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The creators of a rare picture book featuring a d/Deaf character discuss the impact of their own experiences on the story and the essential work of making language accessible for all.
In the world of children’s literature, books by and about d/Deaf people remain startlingly few and far between. For d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, this has meant extremely limited opportunities to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the stories they encounter. Can Bears Ski?, a recently released picture book from Candlewick, follows a small bear who processes his world mostly by feel. Over and over, people ask Little Bear the same confusing question: “Can bears ski?” As his dad takes him through different doctors and treatments, Little Bear’s world becomes a much louder—and sometimes much more exhausting—place. Raymond Antrobus’ poetic text and illustrator Polly Dunbar’s bold art work in tandem to take readers alongside Little Bear on a journey of self-discovery.
We caught up with Raymond and Polly, who spoke about how their own backgrounds and experiences influenced their work on Can Bears Ski?
Reagan: We see very few books in children’s publishing that feature d/Deaf characters and even fewer that are actually for d/Deaf children. Could you each start by speaking to why you were pulled to create this story and who you hope this book is going to reach?Antrobus: I wrote this book while I was writing a lot of poems about my own childhood and growing up with two hearing parents who didn’t realize that I was deaf until quite late. I’d got a residency in my former school, which is a deaf school in North London. When I was there, there were 150 students; now, it’s cut in half. There are 75. My English teacher was still there, and she said to me, “I’m really glad that you’ve found your deaf identity. Because at school, you denied it. You thought you weren’t as deaf as some of the other kids.” I refused to learn sign language. I was embarrassed. So I’d kind of embraced it through writing about it. Poetry, primarily.
But then I looked at the library in this deaf school, and it baffled me. There were no books about the kinds of kids who were at the school. The one that I knew, which I love and I still read every now and then, is Cece Bell’s graphic novel, El Deafo, but it made me think about the last poem in my latest collection, which was about me trying to answer this question: Where did language begin for me? And I think it began with storytime when I was a kid and my dad would read to me. Not knowing I was deaf, he would do these things instinctively that helped me access the story. I would lie on his chest, and he would read the book, and I could see the words that were in front of me. And he would read through it slowly. And then sometimes he would improvise and make up his own version of a story, so it wasn’t always the same story every time. And what initially started as an idea for a poem became Can Bears Ski?
Dunbar: I’ve got a friend who is a mum friend, let’s call her, and she has cochlear implants. We bonded over our hearing aids. And she said to me that she was looking in the library for books for her children, who are hearing children, and that there was just nothing there. And she’d found one that was really old-fashioned, and it was just full of old men who couldn’t hear and who were just shouting, “You have to talk louder.” And . . . no. Anyway, she lent me this book. And a week later, Raymond’s text arrived through my editor. I’ve dedicated my part of the book to her, because it just felt like it was meant to be.
So, I read your story and text, Raymond. And my mum, Joyce Dunbar, is profoundly deaf, and she started going deaf when she was about five. And I very much grew up with that—I suppose thinking that it was just normal, because I have to speak to my mum in a slightly different way. There were also advantages. I could have midnight feasts without her hearing me. So, I was just so touched by it. I started losing my hearing when I was in my twenties, so I suppose I’ve seen it from the side of being the hearing person with a deaf person and, now, being the deaf person and my children being the hearing ones.
I was just so moved by this book. And it came from an artistic, poetic place and a feeling place, rather than a “You better write a book for deaf children” place, which I think can be done quite a lot. I thought, this is just a beautiful story, first and foremost. And that is wonderful for deaf children, too. So, thank you for writing it, Raymond.
Antrobus: What you just said about it being a story that is a good story first and foremost—I don’t see this as a book that’s just for deaf children. It is a story.
Dunbar: Because I think children with disabilities and children who don’t have disabilities deserve that, don’t they? All the creativity that goes into children’s books. They deserve to enjoy that and have the magic of that. And you are learning something, and it does help for a child to understand that. But it’s got magic in it, too. And that’s what I loved about it and was inspired by.
Reagan: What really struck me was the deceptive simplicity of this book: it hinges on a play on words that could easily have been silly, and sometimes it is. There’s a lot for kids to have fun with here, but there’s also a more poignant theme that runs through both the text and the art. That’s a lot for a 40-page book to support! But it works so well, partly because of the care put into this book and partly because of how well the text and illustrations work together. I know artists and writers often work independently from each other, but did you have much chance to collaborate?
