I thought that I would love Diane Gonzales Bertrand’s bilingual picture book, My Pal, Victor. Characters with disabilities are incredibly rare in picture books. A picture book that includes a child who has a disability and who is not white, is a rare and precious thing. The only ones I know besides My Pal, Victor are Hello Goodbye Dog and King for a Day. (If you know of any others, put them in the comments, please!)
And My Pal, Victor won the Schneider Family Book Award in 2005. The awards “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” These awards, like the Caldecott and the Newbery and all the other awards offered by the American Library Association, are intended to help you find the best of the best.
So, given the award, and given how I adore Hello Goodbye Dog, I expected to love My Pal, Victor. It has a major character, Victor, who is disabled and Hispanic. Victor is not pitied. He isn’t bulled. He doesn’t have disability super powers. There is no miraculous cure. He is simply who he is: a Hispanic boy who loves baseball, swims like a fish, tells scary stories and funny jokes, and uses a wheelchair.
The main character and narrator, Dominic, never mentions Victor’s disability. It doesn’t matter to him. What matters is the things they do together, and the friendship that they share. That’s an approach that I like very much. It’s the approach I took with Elizabeth’s disability in Catherine’s Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow. It’s the approach that Maria Gianferrari took in Hello Goodbye Dog. It’s the approach Rukhsana Khan took in King for a Day. In a picture book, I think it works really, really well.
The problem with My Pal, Victor
But there’s a difference. In my books, and in Hello Goodbye Dog and King for a Day, you know about the disability from the beginning, because you see it in the illustrations. In My Pal, Victor, that’s not the case. We see Victor and Dominic at a baseball game. We see them in a swimming pool. We see them on rides at the fair. We see them sitting in the grass, looking at the clouds. We see Victor throwing a toy for his dog.
But we don’t see his wheelchair until the very last page of the story.
And that matters. Representation matters. Children who use wheelchairs need to see children who use wheelchairs in their books. And children who don’t use wheelchairs need to see children who use wheelchairs in their books. They need to see children who use wheelchairs as people they can relate to, people they can know, people who they can be friends with.
Hiding the disability until the end of the book feels like cheating to me. I’m not sure what message Bertrand wanted to send by saving the disability for a “reveal” at the end of the book. To me, it suggests that disability is something bad and scary. If you knew about it, you might not like the person. So we have to make sure you like them first, before you can know about the disability.
Maybe that’s not what Bertrand was thinking. Maybe she intended the surprise revelation of Victor’s disability to say that Victor is more than his disability. And that’s true, and important. And maybe some people will read it that way. But I think that Mr. Rogers’ approach to disability, in the episode with a boy who used a wheelchair, is much more likely to have the desired effect. Mr. Rogers is honest and direct. The disability is not something to be hidden, but something to be understood.
To read, or not to read
With all that said, if you want your children to have picture books that show children with disabilities, there aren’t many to choose from. That scarcity makes each one precious, even if it’s imperfect. And while My Pal, Victor is seriously flawed, I don’t think it’s so flawed that it should be rejected out of hand.
I think you can make My Pal, Victor a wonderful book for the little ones you know, just by framing the story before you read it with them the first time. Instead of letting Victor’s disability be a surprise at the end, just tell the child, up front, that Victor uses a wheelchair. Let them see the whole story with that understanding in place. Let them to know the “real” Victor from the beginning.
That, I think, would make it a book to cherish.
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