I will save the backstory for another, more well-thought out post about why we now have these books in our house. It’s a story that I want to share more fully, just not right now.
But suffice it to say that M has had to expand her horizons about the world around us—and who lives within it—in a way that had me recently trying to find books to help her understand, much less accept and be comfortable with, individuals that may be physically or otherwise developmentally different from her. I wanted books that show that we are all different from each other, but also so similar in many, many ways. But more importantly, that we can still be, and should be, friends nonetheless. If you are looking for children’s books for young children that will help them befriend and understand children who might have physical differences, these are my favorite three.
Susan Laughs, written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross. The text of this book is remarkably simple from page to page. It tells the story about Susan and what she does (and, to the point, not what she cannot do, which is seemingly very little anyway!). Each page has a colored pencil sketch of Susan doing something, with relevant two-word prose underneath: “Susan laughs” (she’s watching TV) . . . “Susan dances” (she’s dancing with her grandpa on his feet) . . . “Susan trots” (she’s riding a horse), and on and on. You see Susan get mad, scared and silly doing various things throughout her day. She is just like any other active, young girl. And then, on the very last page, do you get an idea that something might be different. She’s in a wheelchair, and that’s the only time you ever know about it…after the story explains and shows all that she can do. I love that premise, and the text that goes with that page, “That is Susan through and through–just like me, just like you.”
My Friend Isabelle, written by Eliza Woloson and illustrated by Bryan Gough. Along the same lines as Susan Laughs above, this book tells the story of a young boy named Charlie and his friend, Isabelle. The book tells the story from Charlie’s first person perspective, noting differences between himself and Isabelle (who are the same age), such as that he is taller and that she likes to take her time to do stuff. He talks about they play and get along…and how sometimes they cry when one of them forgets to share (like all children do!). Adults will probably sense sooner than kids that there is something notable about Isabelle, and certainly by the last page which has a photograph of Isabelle and mentions that she has Down Syndrome. I like this one also because it shows these two children playing together, acting like all other kids do, showing that they both like to do things independently and that they are comfortable enough with each other for playful physical contact (in M’s circumstances, this was an important point I wanted to get across to her).
The First Day Speech, story by Isabelle Hadala and illustrated by Jose Pardo. First, I should mention that it was M’s gramma that picked this book out, months before the events leading up to us needing books like this in the first place. She picked it out because she saw the heartwarming story about the brave middleschooler/author who wrote it in the context of school bullying. I had actually put this one on the closet shelf when she gave it to us because it was a bit too old for M, saving it for a more relevant if not age-appropriate time. It was serendipity that we had this book already when we needed it recently.
The story is certainly longer and more verbose than the above two books, and probably a little ahead of the non-Kindergartener 5 year old (like M) since it takes place in a traditional school context. First day of school, in fact, for the story’s main character, Nathan who is nervous about starting school. He is nervous, it turns out, because he is uncertain about how other kids are going to perceive him. You actually don’t see his face until halfway through the book when he finally gets to school on his first day of class. He has a facial cleft, and the illustrator does a remarkable job of making it pronounced enough for young readers to see there is something different, but nothing to be afraid of. Nathan decides, bravely so, that he wants to give a speech on his first day of school to his new classmates that explains why he looks different, and give his new friends a chance to ask any questions they may have. He wants to essentially thwart any teasing or hurtful remarks that might come his way out of ignorance, fear or uncertainty by his classmates. The author—who was six when she went through something very similar, and in middleschool when she wrote this book, remarkable!—does a great job of capturing the kinds of silly, but understandable, outbursts that young classmates might have during this kind of circle time. What a great book. It fosters compassion, understanding, bravery and acceptance all at once, no matter what side of the equation you might be on, no matter what your abilities may be. At the end of the book, the author explains that Nathan is a fictional character, but that the story is relevant nonetheless. It also contains a page about the author, with a photograph of her. She does not have facial cleft, but instead ectodermal dysplasia, which has left her with undeveloped hands (which are shown in a photograph of her holding her soccer ball), but the story is hers all the same. Even though M was probably on the young side for this book, considering the circumstances going on in her own school life, it was entirely relevant and digestible.
Finally, I should mention that I also purchased a copy of Maria Shriver’s, What’s Wrong With Timmy, but it is also quite wordy and I have not read it yet (plus I didn’t want the book blitz to be overkill…sometimes you just have to live through these kinds of experiences to really work it out). I’ll post more on this one if it’s something worth sharing.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
While sitting on the couch with M last week, the convo went down like this:
M: Mom, what’s a wee-wee?
