On April 6, 2020, beloved Canadian children’s author, Jean Little, passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of love and best sellers. Some of her best known books include Mine For Keeps Hand in Hand, Dancing Through the Snow and From Anna.
But having been wrapped up in earning my English degree, training with my first guide dog, moving cities and of course, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’d lost touch with many of my beloved childhood authors and their books—like Jean Little. For two years after graduating university, I couldn’t pick up a book; my brain was so spent from four years of literary analyses and creative writing portfolios that I couldn’t enjoy the act of reading.
But with the announcement of Little’s passing and all the fond memories that flooded back with it, I resolved to re-acquaint myself with her books.
My favourite as a kid was From Anna. My TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) had embossed a braille copy for me, and I kept the volumes next to my bed within easy reach for late-night reading sprees. The dots wore down, and the pages adopted a permanent curve from leaning against the wall on an angle, but that just speaks to how much I loved this book.
And I wasn’t the only one. This tribute to Jean counts From Anna among her most cherished works.
It was a few weeks ago now that I read Forward, Shakespeare!, a story that follows a young dog called Shakespeare as he trains at The Seeing Eye to become a guide dog, and is matched with a teenaged boy named Tim who wants nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare or his blindness. I was captivated by this book, reading it front to back in one night; it’s masterfully written, engaging and is an accurate representation of the lifestyle of working with a guide dog. Jean herself received her guide dogs from this same school.
But as I laid awake, long after I’d turned the final page, I was struck by such an overwhelming feeling that it took me many nights to process what it truly was.
It was that near indescribable feeling of being known. Of being understood and validated and accepted for who you are and where you are in your story.
I was just like Tim.
As a teenager, and even in my early twenties, I felt the same things as Tim—I was angry, guarded, bitter and unwilling to accept the circumstances of my blindness as they were. I had closed myself off and wouldn’t let anyone help me. But somehow, in the pages of one children’s book, I found a friend. I met someone who understood me and my story, someone who wasn’t ashamed to feel what they felt, even though others might wish that he would just let it go and move on. Through Tim, Jean Little said, “I understand you, Rhianna, and it’s okay.”
But as wonderful as it felt to be understood and “gotten” by this one character, it is the very thing I resolved never to do in my own books.
Follow this blog for any length of time and you’ll become very familiar with my fear of being known only by my blindness. With God’s help, I’m overcoming this fear—this blog itself is a testament to that—yet, it still lingers in the corners of my mind with each post that I publish. And when plotting and outlining for future books, I kept to this one, non-negotiable rule:
No. Blind. Characters.
If I wrote a character with a visual impairment, I was driving the final nail into the identity coffin—there would be no chance of shaking the dreaded “blind writer” label after that. After all, other disabled authors are only known by their disability.
While Jean Little was blind, worked with guide dogs and wrote books about children with varying disabilities, she isn’t remembered because of her blindness.
She’s remembered for who she was and how her books changed lives. Though her characters were primarily children with disabilities, that isn’t what endears her books to our hearts. It’s the humanity that those characters bring. It’s “her ability to see the truth within her characters, and her willingness to follow wherever they [choose] to take her and her readers.” It’s in the heart of characters like Tim which give readers like me a way to feel known and loved.
You can imagine my surprise then, when I realized that the outline for my current novel contains a blind character, guide dog and all! I hadn’t even realized what I’d done.
I, a blind writer, would write a book with a blind character. Or shall I be more precise and say, I will write a book with a blind character.
And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great!
Besides, who better to write a blind character than an author who “gets” it? I think that’s why Tim meant so much to me, because I knew that through him, Jean Little got me, too.
And so, I’ve resolved to change my resolve.
If Jean Little could do it, I can do it. If she could fearlessly write characters with visual impairments and be confident in herself as a writer and as a blind woman, then maybe I can, too.
And if Tim, a blind character in a children’s story could be someone that I saw myself in and in so doing, see a way out of the darkness we both experienced, I think it’s time I become a rule breaker.
It’s time to embrace who I am, both as a blind woman and as a writer.
Thank you Jean Little… you are dearly missed, but your books will live on and continue to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Like they have in mine.