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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Seeing Through New Eyes

The Seeing Stick was originally written by Jane Yolen in 1977, and was a recipient of the Christopher Medal in 1978. The book tells the tale of young princess Hwei Ming, whose name, when translated to English, means “the lightless moon on the last day of the month...becoming luminous.” This is a fitting name, for the princess is blind, and enjoys none of what she is given due to the darkness of her world.

Hwei Ming’s father, the emperor of Peking, announces that if anyone can help his only daughter to see, that person will be rewarded with fortune in jewels. In rhythmic prose begging to be replicated the author writes:
"Monks came, of course, with their prayers and prayer wheels, for they thought in this way to help Hwei Ming to see. Magician-priests came, of course, with their incantations and spells, for they thought in this way to help Hwei
Ming to see. Physicians came, of course, with their potions and pins, for
they thought in this way to help Hwei Ming to see..."
but none can find a cure.

A solitary old man hears the emperor’s request, so he travels a great distance to Peking. “The sun rose hot on his right side, and the sun set cool on his left” provides the reader with the idea that the journey is long and not undertaken lightly.

When the old man finally arrives, clothes tattered and dirty from his travels, he is turned away by the city guards. But through cleverness and creativity the old man is brought before the emperor, and there he is able to show the princess a new way of seeing (no spoiler here!). Hwei Ming then becomes a teacher to other blind children of Peking. Only on the last page does the reader discover that the old man was blind as well.

My first concern as a teacher is to ask, "Does this book's treatment of blindness minimalize or stereotype that condition?"

In researching that question, I came across an excellent article in the Future Reflections, a publication of the National Federation for the Blind. In the The Lack of Insight in Children’s Literature Regarding Blindness by Merry‑Noel Chamberlain, the author takes to task many authors' rather contrived treatments of the topic of blindness. Their books, she argues, fall prey to nine stereotypes. But in speaking of The Seeing Stick, Chamberlain says:
Like Knots on a Counting Rope, this folk tale is successful in avoiding the nine stereotypes about blindness... While there were earlier ‘hints’ that the man was blind, that fact was not truly revealed until the end of the book. Thus, the young readers, who may not know much about blindness, would probably think of this character as simply an ‘individual’ and not a ‘blind person.’ The author showed that a blind individual is quite capable of traveling without a sighted escort, and she did this without suggesting that he had miraculous powers. By the same token, The Seeing Stick did not portray blindness “as total tragedy.” The book did show the grieving of Hwei Ming’s father, but this was later turned around when Hwei Ming learned some alternatives. There might have been a touch of Dr. Jernigan’s themes of “Blindness as a perfect virtue” and “Blindness as purification” in the characterization of the princess. She seemed to be disconnected with the world around her or somewhat shy. Apart from this, however, the book educated its readers about blindness in an accurate and dignified manner.

So the wonderful narrative of Jane Yolen not only stands the test of time, but it stands the test of current theory and practice. But understand what's equally cool about this new edition are the incredible illustrations by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Like the original version, the first pictures are monochromatic; color is slowly introduced as the old man enters Peking. But in this new edition, the full color pages, (reminiscent in their flowery detail and complexity of medieval manuscripts and Chinese calligraphy), are printed on glossy paper, with many elements of each illustration raised off the page, so the images can be almost read with the fingers. I've read an incredible number of picture books, but the beauty of these pages was a surprise even for me. I was, quite literally, seeing the story in a new way.

This book would make a wonderful addition to any well-rounded collection of international tales. It should also find its place into any unit or discussion on disabilities, perhaps better called differences (see this lower grade unit on Studying Differences through Literature for some ideas). If you're looking for some other picture books on differences, this list from the ESSL Children's Literature Blog is a good start, as is A Guide to Children's Literature and Disability.

Some 300 books into her career, Jane Yolen continues to be an incredible agent of change for children's literature. Be sure to visit her site to view her other titles, as well as the great collection of resources and interviews collected there.


Anonymous said...

Are you planning a giveaway for this book?