Dunbar: We met—it’s not always that an artist and a writer meet each other. I think that was really helpful. You pick up things from people that you can’t on emails. For me, that was really helpful. And, Raymond, you were encouraging as well. You were very encouraging without telling me what to do, so that was nice.
Antrobus: I loved it. I did say that I would want to work with a deaf or hard-of-hearing illustrator. Joyce Dunbar, Polly’s mother, was in that conversation, and then they said, “Oh, well actually, Joyce’s daughter could step in to it.” The way that that just came together organically—
Dunbar: It was like stars aligning at the right time.
Antrobus: Exactly. I felt that was a sign that we were working with the right ingredients, with the right people.
Reagan: Raymond, I want to circle back to your career as a spoken-word poet. Can you speak more about your relationship with words and sounds and how you were inspired to adapt to a children’s audience?
Antrobus: Both of my parents were really into poetry. My mother’s favorite poet was William Blake. My dad’s was a poet called Miss Lou. And my dad, when I was a kid, he would record poems off the radio, off the TV—people like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gil Scott-Heron, Jean “Binta” Breeze—and he would play them back to me. That whole experience was in the air. It was audio. It was performance. And then my mum gave me more books, and she put a poster of a William Blake poem on my wall, growing up. The anxiety or ambivalence that a lot of people felt around poetry, just never existed for me, I think primarily because I always associated it with my family. It wasn’t this thing you could get right or wrong. No one quizzed me on it. It was just an expression, it was a way to talk about history.
Poetry is, I think, a great tool for education. I used it as a teacher, and it became this whole other thing where it wasn’t just about curriculum-driven agenda; it was more of a kind of art therapy. There were students who were taken out of class, and I would just do poetry with them. We would take that material that they had written, often about personal and emotionally difficult situations, and we would make poetry out of it. If the young people we were working with could be applauded for articulating something that had been difficult for them, it’s a way to affirm, again, that they’re not wrong for feeling what they feel. That opened up this whole other world to emotional literacy and what poetry and storytelling can offer. And now, that’s woven into a big part of my practice as a poet and as a teacher.
Dunbar: These children and young people, are they hearing or deaf?
Antrobus: In the first five years, I was only working in hearing schools. And honestly, it was tough. It wasn’t until I’d finished my MA when I came across this statistic—it was a throwaway line in some article that I was reading about emotional literacy—that said the majority of deaf children in the UK grow up illiterate. And that just stayed with me, as someone who came out of deaf education. And I did more research into that and got a statistic that estimated 70 percent of people born profoundly deaf in the UK grew up illiterate. And when I started doing residencies in deaf schools in the Caribbean and Europe, that was a question I would always ask. What’s the illiteracy rate in the deaf community in your area? And in Jamaica, it was 90 percent. In Trinidad, it was 95 percent. So illiteracy and deafness—there’s a long, long history between those two things.
That made me think about, again, how I can be useful as a poet who’s come out of deaf education. Because, at the moment in the UK, sign language, BSL, is still not put on the national curriculum. Doesn’t make any sense to me that that’s not the case. It’s only been recognized as an official language since 2002, despite its 200-year history. It’s beyond marginalized. It’s minimal. Yet every generation, there are more deaf people. There’s a bigger generation of deaf people now than there was before, so it doesn’t make any sense that deaf schools are shrinking rather than expanding. That’s part of my mission as well, to get that spoken about on a policy level. Because it’s a worldwide thing. It’s every country I’ve been, there’s that contention between illiteracy and deafness.
Reagan: There’s a video on your website where you talk about how it’s not that deaf people don’t have language, it’s that language is gate-kept in such a way that it isn’t made accessible to them. I know this is probably an impossible question, but do you have thoughts on the work that people can do in classrooms to help break down those barriers? Or any resources you know of that are helpful?
Dunbar: One thing—I’ve just written out the BSL sign language alphabet, and it’s going to be in the back of the UK paperback edition of Can Bears Ski?
Antrobus: Oh, my God. That’s amazing.
Dunbar: Isn’t that lovely? I learned the alphabet when I was about six. My mom taught it to me. And it was like having a secret language. It was so special. For other children, as you say, to learn that, deaf or not, it’s a beautiful thing. Why wouldn’t you want to learn it?
