Children’s literature’s silence in respect of people with learning disabilities in almost all but a handful of non-fiction titles has perhaps been tacitly understood as a graceful gesture rather than as an evasion. As Toni Morrison put it in respect of race in her essay ‘Black Matters’*, ‘to notice is to recognise an already discredited difference’. But silence and evasion in respect of disabilities have consequences for all our children, not just for those who are excluded from our fictions.
Last year Rachel Anderson’s The Scavenger’s Tale**, a dystopian fantasy set in London in 2015, was published. The most extraordinary aspect of this extraordinarily powerful novel for older readers is in its depiction of people with learning disabilities.
Britain has now only one trade that flourishes. Agriculture has failed, livestock is diseased, the armaments industry is finished. All that is left is medical expertise and donor transplants. London is the capital of the world for donor transplants and the organs that are needed are culled from those who have been classified as Dysfuncs. The main character of the story is a boy called Bedford who was found abandoned in an alley by Old Ma Peddle who cares for him and his adopted siblings. These include a sister, Dee, who has Down’s Syndrome, as well as Rah who has a brain ‘the size of a pigeon’s egg’. The drama of this powerful story is in Bedford’s growing realisation of what the charming Community Health and Welfare Monitors are really up to when they take people away for ‘care’. He attempts in vain to save his family from their clutches.
Anderson’s portrayal of Dee and Rah is as fully rounded characters. Further, she boldly confronts within her pages the fear that such differences engender in us and our difficulties in recognising it and talking about it. One of Bedford’s friends, for example, wants to save some children with Down’s Syndrome from the cull because, as a Christian, he loves them. But as Bedford wryly observes, he cannot actually tell them apart or bear to touch them.
Anderson is perhaps uniquely qualified as someone who lives and works with children with learning disabilities to create these characters who cannot easily create themselves in fiction. Truly innovative and daring writing of this kind can help young readers look at their shadow side, at their (and our) projections into people who are different and begin to admit more freely to prejudices and fears which will thus become available to be thought about. Only then can people with learning disabilities really be seen as people.
* in Playing in the Dark, Harvard University Press, 1992
** The Scavenger’s Tale is published by Oxford University Press, 0 19 271736 7, £5.99
Inserted into this issue of BfK, you will find a questionnaire which asks about the children’s books which you rate most highly and which have had significance for you. Endings and new beginnings provide opportunities for taking stock, and as this millennium draws to a close we value the opportunity to ask you, our readership, about the children’s books which mean and have meant the most to you. In our November issue, the final issue of this century and this millennium, we will publish your thoughts about which books have been and will continue to be important and your views on what will be important in the future. Thank you for filling in the BfK questionnaire.