Jean Little & The Power Of Disabled Representation In Literature
By Ottavia Paluch
Her last name might at first invoke a different perception, but Jean Little wrote big books for big kids about big topics. Growing up in Guelph, Ontario, Jean was always a storyteller, making up stories to get herself out of trouble. She graduated from the University of Toronto at the top of her class, taught children with disabilities, and then started writing children’s novels, the first of which was published in 1962. She went to publish countless novels for children as well as two autobiographies. Did I mention she was legally blind?
That’s right, Little was blind from birth due to scars on her corneas. One might ask how she wrote all those books if she was blind, but as she got older and her vision deteriorated, she began to use a voice-activated computer. Growing up, Jean didn’t see many children with disabilities in the books she read, let alone ones with visual impairments. And if they were in the story, they either died or fully recovered, sometimes magically. So, like a total badass, she wrote herself and other kids with disabilities into the books she was writing.
Jean’s books are unique in the sense that although they are meant for children, they still explore difficult topics candidly, without much sugar-coating. Little’s work is significant because it helped pioneer disabled representation in Canadian children’s literature, and Canadian literature as a whole. In the years to come, children with disabilities will still be seeing themselves in her protagonists. I know that because I was one of those kids.
Like Jean, I myself am visually impaired. I have no vision in my right eye and low vision in my left. During elementary school, I had a vision itinerant who knew I loved to read, and sometime in elementary school she lent me a copy of From Anna, Little’s most beloved 1972 novel. It’s about a nine-year old girl whose family immigrates to Canada from Nazi Germany. The book’s namesake is forced to adapt to a new culture, learn a new language, deal with strict parents, and endure persistent bullying from her siblings and peers because of her clumsiness. Yet it turns out Anna’s clumsiness is because she is, in fact, visually impaired! She gets glasses and the world she lives in is made brand new again, full of new things to see and discover. I had never related to a character more in my life.
You’d think Anna would have felt pity for herself because of her situation, but she didn’t. She just didn’t understand why she was treated the way she was, why she saw the way that she saw, and why she was different. The character development she undergoes in the book felt transformative to me. She becomes more confident, she believes more in herself, she self-advocates, and she embraces her flaws. From Anna is set in 1930s Germany, but the challenges its’ main character faces are prescient and significant still. In the same way that so many disabled children saw themselves in Jean Little’s characters, I saw myself in Anna—or rather, who I was able to become.