Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Disabled Characters In Spanish Children's Literature

Cristina Cañamares Torrijos
CEPLI (Centre for the Study and the Promotion of Reading and Children's Literature)
Universidad de Castilla La Mancha, Cuenca, Spain
E-mail: ceplibec@hum-cu.uclm.es

Disabled characters have been present in children's literature for a long time. According to Keith (2001), in the 19th century disabled characters were used for two reasons: to make readers feel pity or charity, or to teach morality since disability was believed a punishment for misbehaviour. Often the story finished with the amazing recovery of the disabled character along with a supposed improvement in his or her moral attitudes.

In the 20th century, disabled characters are often used to emphasize a difference between disabled and non-disabled characters, or to criticise the mistreatment of disabled people. Thus, children's books appear to reflect a development from the patriarchal, protective attitudes of the 19th century towards more independence and integration of disabled people in modern society. Deeper study reveals that some of these characters are stereotypes, and many of the titles published in the 20th century perpetuate the type of characters seen in 19th century texts.

I reviewed Spanish "nursery rhymes," an anthology of popular stories by Rodriguez Almodóvar (1984) and books written by Spanish authors, finding 27 titles that included disabled characters. Cerrillo (1994) observed that some Spanish nursery rhymes make fun of people with physical defects: baldness, humps or a big head. But often, this humour is crueler when describing disabled people:

A la luz de un farol apagado / By the light of an unlit lantern
un mudo leía / a dumb man read
un sordo escuchaba / a deaf man listened
un ciego miraba / a blind man looked out
y a un calvo que había / and there was a bald man
los pelos de punta se le ponían. / whose hair stood on end.

Or this one:

A la puerta de un sordo / By a deaf man's door
cantaba un mudo / a dumb man sang
y un ciego le miraba con disimulo / and a blind man looked at him craftily
y, dentro, un cojo / and, indoors, a lame man
bailaba seguidillas con desahogo. / danced seguidillas with ease.
(seguidillas is a type of song in Spain)

In fantasy, characters with differences are common. El gigante egoísta (The selfish giant) or El sastrecillo valiente (The valiant tailor) are gigantic people, and Garbancito (Little chickpea) or Pulgarcito (Little Thumb) are quite normal tiny men. Often, the presence of these characters can be explained as an endemic tendency in children's literature to present characters with abnormal appearances, who attract attention and make readers compare them to the paradigm of "normality".

There are popular tales about characters with physical defects, like La niña sin brazos (The girl without arms), a traditional tale popular in the Arabic countries. The girl's lack of arms is not presented as a physical deficiency, but instead symbolizes the possible loss of virginity by her incestuous father. Thirty-seven Hispanic versions of this story are known, and in some, the Devil cuts off the girl's arms to prevent her making the sign of the Cross. The extraordinary regaining of her arms (a miraculous healing after Christianization) could symbolize the recovery of her innocence. While Spanish children might not understand the first symbolism, they do understand the second one.

In the 20th century, the publication of books with a positive view towards disability has become more important. In this study, the number of selected titles increases with the age of the reader. Only one, El ciempiés cojito (The lame centipede), was for first readers. Three titles were for children from 7 to 9 years; ten titles from 9 to 12; eight titles for 12 to 14 years, and only two for readers of 14 and older. Generally, disabled people are portrayed in a dramatic way. When they are used to show extreme kindness or dependence on others, an effortless or amazing healing which leads readers to feelings of paternalism, compassion or rejection often remains. A common topic is the search for a culprit, since disability is still seen as a divine punishment for misbehaviour or for a sin committed by any member of the family.

I have grouped the stories according to the type of disability they show: physical, mental, sensory and others.