Antrobus: Can Bears Ski? will be an educational resource for finger spelling. And that will be a building block to go on to be able to use sign in wider society in the UK, because British Sign Language and American Sign Language are two different languages. There’s almost no relationship between them. It’s not like English. BSL, our alphabet is all on two hands—ASL, one hand. It’s two different things, which is interesting.
In the U.S., Sarah Katz at Gallaudet University does great reporting and great work about deaf people in society. And she also works in education. In the UK, one of the leading historians and academics of deaf culture has been a man called Paddy Ladd, who’s written a number of books, including Deafhood. So, there are people out here that are doing that work. Once you find one way into it, a doorway into it, a whole world will emerge.
Reagan: Polly, I’d love to hear more about what went into this on your end. You use these really loud and bold colors for Little Bear that I think are going to be so enticing for little kids. But then you also communicate really well the loneliness and isolation that Little Bear feels and the major switch that happens when things start to change for him. Can you tell us about your creation process?
Dunbar: I like my colors loud! And then, the snow, that was lovely. That was exciting, thinking of muted snow and not being able to hear, and then the loudness. It was a positive for this little boy bear to not be meek. I thought, great. Yes. He’s got real pizazz.
Really, what I loved about the story was the relationship between Dad Bear and Little Bear. And there was so much going on in Dad Bear’s feelings as well. That was where I really started. I thought, I’ve just got to get the emotion right, the journey that Dad Bear goes through. And when he talks to Little Bear’s teacher, I wanted him to be quite masculine and a bit like, “There’s nothing wrong with my son.” He doesn’t understand, and I think parents can be like that. They’re so protective of their children. I wanted to show him being a little bit like that at the beginning and then coming around to it himself. I wanted to show that in a real way. Parents make mistakes about these things as well. If you don’t know, you don’t understand. That was really what I focused on.
I chose to do a quite thick brush line. Again, I wanted it to be bold, to be attractive. They’re bears. But for me, the emotion is the most important, so I just spent a long time painting these bears over and over again until I could capture these expressions and emotions with a very simple line and a very bold line. That’s what took most of the time. And then once I felt I knew them and they were real, the rest of it fell into place a bit.
What I loved is all the references to the snow and space. I tried to put a space theme in here, so you feel a little bit out of place. And then all the rumbling was lovely. All the rumbling, a really nice visual way to show what it feels like. But all the clues were there, Raymond. You had written it all—and then the rumbling of the stairs and stuff.
Antrobus: I just want to say, Polly, that when I first saw everything and I got to the library scene and saw that you did the moon in the top hat, I almost cried. I couldn’t believe how genius that was. Just because it references a book that directly inspires this book, Happy Birthday, Moon, which is a book that my dad read to me as a kid, which I loved. And I think that book is just genius. And, yeah. I didn’t say this to Polly. Polly did that herself.
Dunbar: Well, that was another one of those things that was aligned, because I had that book when I was a child, as well, and I loved it. And it’s not the most well-known book in the whole world, is it? Little details like that, for me, mean a lot. I take my son to the audiologist regularly, because he has to go. It’s hereditary in my family. So I’m sort of in there, looking at everything, trying to get the feel of it. And watching my son, how he’s responding to the games and stuff. It was all very real and fresh for me, drawing all this. I loved a chance to be a bit abstract about it all. Little Bear skis down his own graph. Things like that just make it visually exciting, I think. And then having this really, really bright, bright yellow. The first time I wore hearing aids, at the age of 24, it was like that. Because it takes a long time to get used to them, and your brain has to change.
There’s the magic and the imagination and the emotion that runs through the text—I wanted to get that emotion in the pictures. It’s a story. It’s a story of the two people, two bears, going on a journey, so, whether you’re related to a deaf person or not, I think that’s interesting for any child to see. And it meant a lot to do, as well. I think if something really means something to you, you try really hard. As Raymond says, you put your own self into it. If you’ve got personal experience, you understand what it feels like to be in a room where everyone is laughing and you don’t know whether they’re laughing at you. Or you don’t know when to say something, because you don’t know where the right bit of the conversation is. And I know how that feels, and so to be able to put that in there felt good.
Can Bears Ski? By Raymond Antrobus. Illus. by Polly Dunbar. 2020. 40p. Candlewick (9781536212662). PreS–Gr. 2.
Maggie Reagan is a Senior Editor at Booklist.
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