By Adiba Nelson
This piece was originally published in The Mighty
One of the high points in parenting is getting to read books to and with your child. It is a bedtime ritual that has been practiced for decades upon decades. Whether it was “The Adventures of Dick and Jane,” or the now ever-popular “Harry Potter” series, books at bedtime are a staple in a household with children.
However, when I went looking for a bedtime book I felt my child could relate to, I came up short. Actually, I came up empty. I searched local independent bookstores, well-known chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble, and even online looking for a book that had an African-American girl in a wheelchair on the cover. I quickly discovered there was nothing. It simply did not exist.
Let me put this in a broader context: My child did not exist in the books written and designed for a group she is clearly a part of: children.
While I did find books that talked about children having a disability, the books often focused on the child’s disability, and never the child. This would never do for my kid. At the time, Emory was a spunky, sassy 4-year-old (not much has changed four years later) who was so much more than just her wheelchair or communication device So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wanted a book about a kid being a kid, doing kid things. It was fine if there was a message because as a writer, I do feel like children’s books should have a point, but I mostly wanted her to see herself — a fun, loving, silly kid — who by the way also has a disability.
Thus “Meet ClaraBelle Blue” was born.
Now truth be told, I wrote “Meet ClaraBelle Blue” in a fit of frustration (and maybe a little bit of mama bear rage). How could an entire genre of books that is supposed to serve my child not include my child? It didn’t make sense and seemed terribly cruel and unfair. As I shopped the book around to a few agents, I found out why books like mine are not included. My child and children like mine (and possibly yours) are considered too “niche” for the publishing world.
I remember the feeling that came over me when I heard those words through the phone line. It was akin to the feeling I had when a child care center once told me that my child was a safety hazard because another child might trip and fall over her stander, so at age 2, she had to remain in the infant room. That feeling? You might be familiar with it. It’s rage. It’s pain. It’s frustration. It is a heartbreaking sadness. And if you’re anything like me, it culminates into the fiercest determination this world has ever seen.
Nothing about my child, or any child, is “too niche” to be seen in a children’s book, and no child is too niche to be recognized as existing in the world they live in. This awoke a giant in me, and I decided to self-publish “Meet ClaraBelle Blue.” My book is currently the only children’s book featuring a young African-American girl with a disability the cover, and once you read the book, you quickly discover that it just may be the only book of its nature.
This book that was once labeled as “too niche” to be considered for representation has quickly become not only my daughter’s favorite book, but a favorite in households across the country. With the story’s overarching theme of “ClaraBelle Blue is just like you,” and often hilarious images, I have been told parents have had a hard time convincing their children to pick a different book to read at bedtime.
With “Meet ClaraBelle Blue,” I set out to not only create a book my daughter could see herself in, but also a book that could help typically-abled children see that children like her aren’t so different from them. Inadvertently, the book has also helped parents start the conversation around disabilities, and keep it at a child-friendly level. Children of all abilities and races can relate to ClaraBelle Blue as they read about her making interesting “snacks” for her mom, trying to help with laundry, and playing her favorite childhood game, Duck Duck Goose.
However, what drives the story home for children and parents alike is the sweet, touching end of the book. I won’t give it away, but I can tell you I often have a hard time keeping it together when I get to the last few pages when reading it to my daughter, or to groups of children I visit in schools. I can always feel my throat getting a little bit tight. I’ll look around, and I can see the moms and dads wiping the tears at the corners of their eyes, and I know then that they got the point too. Needless to say, I don’t look around too much when I get to the end.
My goal is to have “Meet ClaraBelle Blue” on every child’s bookshelf and in every library and bookstore across the country. I know the story of a kid just being a kid is not “too niche” for kids to understand. This is also why I plan to release more books about kids with disabilities just being kids. “Meet ClaraBelle Blue” is the first book of the ClaraBelle Series, but I’ll soon be introducing ClaraBelle’s friends, like LuAnn, who lives with childhood anxiety disorder, JoJo, who lives with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); and ClaraBelle’s typically-abled/neurotypical best friend Tessa, driving home that necessary message of inclusion.
My kid is not too niche. Your child is not too niche.
And it’s high time the world found out.