original edition of Jessica’s Box did not picture Jessica in a wheelchair. In 2014, in partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Peter Carnavas re-illustrated the book. However, neither the text nor the plot changed at all.
This fosters the idea that the Sacred Worth Books catalog is trying to champion; that individuals with disabilities lead lives with similar plots to all others. Although they do live with some challenges, those challenges should not be highlighted as the whole experience of those in the disability community. All people have challenges, and all have gifts, and many times they are the same.
For more information about Peter Carnavas and his many more books, visit https://petercarnavas.com/.
For more information about the Sacred Worth Books catalog or to search books and categories, visit https://www.umcjustice.org/sacred-worth-books