This review focuses on the messages embedded within both images and text in children's picture books. It includes a thorough analysis of Looking after Louis by Lesley Ely, detailing how its illustrations and text sometimes contradict each other, creating a complicated representation of integrated education. "Inclusion vs. Seclusion" argues that while the book attempts to offer a positive portrayal of disability in the elementary classroom, its images and text convey a negative portrayal of disability, distancing a child with a disability from his/her peers. By comparing this picture book with another closely related text, this review examines the possible effects Looking after Louis might have on young readers.
Inclusion vs. Seclusion: A Review of Looking after Louis by Lesley Ely
Ely, Lesley; Dunbar, Polly. Looking after Louis. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 2004.
Miss Owlie's classroom is full of young children, anxious to learn and play. When a new boy, Louis, joins the class, the other children immediately become aware of his difference. It is implied that Louis has autism because he doesn't talk to the other students, but rather repeats what they say, and he doesn't play with them during recess, either. A girl who sits next to Louis in class tries to help him by suggesting new things to try or play with, but she doesn't feel like she is really connecting with him. It isn't until Louis stumbles across a soccer ball during recess and "almost smiles" that the students finally believe that they have made a connection with Louis. When Louis draws a picture and the other students interpret it as him playing soccer, Miss Owlie lets Louis play outside during class time, although the other students are upset because Miss Owlie would never allow them to skip class. The book ends with the other students making the observation that it is okay "to break the rules for special people" because it makes them feel "special, too." Although Looking After Louis attempts to offer a positive portrayal of disability in the elementary classroom, its illustrations and text sometimes contradict each other, creating a complicated representation of integrated education.
It is clear that Lesley Ely, the author of Looking after Louis, and illustrator Polly Dunbar, targeted this book at children through its simple language and bright and colorful pictures, but as parents and teachers, we must ask what message this book subtly conveys to children. The students understand that Louis is different because "he often just sits and stares at the wall,", but his difference is never defined or named. It is only after the story has finished that a letter of explanation, written by a Child Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Kori Levos Skidmore, is attached on the back page of the book. The letter, which is aimed towards adults (it uses a highly technical vocabulary), clarifies that Louis has autism, but is "high-functioning" and "can be taught in a regular classroom.". Dr. Skidmore's letter continues to explain that the book teaches about "inclusion" and that Louis is not only "able to watch and learn from his peers and to practice social skills," but "his classmates [are able] to learn empathy and respect for individual differences.".
Ely's decision not to define or medically "label" Louis's behavior as autism throughout the story suggests many things. First, it hints at the possible limits of children and their unwillingness to accept a peer who is disabled, compared to a peer who is simply "different." According to an article titled "Helping Children Learn Tolerance," by Anne Stonehouse, "children notice differences in people from a surprisingly young age" (1). However, if the difference is not defined for them, then how will they learn to respect the difference? Looking after Louis implies that children need not know about the basis/definition of disability, which might complicate things for them, but should see only a difference and label it as just that. The problem with this is that it suggests that a disability is something that should not be openly talked about in a classroom setting, and more disturbingly, that it is not a topic worth learning about. While Dr. Skidmore's letter states that the story teaches children to learn about differences, the actual story fails to mention anything about autism, and therefore, neither the students in the story nor the young readers of the book learn about the actual disability. The letter also claims that the book conveys the message of inclusion; however, the term inclusion should work both ways. Not only should Louis be included with other children in a typical classroom setting, but other children should be included in both openly discussing and learning about Louis's disability.
Miss Owlie's role as a teacher plays into this assumption that keeping disability unnamed is best for children, particularly when it comes to maintaining control over her students. The story notes:
Louis sometimes talks in the wrong place.
Yesterday Miss Owlie said, "Sit up straight, everybody."
Louis said, "Sit up straight, everybody."
We all laughed because he sounded just like Miss Owlie. She wasn't angry, though. Neither was Mrs. Kumar, who sits by Louis and helps him. They would have been angry if Em or Sam or I had done that.
