An innovative new picture book with a powerful message

Published on: 05 May 2015 Author: Alex Strick

It's National Deaf Awareness Week (4 to 10 May) and Alex Strick reports on the launch of an innovative new picture book with a powerful message.

It's always pleasing to come across a book which includes deaf children in the pictures or storyline, but Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt's latest book goes a step further - in fact a giant leap further. What the Jackdaw Saw is a story that was actually written with deaf children.

Incredibly few picture books feature people using sign language, and even fewer do so in a way in which is both incidental and yet authentic and well researched. So this is a book which is surely breaking new ground.

What the Jackdaw Saw

It all came about thanks to the organisation Life & Deaf, an inspired not-for profit organisation set up with the aim of developing deaf children's self-esteem and communication through the medium of poetry.

Life & Deaf firmly believe that every child should be able to recognise themselves in popular culture and literature. Every child should find a book, a poem, an illustration where they see themselves reflected, incidentally, without undue focus but present, so that they know that they exist, are seen and have a voice in their communities.

Life & Deaf's Katie, Helena and Jane explain that it was this belief in the need for inclusion and accessibility that led to the groundbreaking project with Julia Donaldson:

'We hold dear a vision of literature where all children are seen and heard, where barriers are removed, stereotypes are challenged and every child can access and enjoy great books that are representative of our diverse society; mainstream books need to represent every child.'

It was through BookTrust that there came a chance to meet the then Laureate and work with her. In March 2012, 20 deaf young people had the unique opportunity to spend a day with Julia, as part of her Laureate project commitments to explore and develop stories for deaf children. The result of this extraordinary workshop was the powerful story, What the Jackdaw Saw.

ulia Donaldson at her Meet the Laureate event

Award-winning illustrator Nick Sharratt and publisher Macmillan Children's Books completed the partnership, contributing the perfect additional ingredients - vibrant and inclusive artwork and high quality production.

What the Jackdaw Saw

Sharratt's artwork features subtle hearing aids and a wheelchair, without comment. He tells me:

'What the Jackdaw Saw was a delightful book to illustrate, and I particularly enjoyed the rather surreal challenge of drawing animals signing with hooves, wings, tentacles and tails! I try to be inclusive in my picture book work,(even more so in the light of a thought-provoking BookTrust Equal Measures seminar a few years back) and I've featured characters with hearing aids in Kaye Umansky's Yo Ho Ho, A-Pirating We'll Go! and Julia Donaldson's Goat Goes to Playgroup, but one thing I've learnt from working alongside the Life & Deaf Association on this latest book ( aside from a little sign language ) is that future books need to include children with cochlear implants too.'

Just over two years on, and the book is ready to hit the bookshelves. A moving launch event saw Julia reunited with Nick Sharratt and the Life & Deaf team to celebrate, with a performance of the story by a group of young people, including many of those who were involved in writing it.

What the Jackdaw Saw Launch

For Julia Donaldson, this was a project particularly close to Julia's heart, as she has a hearing loss herself and is fascinated by sign language. She tells me:

'Working with the children at Life & Deaf to create What the Jackdaw Saw was a highlight of my time as Children's Laureate and it is such a pleasure to see the ideas formed in the workshop brought to life with Nick Sharratt's bright and accessible illustrations. I hope that this book about sign language, acceptance and friendship will appeal both to deaf and to hearing children.'

Check out the book

What the Jackdaw Saw

Author: Julia Donaldson Illustrator: Nick Sharratt

A highly entertaining book with an inclusive cast of characters, providing an introduction to sign language to all children.

Read more about What the Jackdaw Saw

Julia Donaldson


Find out more about Julia Donaldson's time as Children Laureate.



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