Me (Laughing): Um, where did you hear that?
M: At school we were going around the table saying what we were thankful for…
Me (Busting a gut inside, thinking how funny this age group is and so PROUD of their bodies!): It’s a word that some people use instead of penis (we use the anatomically correct words around here, so it was no biggie to me). Who said that?
M: Adonis* (*name changed to protect the innocent)
Me (S-c-r-e-e-c-h!! Hold on! Realizing that Adonis is from another culture and not wanting her to use this information in a way that would be offensive to him or confusing): Oh, well maybe that means “grandmother” or something in his culture. I’m not sure.
Fast forward to today when I picked up M from school, and I happened to glance at the Thanksgiving board where the teacher had written the kids’ responses to what they were thankful for.
I am thankful for my Wii. (Adonis)
A-ha. Of course. Five year old boys are most thankful for their Wii’s.
Clearly the turkey around here is moi.
So whether you’re thankful for your wee-wee, your Wii, your wee ones, or all three, Happy Thanksgiving, readers!
And, for what it’s worth, this is what was written next to M’s name:
I am thankful for my baby cousin. (M)
(Love that little sweet potato!)
Copyright (c) 2012 Kristen M. Ploetz
Maybe because it is November. Maybe because it reminds me of just how deeply M thinks sometimes and how things affect her in a way that often seems profound. Maybe because I am acutely aware these past few weeks about how lucky we are as parents today with all that is at our fingertips to make life easier, healthier for our children. Maybe just because I loved the light when I took the photos. No matter, I share with this you because I am feeling thankful right now.
We live in a city that has a great presence of history all around us. There are few places you can go in the heart of the city that is not tied some hundreds of years to the past. About two months ago, our trip to the library resulted in us walking by a very old cemetery where some of the earliest settlers and descendants of the John Adams family are buried. M was intrigued by this place and wanted to walk around.
M has been in here before, though she certainly wouldn’t remember it. Stroller rides with her dad, seemingly light years in the past. She’s been in similar places in recent memory too when we took a trip that had us walking around historic Charleston, South Carolina.
We’ve talked about death in the past, so it didn’t bother me to take her in. Plus, as M pointed out, it is a beautiful quiet spot in an otherwise noisy part of the city. She told me that she thought it would be a good place to do homework someday. So we walked in together to explore who was there.
I didn’t expect to see so many graves for children. Very young children. Of course, now that hindsight is in my favor, it makes sense given that we’re talking about people who were buried in the late 1600’s until the early 1800’s. I thought this fact would remain fairly absent to my precocious pre-reader, so I didn’t think much of it.
That is, until she starting asking me what the names were. And how old were they when they died. She seemed perplexed by the number of young children. Sensing that she was likely thinking that this might be a similar early fate for her, I quickly assured her that those were times where healthy food, good handwashing habits and medicine were not as available as they are to us today. That seemed to put her at ease.
We did some research on the name and this particular young girl. Turns out she was one of 20 siblings born in that family over a span of just 24 years. Many of them had died less than a year old. The mother named three different sons Edward. Only the third one lived past a year old. It struck me as heartbreaking to name subsequent children with the same name. But maybe that was common back then…I don’t know. As a mother, it is impossible to imagine raising children during those times.
It also led to a few pretty long discussions about death and dying. All initiated by her. She has expressed her wishes about how she would like to be remembered after she dies. She seems quite concerned about being remembered. This is why, she tells me, she wants to visit Thankful. Because no one else does anymore since it has been more than 320 years since she died. I am keenly aware that these are not thoughts that a five year old should be having, and thankfully, they are fleeting and rare. My heart cannot take it. My heart swells and aches at the same time when she wants to figure this complicated knot out.
We’ve been back a few times. Each time she wants to go to that gravestone first. She knows exactly where it is, right in front of the biggest tree. She wants to bring Thankful flowers on her birthday next August. I wonder if she will remember. Knowing M, I bet she will.
Be thankful for what you have. It’s all so fleeting.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
This is a piece that I wrote almost a year ago and submitted to several magazines for publication (so many that I had to change M’s age from four to four and a half at one point just to keep it current). It was repeatedly rejected. On my last submission, I came so painfully close to being accepted for publication in one of my favorite magazines to read. But the editor ultimately changed her mind at the last minute for whatever reason, though she personally encouraged me to submit more (and, as any writer knows, that is often enough motivation to keep plugging away). I need to let this one go now, so that I can move forward with other pieces I’m trying to get published.
