Bookmark interviews Yasmeen Ismail

Published on: 30 November 2014 Author: Alex Strick

Bookmark decided to dig a bit deeper and find out more about the inspiration behind Specs for Rex and its creator's thoughts on disability and diversity.

Yasmeen Ismail/Specs For Rex

It's great to see a book like Specs for Rex which touches on the anxieties of needing to start wearing glasses. Last time we met, you were telling us that this idea comes from personal experience?

Yes, when I was small, about 7, I knew that I needed to get glasses. The week before I was due to get them a girl in my class came in with her new glasses. The room of children erupted with jeers and laughter and I was terrified of the prospect of that humiliation the following week. As with all these things, by the time I arrived with my new glasses the novelty had worn off and no one seemed to care.

Rex soon learns that wearing glasses is nothing to be worried about - in fact quite the opposite. It can be both cool and rather handy to wear specs! Do you think books can play a valuable role in normalising things like visual impairment?

Of course! Books are our source of learning and I think children's books are a place where kids can learn about life outside of their homes, especially with picture books. Parents will start reading these stories to their children from very young ages and it can give them a taste of what school will be like and what to expect when they start nursery and all the other topics under the sun.

The same, of course, applies to books for older kids, but I do think that with picture books they are a little window into taking those first steps into the world. So if these books represent people of all colours, shapes and sizes and abilities then that can only be a good, and frankly, honest depiction of the wider world.

Have you had any feedback from children or parents about the theme and the message?

I was worried one time, when I did a reading. There was a little boy with glasses and when I said 'Rex did NOT like his specs AT ALL' I heard him turn to his mother and say, 'why not?'

In that moment I felt awful. This little boy was just fine with his glasses and I had just given him a complex. I worry about what I write and how children will receive the stories. I always try to think of their feelings and this was not ideal. On the other hand, a lot of parents have reached out to me and told me that they loved the book and that their kids love the book, and how they wished their child had it to read when they were getting glasses and were resistant. The themes are about being a little different and how that's not so bad, but I wonder if the kids pick up on that metaphor.

We were pleased to see you also include characters wearing glasses without comment (e.g. in the fabulous Where Did We Come From? - which is currently seeking a UK publisher). Do you try to include diverse characters without comment or does this just happen organically?

I am not actively including these characters, in the same way that I don't actively exclude them. I grew up in a family where we all wore glasses to a varying degree, there are people with all sorts of disabilities and abilities all around us all the time. My family is from many different parts of the world and I grew up one of two Asian kids in a small town in Catholic Ireland. These characters are merely representations of what is around us all the time, and what I grew up with knowing. Life would be very dull without any difference in anybody.

There's been lots of recent media interest in the need for more diverse and inclusive books, both in the US and the UK. Would you agree that there have been rather too few diverse books on the landscape until now - and any thoughts on why?

When I was in San Francisco last year I noticed a lot more children's books were more diverse than the books in the UK. I am sure that everyone is pushing for more diversity. I think that not having this diversity is a misrepresentation of the very modern and cosmopolitan world that we live in.

I can think of some reasons why there are few diverse books, but it is not a particularly nice theory. Book sales are targeted, and some people think that if, for instance, you are able bodied and a book is about a character that is in a wheelchair (per se), then that able bodied person will not be interested in said book. There is a fear of isolating readership. But I feel that that this will only create a greater divide, and strengthen this feeling or image of 'different' and the idea that 'this is not for me'.

Do you think children's books can help challenge stereotypes and break down barriers?

Yes. The only stereotypes are the ones that have been put there by us. I guess anyone can challenge them, every day, in their actions and the things they say.

Is there sometimes a sense that children's books have to play it safe, avoid certain subjects or ideas which might challenge or raise questions?

Of course, there are lots of restrictions when it comes to writing children's books. Kids hit each other all the time, but I can't have that in my books. I understand why, but on a lot of themes I wonder if we are sheltering them too much.

Would you consider including other forms of disability in future books?

It depends on what stories come to mind. Like I said, I am not looking to include or exclude anything. But I take the point, it's important, and I will think on that.

What do you think is the main reason more writers and illustrators don't often include disabled children in their storylines and images?

I don't know. You would have to ask them!

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