Physical disability is the main topic in eight of the titles. In picture books, characters are shown with their wheelchairs and crutches on cover illustrations as well as on inside pages. Some modern stories perpetuate the image of typical 19th century characters. Han raptado a Ney (Ney has been kidnapped) by M. Marcela Sánchez Coquillat (1972) was a sequel to Un castillo en el camino (A castle in the road), a book which won the Catholic Spanish Commission of the Childhood Award in 1963. The girl in the main role creates feelings of pity and charity in the other characters and probably in the reader too, because the author presents her like a void person who needs help with everything. In contrast, other titles fight for the integration of disabled characters in society, such as El mundo de las cosas perdidas (The world of the lost things) by Company (1986) and El ciempiés cojito (The lame centipede) by Guillén (1988) whose characters do all they desire.

La piedra de toque (The Touchstone), by Monstserrat del Amo (1983), is the biography of Fernando Méndez, who had cerebral palsy. She describes his childhood and how social acceptance helped Fernando become a psychiatrist who helped others with cerebral palsy. This book stresses how his situation spurs consciences, because others find his presence uncomfortable. Some become more human and help him, but cowards flee from him, while the prejudiced ostracise him. Another physical condition is spinal curvature or humps, like in Chepita by Kurtz (1985) and in El caballito que quería volar (The little horse that wanted to fly) by Osorio (1982)

Mental disability appears in titles such as Todos tenemos hermanos pequeños (We all have little siblings) by Espinás, (1968) Senén, by Olaizola (1986), Un tiesto lleno de lápices (A flowerpot full of pencils) by Farias (1986), and La piedra de toque by Amo (1983). In Todos tenemos hermanos pequeños, all the family collaborate in making life easier for Juan, the main character, by playing, eating and speaking with him. In Un tiesto lleno de lápices, a 12 --year-old boy draws a portrait of his parents, brother and sisters, but mainly of his sister Nuria, mentally retarded and different from the other girls. In Senén, the role of sports is emphasised as a way to social integration for people with mental retardation. But Senén is also a bitter critique of the society we live in, because at the end of the story, Senén's mental weakness is discovered to be faked, just an evil plan developed by the director of the school: the priest Don Ignacio.

Regarding sensory disability, I have distinguished between visual problems, deafness and the lack of speech. Blindness is the central topic in Paulina, by Ana María Matute (1969). The main character, Paulina, is going to live with her grandparents and a blind boy, Nin, in the mountains. According to Mercedes Gómez del Manzano (1997) Nin has a threefold function in the story. First, to act as a driving force for Paulina's creativity, who adapts games for him; second to show individual and social contrast between Paulina and other children and between rich and poor, and lastly to provide a sting to spur her social conscience. I would add a fourth function, which is to show the value of the education for all, whatever their condition.

In Óyeme con los ojos, (Hear me with your eyes) by Dias (2001), Horacio has become deaf after an illness. The story is about how he learns to communicate with other people and to accept his disability with the help of society, showing courage and optimism. Other similar stories are El estanque de las libélulas (The dragonfly pool) by Juan Farias (1978) and Ruidos y silencios (Noises and silences) by Martinez I Vendrell (1990).

Lack of speech appears in El robo del caballo de madera (The robbery of the wooden horse) by Aguirre Bellver (1989) and in the beautiful story of El saltamontes verde (The green grasshopper) by Matute (1986) in which Yungo's voice is stolen but he still has the ability to understand the language of the flowers, of the birds and the wind; a silent language, voiceless, like his own.

There are also fictional stories about hospitalization or illness, such as epilepsy: Loco como un pájaro (Mad like a bird) by Pelot (1986), eneuresis: Las palabras mágicas (The magic words) by Gómez Cerda (1987), microcephalia: Los sueños de Bruno (Bruno's Dream) by Rubio (1990) and cancer: La gorra (The cap) by Carbo (2000). In Las palabras mágicas Ramón has child "eneuresis" and a difficult mother who upsets the boy. He pretends to be mute, blind and deaf, but finally his mother learns to say the magic words: She is sorry. The main character in La gorra is diagnosed with cancer. She tries to protect herself from her friends' jokes with a cap, because since the therapy she has lost her hair.

