April 29



“Her hands were so cool, like flowers that have grown in shady places,” Helen Keller said after meeting Laura Bridgman, the first Deaf-blind person educated in America. I thought of this quote while contemplating Julie Morstad’s cover art for my novel, Show Me a Sign. For the Deaf and Deaf-blind, hands are not just useful tools, they are how we communicate with the world.

As we developed the front cover, I was asked to submit casual still photos of various signs. We decided on the handshape I’m signing below. Though my main character Mary Lambert’s hands are not in motion on the cover, the artwork conveys the expressiveness and nuance of signed languages. I love Mary’s direct gaze, and how with her eyes and her hands, she asks the reader to understand. In contemporary American Sign Language (ASL), the handshape and position reflects the word sign “interpret.” There are so many relevant synonyms for “interpret” as well: understand, decipher, unravel, translate, illuminate, shed light—all of which have meaning in the story.

The moon and sailing ship reflected in Mary’s eyes represent not just her physical and spiritual voyage, but also the book’s adventures, including a secret haunting near an old marsh, a chase through the streets of Boston, and an escape on the high seas.

Mary, who lives in Chilmark, Massachusetts, in 1805, speaks an extinct, largely unrecorded language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). She grows up in a community where deaf and hearing people use MVSL, and deaf people are treated no differently than the rest of the population.

There is a familiar paradigm in the journeys of Deaf and disabled main characters in children’s literature—mainstreaming in general society (i.e. school), followed by mistreatment by bullies, and finally widespread acceptance. I was careful to break from this pattern.

My hope is that young readers will become so immersed in Mary’s remarkable world in Part One of the book that the unusual becomes commonplace, and they will feel dismayed along with Mary in Part Two when she begins to learn how the rest of America views the deaf. Scientist Andrew Noble may seem like a larger-than-life villain, but he embodies the ideas of an educated man of the time.

When I began writing, I saw Martha’s Vineyard in 1805 as a Deaf utopia. Then I realized that my central characters, white settlers, had encroached on native land, and I knew I had to do justice to Wampanoag history and culture too. Mary’s family and friends reflect a broad spectrum of acceptance and prejudice, which I felt was realistic to any time period.

I’ve worked in public library youth services for eleven years and counting. My story times are bilingual (ASL and English), and I visit schools to give disability and anti-bullying presentations. I find children open to learning and accepting differences. The thank-you note below reads: You are a fantastick [sic] reader and I love your hand langwiges [sic]. When I help young readers find books, I see what is on the library shelves—and what isn’t.

It comes back to the hands. Mary is wiser from what she learns in Part Two, but she is also hurt. Although I am a grown woman and turn fifty this year, it was harrowing for me to delve into the passages where Mary is treated cruelly as a “live specimen.” She finds safety and comfort in her loved ones, with their kinship through sign language. She also communicates manually by taking up a quill pen to tell her story.

In these ways, Mary and I are quite similar. This book, from initial research to final edits, was more than a decade in the making. Sometimes the words flowed onto the page. Other times, they came in signs that were difficult to interpret, or in a stream of feeling that resembles musical vibrations.

Each day that the sun rises presents new challenges for me and for Deaf and Hard of Hearing children everywhere. Show Me a Sign is not about a Deaf utopia, but rather cultures reckoning with one another, and true inclusion. It’s not just a story from the past—it’s a hope for what could be our future.