Franklin D. Roosevelt. Condoleeza Rice. Lance Armstrong. Natalie Portman. These were the names that populated my computer screen after one of my infamous Google searches. The search terms: “famous only children”. I suppose it was part of how I tried to “put the baby to bed”. The second baby, that is.
With our daughter then four and a half years old, and with my husband and I approaching our forties, the notion of a second child suddenly became more visible on our collective radar this past winter. We had always told ourselves that if we were to ever have another one, we wanted a four to five year difference between kids. That gap was somewhat arbitrary, but certainly in line with prior “major couple milestones” we shared, including our engagement and how long after marriage we had our daughter. No sudden moves here!
So here we were, with our self-imposed second baby deadline already visible in the rearview mirror. We inevitably had to make the decision one way or the other, much less in the shadow of the growing families around us. I felt like we were the odd family still “stuck” at one. Was it a sign of our age? One false move while reading on the couch and next thing I knew, I was dealing with a strained neck. Or, worse yet, was our ambivalence about another child a symptom of our parenting abilities and capacities? Almost five years in and we’re still not managing as a family to get sleeping accomplished in enough hours, let alone the correct beds. We’d certainly fare no better with another round of midnight feedings and diaper changes added to the mix.
Perhaps we simply waited too long. After four and a half years, we had clawed our way back to our preferred comfort zones of balancing free time (particularly at night) and cultivating our professional lives in ways that we both truly enjoyed. Long gone for us has been the protracted planning surrounding any kind of travel, whether it be down the street to the market or away for a summer vacation. No more heavy luggage just to hit the library. We’re down to a water bottle and a maybe a granola bar and then we’re good to go. We’ve tasted freedom once again. Maybe this is why many families leave a smaller gap between children—they haven’t had a chance to realize what’s waiting on the other side.
We navigated our daughter’s developmental milestones relatively easily, but certainly not without a lot of sleepless nights, juggling of schedules on sick days and forever adding to the “to do” list as she grew. I never really understood beforehand how much time all of those things take, from buying new clothes to doctor’s appointments to being involved with her preschool. Of course we love her so we did not mind all of that (too much), but were we really capable of doing double duty like so many of our friends? In our minds, no.
Statistics and anecdotes from friends say the incidence of only children is increasing, but we only personally know of one such family. They live in Alabama. We live in Massachusetts. Forget camaraderie, we were going to have to navigate this terrain alone.
And being alone is exactly what we were worried about. Not for ourselves, but for our daughter. With no little brother or sister at her side, whom would she play and grow up with or recount family stories later in life? Although we love the idea of one, would she? Having siblings ourselves, we were keen about how much more robust life was, is and will be with this kind of family dynamic. Embracing this notion from a parent’s perspective though, was something else entirely.
As we began to admit and accept what I think we really knew all along, I pored over articles that debunked myths about only children. I wanted to be sure and not look back later in life wondering, what if? As we rounded the hill to our final decision, the glow of the computer screen with its truncated list of ambitious onlies somehow gave me peace of mind. I found solace in the Bob Dorough famous song, “Three Is a Magic Number”. It became my inner soundtrack as we chose our path along the forked road of shaping families. There was only one answer. The answer was only one.
I also realized that, for good or bad, it is almost impossible to be alone in today’s world. Yes, it requires more effort on our part—at least at this stage of her life—to reach out to neighbors and schoolmates to help her find playmates other than would-be siblings. But with a park just around the corner and elementary school not too far off into the future, we’re certain that strong and lasting childhood friendships are ultimately inevitable.
We’ve also come to realize, perhaps more than ever before, the value of cousins. Knowing the connection that I have with my cousins gives me comfort that our daughter does have family to grow up with and keep memories alive. Indeed, I very often reminisce with a few of my cousins about grandparents long gone, perhaps more so than with my own brother. Our daughter has two wonderful cousins, and a third on the way,* all within a hop, skip and a jump. She will undoubtedly have a close relationship with them because my husband and I both come from families that cherish family. What makes it even more special is that her connection with them will forever be rooted in some of the same traits and tendencies that my husband and I share with our own brothers.
A man and a woman had a little baby. Yes, we did. That’s all the magic we need.
* When I first wrote this, there was not even a third cousin on the way yet. But in between rejection letters, that changed. And, since my last and final rejection letter on this piece, she arrived! Welcome Little O!
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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