October 27

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DOWN SYNDROME AWARENESS MONTH-NEW BOOKS by Lynn Plourde

Do you remember Corky on the TV show Life Goes On?  Corky Thatcher, a character with Down syndrome, who was played by Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome? I was so excited when that show came on. As a public-school speech-language therapist at the time, who worked with students with Down syndrome, I thought, “Yay! At last, our TV shows, movies, and books will finally begin to be more inclusive as they feature people with Down syndrome.

At last, indeed! Life Goes On was a show in 1990. Over thirty years ago! And I’m sad to say there have not been many shows and books since then that include people with Down syndrome. A librarian recently complained, “There are currently very few books showing any kids with Down syndrome.” Sadly, that librarian is right. But a couple of new books hope to fill that gap . . . a bit.

The picture book Best Buddies by me, Lynn Plourde, and illustrator Arthur Lin, tells the story of a boy with Down syndrome and his best buddy, his dog. The two are inseparable (“Like cake and frosting, the best buddies always stuck together”) until the boy started school and “a bus came and swallowed him up.” While the boy and the pup are apart, they are both miserable. In the end, the boy finds a clever way for the two to feel connected even when they are separated. This book only mentions that the boy has Down syndrome in the back matter of the book, not in the actual text of the story. That omission was intentional. I want more books about people with Down syndrome, but not in a way that makes a big deal about their genetic disorder. Best Buddies is first and foremost a story about the love between a boy and his dog—and that boy happens to have Down syndrome.

The next new picture book is a biography of an artist with Down syndrome. Unbound: The Life & Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott, Brie Spangler, and Melissa Sweet along with illustrations by Caldecott Honor Medalist Melissa Sweet brings the inspirational story of Judith Scott to life. Judith and Joyce were twins born in 1943. Joyce was able to go to regular school, but since Judith had Down syndrome she was not allowed to attend. Instead, she was sent to a “special school,” an institution. Before then, the twins had been inseparable and when Judith was sent away, Joyce said, “just like that, my whole world disappears and is replaced with the colors of gone.” Many years later, Joyce finally is able to rescue Judith from that institution and bring her to California where Joyce lived with her own family. Judith’s records showed that not only did she have Down syndrome, but she was also deaf. Notes in her file said: “not appropriate for any educational program, behavioral problems, unmanageable.” Joyce didn’t agree, and she enrolled Judith in the Creative Growth Art Center, a nonprofit art studio for artists with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities. For many months, Judith did not work on any art. But then one day, a teacher set out some twigs and yarn and twine and invited Judith to “join in.” Judith did create art that day and then day after day: “Judy chooses colored yarns and fibers, chunks of wood, and a shopping cart”—all to make her art. She also “borrows” keys and glasses and weaves them into her work. Judith Scott overcame countless obstacles in her life to become a one-of-a-kind fiber artist with more than 160 sculptures shown in museums around the world.  

Today, we would find it appalling, unacceptable, unfair if people with Down syndrome were not allowed to go to school. But we need to remember that wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, people with Down syndrome like Judith Scott couldn’t attend school. Actually, it was long after the 1940s before people with disabilities were given the right to a free and public education. That’s where another timely new book comes in.

We Want to Go to School: The Fight for Disability Rights by Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Janine Leffler tells in a kid-friendly way about how seven kids with disabilities and their families filed a lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education for the right to go to school. And “They Won! In this little known landmark case the court ruled that students with disabilities must be given a free public education.”  Author Janine Leffler provides a unique personal perspective: “I was born with something called cerebral palsy, or CP for short. I learned to read before I could talk, but I needed help doing lots of other things.” She describes how teachers and therapists at school helped her to learn, but one day she realized “it hadn’t always been that way.” Then she describes how the Mills court case came to be and the change it made in the lives of students with disabilities. Backmatter in the book includes more details and a timeline for how the rights to an education for students with disabilities changed from 1954 to 2014.

1 out of 700 children have Down syndrome. So, should that be our goal? For 1 out of 700 characters in our kids’ books to have Down syndrome. We’re far from reaching that goal now, but as we make our kids’ books more inclusive, let’s celebrate the joy and contributions and realities of people with Down syndrome.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Books included in this post are:

Best Buddies, Lynn Plourde & Arthur Lin, Capstone, 2021

Unbound: The Life & Art of Judith Scott, Joyce Scott, Brie Spangler, Melissa Sweet, Knopf, 2021

We Want to Go to School: The Fight for Disability Rights, Maryann Cocca-Leffler & Janine Leffler, Albert Whitman & Co., 2021

Lynn Plourde (www.lynnplourde.com) worked as a speech-language therapist in schools for 21 years. She is the author of more than 40 children’s book, including her newest Best Buddies, How to Talk Monster, and If You Were My Valentine plus her middle grade novel, Maxi’s Secrets about a dog that is deaf and a girl who is blind. She lives in Winthrop, Maine.