An image accompanies this text — children laughing and pointing at Louis, with both Miss Owlie and Mrs. Kumar simply smiling — that fails to provide a positive example to the children readers. First, the text says that the treatment of a disabled child is noticeably different than that of his/her non-disabled peers. While the children may accept him as different, they may never accept him as just another peer — a difference will always be marked between the other children and Louis. Second, and perhaps more troublingly, the image shows that it is perfectly fine to laugh and point at a disabled child. Neither Miss Owlie nor Mrs. Kumar attempt to stop the children from their inappropriate outburst, and instead, are presumably joining the children in their laughter, hinted through the coy smiles drawn on their faces. Therefore, young readers of Looking after Louis are receiving the message that it is okay to make fun of children who are different, which completely contradicts Dr. Skidmore's claims that the children are "learn[ing] empathy and respect for individual differences." If the students were shown questioning why Louis repeats what he hears, then a different message would be communicated, perhaps indicating that it's okay to talk and learn about the difference. Likewise, had Ely and Dunbar represented Miss Owlie or Mrs. Kumar without smiles on their faces and suppressing the laughter, the children readers would have the opportunity to interpret otherwise.
This problematic relationship between the book's text and its illustrations appears elsewhere. On a two-page spread depicting recess, the children, including Louis, are shown running around rowdily, with no regulation or supervision from Miss Owlie or Mrs. Kumar. The image presents a narrative on its own:
Louis, wearing a red shirt, is portrayed four times in different areas of the illustration, playing by himself with his hands over his head. Meanwhile, the other children, who are each depicted only once, are seen either imitating Louis's actions or yelling at him. Where is Miss Owlie? And what happened to treating Louis differently? The rules of the classroom, evidently, do not apply to the rules of the playground. Some children seem to mimic Louis's behavior "playfully," as seen through a boy on the left with his tongue sticking out, or through a boy on the top right with his arms over his head like Louis. Yet another boy (bottom right), who is standing fairly close to Louis, feels the need to cup his hands by his mouth, in order to project his voice. Thin black lines are emanating from this boy's mouth, making it clear that the boy is yelling at Louis, who continues to raise his arms and do his own thing. While Miss Owlie is present in the classroom and is teaching her kids to treat Louis differently than they would their other peers, her absence here suggests that recess resembles the "real" outside world, where people are on their own without guidance from others. This illustration contradicts the book's supposed message of treating Louis differently as it shows that during recess, children are free to treat their peers how they want, and this treatment and attitude will continue to carry on into their teen and adult years.
When Miss Owlie allows Louis to play soccer outside during class time, the other students become upset, and one girl places her hands on her hips, telling the teacher, "You NEVER let US play outside when it's not recess." The term us raises some issues on its own, reiterating the notion that Louis is not one of us, but rather an other. Since the story fails to explain what Louis's disability is, or to portray the students showing any interest in knowing, the children readers may assume that children like Louis are "others" and will not care to learn more about what makes them different. By contrast, in another children's book depicting autism, Andy and His Yellow Frisbee, by Mary Thompson, the children approach Andy (the child with autism) and his sister, Rosie on the playground, and inquire about his disability. Rosie explains many facts about Andy's behavior to the other children and defines autism without minimizing or sugar-coating the details. This approach works better because not only is it educational, as it teaches the children readers about the disability, but it also demonstrates to them that it is okay to show interest and inquire about the disability. In other words, it does not make the topic seem prohibited.
There are many misrepresentations in Looking after Louis that not only misguide the children readers, but falsely portray Louis's disability and how he should be treated. A positive and/or effective children's book that represents disabled characters needs to be educational to the extent that the child reading it will benefit and learn from it. If a book chooses to teach about a disability through a disabled main character, then an effective approach for the author would be to include a character whom the other children feel comfortable talking to, so that the story can convey details about the disability to them. Including the child reader in all of the facts regarding the disability and teaching him/her more about the difference will positively affect that child's opinions regarding the disability. This way, the child learns that it is okay to learn about differences in people and can openly inquire about them, without feeling like it is a forbidden topic that cannot be discussed, as is portrayed in Looking after Louis.
While children will appreciate the colorful images and the simple form of writing in Looking after Louis, parents and teachers should reconsider the book on the basis that it sends mixed messages. When considering a positive/effective children's book representing disability, it is important to do the research and examine the book yourself, before reading it to your child/student.
Hila Hirad is a first-year graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver. She received her BA in English writing with plans to obtain her master's degree, and eventually, pursue a PhD in English. Her future goal is to teach English at the college level.
- Ely, Lesley; Dunbar, Polly. Looking after Louis. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 2004.
- Stonehouse, Anne. "Helping Children Learn Tolerance." Online [Available] http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ecconnections/FS19_tolerance.pdf (pdf), May 7, 2008.