“I See Me” by Michele and Keegan Knott
“That’s just like me! I’m like that too!”
“I feel the same way as the character. I didn’t know someone else feels that way.”
“That’s how I look. It’s like I’m looking in a mirror.”
“I see me.”
Those are comments I’ve heard over the course of the year since I’ve started realizing the importance of #weneeddiversebooks. Kids need to see themselves in books – whether it’s characters that look the same as them, have something that is the same as them, or characters going through similar situations.
The book Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson is a beautiful story that introduces us to Emmanuel. He is a boy who is not afraid to try, who grows into a man who fights for the right of disabled children.
We are first introduced to Emmanuel when he was born in Ghana, West Africa. And just like most babies, Emmanuel was born with 2 eyes, 2 lungs, and 2 hands, but only one strong leg. While not described in words, the reader can see that Emmanuel’s leg is deformed – his right leg appears to twist inward at the knee and the bottom of his foot is pointed upwards.
At this point, Emmanuel’s story begins. See, we don’t need to know how his leg is deformed or why. Because his disability isn’t the focus of his life. It’s just a part of his story.
Emmanuel learned at a very young age that if he wanted something, he needed to get it himself. If he wanted to get somewhere, he needed to figure out a way. With strong support from his loving mother, Emmanuel learned he can do things himself.
Of course, life in Ghana was tough, and Emmanuel had to leave home at age 13 in order to find work and send money home to his family. Life on his own was difficult for Emmanuel, but he worked hard and always proved himself.
With the death of his mother a few years later, Emmanuel decided it was time to make a change in his country. He set out to show that disabled people should have the same rights as able-bodied people. Obtaining a bike from the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego, California, Emmanuel rode across his country, speaking to people – able bodied, disabled, government officials, religious leaders and reporters. He spread the news and showed everyone his message – being disabled does not mean unable. Wearing a shirt that had the colors of his country’s flag and printed words across the front – The Pozo, or “the disabled person,” Emmanuel became a national hero.
Emmanuel continues to help make changes in Ghana. His political activism has helped create laws such as the Persons with Disability Act in Ghana, as well as create scholarships that help children with disabilities attend school.
This picture book biography about Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is a wonderful addition to your biography unit or a book to include when discussing courage, determination and strong messages.
To me, this book means even more. This book fits a need I have for my family. See, my nine-year-old daughter Keegan has a physical disability. She was born with congenital femoral deficiency (CFD) and fibular hememelia (FH) in her right leg. That’s a fancy way of saying her right femur is significantly shorter, her tibia is shorter and she is missing her fibula. She also doesn’t have a hip on her right side and as a result of the FH. She is missing tendons in her foot, so at birth her foot was severely turned inwards. We are fortunate to have found a doctor that is willing to work with her physical challenges and provide her with options so that she can live a full and promising life. However, she has to deal with multiple surgeries throughout her childhood and a very large shoe lift, that certainly draws some attention to her.
Like Emmanuel, Keegan has family support, and has always been taught to try things. The message has always been clear to her that if she wants something bad enough, then work for it. Keegan is a competitive swimmer who competes against both able-bodied swimmers and in Paralympic events. Of course, your parents’ words only mean so much. I think finding the same positive messages in books reaches her in ways that our words can’t. Keegan and I read the book together and I asked her what she thought. Here’s her view on Emmanuel’s Dream:
“I thought that Emmanuel was determined to get his mother healthy, and that he also wanted everybody to know, that even though disabled people might look different and totally unlike them, they are always doing the same things that you are, even if you don’t notice. Emmanuel is trying to get people to know that even though they are disabled, it’s not like they can’t do something that everyone else is doing.
I like seeing people that are similar to me in books because it’s like I know what they’re going through because I’ve gone through it myself. I’ve had people stare at me, laugh at me and whisper about me, loud or quiet. And Emmanuel stood up for us all, the disabled people, and I feel proud that I’m alive and going on healthy. I think that all of the other disabled people should, too.
I think it’s important for people to see themselves in characters because then they know that they’re not the only ones who are disabled. People like us often feel ashamed of themselves and feel like nobody likes them. Like they’re invisible. And some people, I know, will come along and say that nobody can be treated like a nobody anymore.”
I hope the message of #weneeddiversebooks continues so we do have books to put in the hands of our students. Authors, and all of those who have aspirations, please continue putting all kids in your books.
We want kids to say, “I see me.”
A lifelong reader, Michele’s goal was to make sure Keegan started out that way, too. Rationalizing that every time she bought a book, she would also buy a book for Keegan, made their home library grow very quickly. Michele blogs at mrsknottsbooknook.blogspot.com and you can find her on Twitter @knott_michele. Keegan is on her way to being a full-blown Nerdy Book Club member and already is a regular at Nerd Camp Jr. during the summer!