Claire Cashmore: How Bedtime Stories Can Improve Representation
6 min read
Last Modified 22 June 2021 First Added 17 June 2021
Improving representation in children’s books is important for many reasons. One in four adults live with a disability, yet disabled representation in children’s books is sparse. A key reason that representation is important is it gives disabled children something to aspire to, react to, and relate to. As well as creating an understanding and normalising difference for non-disabled children.
At Sleep Matters Club, as advocates of the importance of bedtime stories, we wondered how representation can be incorporated into what we read our children as they drift off to sleep.
So, for the parents of disabled children, what bedtime stories can help our little ones feel seen and heard?
For the parents of non-disabled children, are there stories we can read to our youngsters at bedtime which help normalise disability and give them gain a broader understanding?
To try and answer those questions, we interviewed ParalympicsGB Swimming Gold Medallist and children’s author Claire Cashmore. She shares her experiences with her disability and how this led in some way to the representation she promotes in books and talks about her book, Splash. We also identify the best books to feature main characters with disabilities.
‘The reason why I was inspired to write Splash was that when I was growing up, and there were no role models, there was nobody that looked like me in books or the media. And I struggled during my teenage years, I was super self-conscious.’
This lack of representation, especially within children’s books was something she has always felt and talked about. So instead of wanting to see the change, she decided to step out of her comfort zone and try to change the status quo. She got in contact with a few authors from a few different publishing companies and pitched the idea of creating Splash, which is about Claire’s real-life experience of having a fear of water and not letting it get in the way of her chasing her dreams of being a gold-medal-winning swimmer.
Although obvious through visuals the main character has one arm, Claire doesn’t mention this, and this is for good reason.
‘I just want it to be normal, I want people to look at your children’s book and see your main character have a disability, and that to just appear normal, rather than loads of attention drawn to that.’
‘I think it’d be don’t be afraid to fail. And the failure teaches you so much about yourself and just use it as an opportunity to learn and step outside your comfort zone.’
‘You know, it’s incredible because I don’t think you can be truly successful until you’ve pushed yourself so far out of your comfort zone, that you do fall short of expectations, you might fall short, and you might not achieve what you want to achieve. But use that opportunity to learn and to come back stronger and better and more knowledgeable than you would have been before.’
Below is a list of other great children’s bedtime reads which include disabled characters.
A charming picture book telling the story of Sylvia, a wheelchair-using mermaid who teaches captivated young boy Luka how to swim.
Birds are meant to fly the nest, but Baby has a twisted wing and every time he tries to fly he falls to the ground. This lovely picture tells the story of how Baby finds different ways to achieve his dreams.
The story of the celebrated artist, who was seriously injured in a road accident as a teenager and painted from her bed, unable to walk. The book features quirky illustrations, historical photos and fun facts.
A child-friendly biography of one of the world’s best-known thinkers, who brought science to everyone with his trademark voice and sense of humour despite living with the progressive Motor Neurone Disease
Raffi is a shy boy who doesn’t like noisy games and is often teased at school. When he gets the idea of making a scarf for his dad, the other children tell him it’s girly to knit – until he uses his creative skills to save the school pageant. Reviewed as ‘perfect for every child who has ever felt different.’
Zibbo the dragon isn’t like the other children, but being different doesn’t make him any less amazing – just like the fact that his owner is a wheelchair user doesn’t make him any less likely to have fun and make mischief! A wonderfully diverse book with lovely illustrations.
Written by the much-loved TV presenter and Paralympian, this novel features a young boy from Nigeria who wears callipers and struggles to fit in at school, until his heroic acts and football skills defeat the bullies and win him, new friends.
Hiccup the Viking and his sidekick Toothless are both amputees. The bestselling novel and film adaptation subtly show how they live with disabilities but aren’t defined by them.
The story of 11-year-old Addie, who campaigns for a memorial to the witch trials in her Scottish hometown but struggles to have her voice heard due to her autism.
Caitlin, who has Asperger’s, is struggling to cope with the loss of her brother. As she seeks closure, a world of colour begins to enter her black-and-white life.
Song for a Whale follows Iris, who was born deaf, as she comes up with a foolproof plan to help a lonely whale who’s unable to communicate with other whales.
Julia is treated as an outcast in her mainstream school because she’s deaf. The only thing she has left is her graffiti, but as she paints anywhere and everywhere she can, she finds herself in a turf war with another graffiti artist.
For more stories of physically or neurologically diverse people from around the world, Just Like Me is an anthology featuring inspirational figures including Simone Biles, Sudha Chandran, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Radcliffe, Usain Bolt, Warwick Davies, Selena Gomez, Temple Grandin, Frida Kahlo, Madeline Stuart, Sadako Sasaki and Greta Thunberg.
Each profile includes their struggles and triumphs, a motivational quote and information on each condition, all illustrated in full colour by a team of artists who identify as physically or neurologically diverse themselves.