We speak to James from @thecatchpoles about uncomfortable questions, teaching empathy, and his upcoming book 'What Happened To You?'
What Happened to You? | Book Corner
A moving picture book for young children, What Happened to You? is inspired by the author’s own childhood experiences. The story follows a young boy with one leg and a number of social encounters with his peers and their seemingly endless curiosity over his missing leg. Readers can feel the heavy impact of the questioning on the young protagonist, creating a very emotive and reflective response to the subject. The author demonstrates a more sensitive approach to those with physical disabilities, prompting readers to learn from mistakes made by characters in the book.
What we love about the book
A guaranteed conversation starter, What Happened to You? challenges its readers to consider the way they might have previously approached individuals with physical disabilities and reflect on how they might behave differently in the future. It is an emotive, well-articulated story that is as inspiring as it is educational on dealing with disability and explaining disability to a child. What Happened to You? is the perfect book to read to your children on World Kindness Day 2021.
Why it should be on your bookshelf
- The book provides readers with an important message on social etiquette and inclusion
- An educational book for kids (and adults) on the subject of physical disability
- The narrative helps explain disability to a child, encouraging further conversation and reflection on the subject
Q&A with the author
To begin with, please could you tell us a bit about your childhood and what inspired you to write this book?
Like Joe in the book, I was a disabled child – I had one leg and often ran around on crutches, which was easier for me than using an artificial leg, but which made my difference very easy to spot! So being an object of curiosity for my peers was normal – and still is, in fact. I’ve never known any different. Being visibly disabled means being stared at every time I leave the house. And however normal that might be, it can still be exhausting and dehumanising.
But staring you can try to ignore – you can mostly shut it out. What you can’t ignore is people coming over to ask about your disability. As a child, I assumed this was reasonable. I assumed I had to answer and explain myself to these curious strangers. And I did – but I started to feel uncomfortable doing so. Then, as I grew up, I changed my mind. And I wrote the book that would have explained that discomfort to my five-year-old self and would have let me know that I didn’t in fact owe anybody my story.
When others have asked, ‘What happened to you?’, what was your emotional response? You have spoken about the repeated reminder that others see you as different when, in fact, you are just trying to get on with your life like everyone else. Perhaps you could elaborate on that?
Yes, at the simplest level, the effect of that question is to single someone out as different. I don’t go around thinking I am different! Being asked that question reminds me that I am. At best, this is boring, given how often it comes up – and I remember growing bored and then frustrated as a child, at being asked this every day in the playground.
But I also remember the creeping discomfort I started to feel when I answered truthfully. It was a sense of embarrassment, like some sort of social code was being broken, every time. Did they really want to know? What was the right answer to this question? And how were they then to respond? With pity? Horror? Words of encouragement? A shrug of indifference?
‘What happened to you?’ is simply a very personal question. It asks someone to recount their trauma. There’s a reason we don’t ask personal questions of strangers, and a reason we don’t answer them either.
The book touches upon the emotional upset that can be caused by others pointing out a physical disability. In your experience, is the emotional anguish as great a battle as the physical?
There are hardly any physical challenges in my case – perhaps there will be more as I get older – so for me, the challenge of dealing with public perception is by far the greatest difficulty in being disabled. On the other hand, there are plenty of disabled people, like my wife Lucy, for whom the physical challenge is very considerable. But she would still say that the way people treat her is no less of a challenge.
Your book directly addresses the upset that a disabled child can feel at being asked about their disability. As an adult with a physical disability, do you find this to be an ongoing problem with the curiosity of strangers?
Children are naturally curious and uninhibited. Young ones especially don’t understand the social codes around asking personal questions of strangers. When it comes to bald men (‘where’s that man’s hair?’) and pregnant women (‘how did a baby get in there?’) their parents can usually be relied on to introduce them gently to the notion. Somehow, this isn’t always applied to disability.
Perhaps as a way of dealing with their own sense of awkwardness or discomfort, a surprising number of adults have persuaded themselves that ‘it’s always best to ask,’ as though this is somehow ‘best’ for the disabled person just going about their day! Sometimes they even send their children over to ask. And in fact, the best-selling picture book about disability in the US would support them in this – it’s called…JUST ASK! But there’s no reason disabled people should be asked – and have to answer – personal questions from strangers, any more than non-disabled people should.
If we don’t allow disabled children to set normal boundaries around their privacy, and instead teach their non-disabled peers to ‘just ask’ them the most personal questions, then this is what we can expect for them, when they grow up.
How do you feel we could change our behaviour as a society to ensure that people of all abilities feel included and treated without prejudice?
I think my best answer to that is: listen to what disabled people have to say. There’s a formidable cohort of well-meaning people around disability trying to educate the general public and spread ‘awareness’. I would argue that this feeds right into the ‘just ask’ narrative, and only contributes to the confusion around disabled people’s right to privacy. I would argue empathy is a more valuable tool. So on the rare occasion an actual disabled person gets to tell you a story, and invites you or your children to see the world from their perspective, I would encourage you to accept the invitation.
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