In stories where the main character is disabled, characters are usually very well drawn, reflecting the reality of their inner worlds and their many physical and emotional difficulties, sometimes more accurately described because the writers have personal experience of the condition. In these books, the characters have equal opportunities to enjoy and participate in life although sometimes they have to accept a lower standard of life. These stories could help readers develop a new perspective, and to practise empathy and role-taking.

Where the disabled character is one of the two main characters, disability is almost always portrayed in a traditional way, that is, full of negative ideas, beliefs and stereotyped prejudices. However, in some titles where another child appears as the main character, such as Paulina, all the children are seen to be creative and open, with a singular capacity for understanding and imagination. They share the situation and find ways of ways of overcoming it.

Studies by Luciano and Grimaldi, and Cerdá state that children's literature is one of the most effective methods for the transmission of attitudes and values. The general outline of traditional stories presents a hero living a series of adventures gaining independence as the final prize but this paradigm changes radically where disabled children are the main characters. At the end of their adventures, instead of becoming more independent, they accept their dependence. Disabled characters are still scarce in children's literature overall and like most examples in this study, most have physical and visual disabilities, but the number and variety of characters are increasing. Will they make us show more solidarity?


Aguirre Bellver, J. 1989. El robo del caballo de madera. Madrid: Anaya.

Amo, M. 1983. La piedra de toque. Madrid: S.M.

Carbo, J. 2000. La gorra. Barcelona: La Galera.

Cerdá, H. 1982. Literatura Infantil y clases sociales. Madrid: Akal.

Cerrillo, P.C. 1994. Lírica popular española de tradición infantil. Cuenca: Universidad de Castilla La Mancha.

Company, M. 1986. El mundo de las cosas perdidas. Barcelona: Ultramar.

Díaz, G. C. 2001. Óyeme con los ojos. Madrid: Anaya.

Espinás, J. M. 1968. Todos tenemos hermanos pequeños. Barcelona: La Galera.

Farias, J. 1986. Un tiesto lleno de lápices. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe.

Farias, J. 1978. El estanque de las libélulas. Madrid: Juventud.

Gómez Cerda, A. 1987. Las palabras mágicas. Madrid: S.M.

Gómez Del Manzano, M. 1997. El protagonista niño en la literatura infantil. Madrid: Narcea, p.145.

Guillén, A. 1988. El ciempiés cojito. Madrid: Anaya.

Keith, L. 2001. Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls. London: The Women's Press.

Kurtz, C. 1985. Chepita. Madrid: Escuela Española.

Luciano, M. and Grimaldi, E. 1998. Literatura infantil y desarrollo creativo. La Coruña: Griallibros.

Martinez I Vendrell, M. 1990. Ruidos y silencios. Barcelona: Destino.

Matute, A. M. 1986. El saltamontes verde. Barcelona: Lumen.

Matute, A. M. 1969. Paulina. Barcelona: Lumen.

Olaizola, J. L. 1986. Senén. Madrid: S.M.

Osorio, M. 1982. El caballito que quería volar. Valladolid: Miñón.

Pelot, P. 1986. Loco como un pájaro. Barcelona: La Galera.

Rodríguez Almodóvar, A. 1984. Cuentos al amor de la lumbre. Madrid: Anaya.

Rubio, R. 1990. Los sueños de Bruno. Madrid: S.M.

Sánchez Coquillat, M.M. 1972. Han raptado a Ney. Barcelona: Juventud.

Sánchez Coquillat, M.M. 1962. Un castillo en el camino. Barcelona: Juventud.


Biographical note:

Cristina Cañamares Torrijos is a scholar at CEPLI (Centre for the Study and the Promotion of Reading and Children's Literature) at the Universidad de Castilla La Mancha, Cuenca, Spain. She delivered a paper on disability portrayals in Spanish Children's literature at an International Congress celebrated in Spain in November 2002. Her study covers some of the titles published by Spanish authors in the 20th century, but it also makes reference to the changing views about these characters in the nursery rhymes and folktales, and their development from the 19th to the 20th century.

Copyright (c) 2004 Cristina Caamares Torrijos

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