As the mom of a son who uses a wheelchair and the teacher of many children who are differently abled, I am encouraged by the increasing representation of characters with disabilities in middle-grade books. I pre-ordered Roll With It months before it was out after reading the summary and learning that the author also has a son who uses a wheelchair and has Cerebral Palsy, just like the main character, Ellie. As I finished the book I had three big “likes”:
*Ellie’s disability isn’t the centerpiece of the story. She’s a multi-faceted character who is worried about all the same things kids her age worry about: family, having friends, been seen for who she is and being really good at something (in this case, baking).
*The author, Jamie Sumner, also doesn’t turn away from the reality of Ellie’s disability. Ellie gets sick more than most, infections are common and the hospital is familiar. It’s part of the package that many families experience.
*Ellie, gently at times and not so gently at other times, points out ableist language and actions. Even better, she does it with humor. It’s so important that we acknowledge our own biases as we work toward inclusion.
Sometimes when I love a book, it doesn’t speak to ten-year-olds in the same way, so I purchased another copy of Roll With It and did a book talk in my classroom. After I asked, “Who wants to read this?” Half of my students raised their hands so I pulled name popsicle sticks to be fair and Charli thrust her hands out to receive it. I told her the moment she finished I wanted to talk with her about it for my blog post. She beamed and started reading immediately.
Here Are Charli’s Responses:
Charli is one of those kids who is always reading. She also has awareness about disabilities because she has a parent who is deaf. We sat down together during lunch recess and this what she had to say:
Me: So what did you think?
Charli: Probably one of the top books I’ve read this year.
Me: Really? Wow! What was a big message you took from this book?
Charli: I think it’s about sticking up for your family.
Me: Tell me more about that.
Charli: Well, you know that part (she starts flipping through the pages) when the mom and grandma fight about whether the grandpa should go into a care place because he’s losing his memory? I think they were fighting for their family.
Charli continues: But I think another message is, ‘don’t judge people by their cover.’ Like Ellie didn’t want people thinking certain things about her just because she was in the wheelchair.
Me: (Nodding) There is so much more about a person than how they move from place to place, right? Besides Ellie of course, which characters did you like?
Charli: Well, Coralee. She’s like the friend everyone wants. And I really liked the PE teacher, I remember Ellie talked about how he was the one person who didn’t bend way down to talk to her, he just talked to her.
Me: That was big, I know. What about her friend, Bert?
Charli: Well, he was different, I didn’t really know what to think.
Me: Are you familiar with what it means for someone to be on the Autism spectrum?
Charli: No, what’s that?
Me: Well, it’s where kids (and adults) may have challenges with social skills and often repetitive behaviors. Do you remember when Bert made that slide show with so many slides to keep Ellie from moving? That’s kind of an example of his intensity that was so sweet and well-intentioned, and unexpected.
Charli: Oh, that kinda makes sense now.
Me: What else did you like?
Charli: I liked how she wrote letters to the pastry chefs after she made their recipes. I could imagine doing that.
Me: I loved that part too. She was so honest. Now I’m curious, who would you recommend this book to?
Charli: Well, I was thinking about recommending it to my cousin because he’s in a wheelchair.
Me: I think it’s great to put books who have characters who deal with disabilities into the hands of people who really “get it,” but I also feel like it’s important for any of us, regardless of our abilities, to read this book and relate to Ellie.
Charli: Yeah, I already passed it along to Hailey. (Charli is referring to another student in our classroom).
And with that, Roll With It begins its journey around our classroom.