In the opening session of the CEC-DADD conference the CEC awarded this year's recipients of the Dolly Gray Book Award. Although I thought I was up on my special ed novels I clearly am not because I did not even know this award existed.
The award recognizes, " high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities."
I glossed over those words in the program, thinking that it was great they were giving the award, but I didn't givie it any more thought than that. Yet as they began to describe the criteria for the award I realized just how important the award is and how much thought is behind it. To decide on a winner the committee dives into what it means to "appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities". Does the book reflect inclusive practices? Does the book portray a realistic and accurate sense of the disability? Does the character with a developmental disability change during the story, or is he/she a character only intended to help other characters change?
There is a difference between a character with autism who only serves as a vehicle for the author to create sympathy for the main character and a character with autism who is his own person and who grows and changes himself within the book. Until that morning I had not given much thought of the importance of that distinction and why it is essential to have books that portray children with developmental delays as meaningful characters who change throughout a text just like typically developing characters. To shift the national mindset about who children with disabilities are and where they belong we must have examples in what we read for pleasure.
This year's young adult winner was Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. As we watched the author's acceptance speech I downloaded the book through Amazon, and was reading it by the end of the day. From a creative writing perspective it is a fun read- the author tells an entire story through the eyes of an imaginary friend. He creates the world of imaginary friends, the boundaries that are set for them, how they interact with one another as well as the outside world. The main character, an imaginary friend named Budo tells the story of his creator, a fourth grader with autism. Although the story itself is engaging, I was impressed with how Mathew Dicks was able to portray the traits of a boy with autism so well through the eyes of his imaginary friend. It appears effortless on first read, but as you step back and realize how he wove so many elements of autism into the story you realize how much of it must have been intentional.
I highly recommend reading Memoirs, and also checking out the other books that have won over the years.