Joy is a new picture book by Corrinne Averiss, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath. I found it on a list of books that feature characters with disabilities. I was so excited to get a copy. I thought I’d review it right away.

But it’s taken me a while to write the review. I fell in love with the illustrations right away. And the little girl, Fern. But there are things about the story that don’t set well with me.

“The joy has gone out of her life”

The disabled character in the book is Nanna. Nanna is Fern’s grandmother. She wears her white hair in a braided crown and her half-glasses on a chain. She makes butterfly cakes and keeps a tidy house with fresh flowers on the mantel over the fireplace. She has a sweet cat, and a bright smile.

But when we turn the page, everything has changed. The petals have fallen from the flowers, the mantel mice are collecting cobwebs. Nanna has given up baking. She’s sitting in her armchair in her nightgown and bathrobe, her hair disheveled, slippers on her feet. Her cat hasn’t been brushed. Her wheelchair sits across the room.

Fer asks her mother what’s wrong with Nanna. Her mom says, “It’s like the joy has gone out of her life.” Fern wants to understand joy. And then she wants to gather up some joy, and bring it to Nanna.

So she creates a catching kit, and goes to the park to capture joy and bring it to Nanna.

And she found so much joy! But catching it was another matter. You can’t catch joy and put it in a box.

Fern walked to Nanna’s house with heavy feet. And when Nanna asked why she was sad, Fern told her. She told her about all the joy she had found at the park – the babies chuckling, the fish sparkling, the puppies bouncing.

And Fern’s joy … joy is contagious. It made Nanna smile. And the next day, Fern and Nanna went to the park. Fern pushed Nanna’s wheelchair, and together, they shared joy and butterfly cakes.

So many things that worry me

While I love Follath’s illustrations, I’m afraid that I don’t love Averiss’s story. I want to. But so many things about it worry me.

Having Nanna’s wheelchair appear and her joy disappear at the same time is a problem. The juxtaposition creates the impression that wheelchairs are sad things. It suggests that physical disability is a reason to be depressed. That isn’t a message I want children to hear. I want children to know that wheelchairs offer freedom and independence. They offer access to joy.

But when Fern asked what was wrong with Nanna, her mom was evasive. And that’s a problem, too. Talking around disability is dishonest. It makes disability seem scary or shameful. It would have been more honest, and more helpful, if Fern’s mom had said, “Nanna can’t walk as well as she used to. And that makes her sad.” And if Fern’s mom had added, “But she has a wheelchair now, so we think that will make things better,” that would have been awesome.

The book also suggests that a child can be responsible for the feelings of the adults they love. That may be the most problematic thing of all. A child could come away thinking that, if a parent or grandparent is depressed or ill, they should be able to fix it. That’s what Fern wanted to do. And she did it.

What I love about Joy

I love Follath’s illustrations.

Averiss used the word “Whoosh!” to describe what joy is, and how it feels. And Follath took the word and filled it with color. Bright, gorgeous, kaleidoscopic color. In her hands, chuckles and sparkles and bounces and butterflies become swoops of glorious color.

When there is no whoosh, when there is no joy, the colors are faded and dim. The contrast is dramatic. And it strikes me as an effective way to communicate the joy having gone out of Nanna’s life.

What I wish were different

I wish Joy didn’t suggest that a wheelchair is a reason to be depressed. Wheelchairs don’t limit people’s mobility; they restore it. They provide independence. They’re good.

I wish Joy didn’t suggest that a child could cure an adult’s depression in an afternoon. I wish it didn’t make depression seem so ephemeral, and I wish it didn’t make a child take responsibility for the adult.

And I wish that Averiss and Follath had talked to people who use wheelchairs, and people who have depressive episodes, as they were writing and illustrating the book. It’s possible that they did. But I don’t see evidence of those conversations in the book. And that’s disappointing. Because, while representation matters, not all representation is equally good. We need books that get it right.

Read More

The best picture books with disabled characters: If you’re looking for picture books that include characters with disabilities, this list won’t disappoint.

Welcoming everyone to church: Disability and special needs: If you’re not sure how to welcome people with disabilities to your parish, this page gives you a few places to start.

Sasha and the Dragon: A fairy tale with angels: Another story about a child whose grandmother is ailing. It’s a beautiful book.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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