January 7 — 5:16 pm, 2020

‘Alesia’: The life of a girl who uses a wheelchair

Rachel Slaughter

Published in 1981, Alesia, by Eloise Greenfield and Alesia Revis, details the struggles of an African American girl who became physically disabled as the result of being hit by a car. She was Greenfield’s neighbor, which led to this collaboration about her life. Few books include characters with disabilities, and fewer still include people of color with disabilities.

In the quest for disability representation, readers are searching for quality multicultural literature that, in the words of Christine Sleeter and  Carl Grant, “recognize, accept, and affirm human differences and similarities related to gender, race, handicap, and class.” As an educator, I join the quest of parents, teachers, and librarians who hope to find bias-free books featuring people of color as fully developed characters.

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about diversity, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. The acronym QUILT refers to  Quality of writing, Universal theme, Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise.

Eloise Greenfield 

Born May 17, 1929, in North Carolina, Greenfield moved to Washington, D.C., when she was very little. Growing up as one of five children, she took an interest in piano and reading. She didn’t find her passion for writing until she was in her late 20s. Married with two children and working as a clerk-typist in the U.S. Patent Office, Greenfield carved out time to enjoy her passion, writing in many genres, including poetry and songs.

She has written more than 45 children’s books, and in 2018, she won the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Greenfield also received an honorary degree from Wheelock College in Boston. Over her years of writing books, she has not strayed from her main goal: to uplift the African American community. With that goal in mind, she used her talents to provide free creative writing workshops to young people with the help of grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. 

Quality of writing: Alesia is written as a diary, detailing her life as a teen who has a physical disability. The entries are easy-going accounts of her life, with snippets about how her disability affects her day-to-day existence.  

Universal theme: Her entries tell us that the spring of 1980 was bursting with fun stuff like school dances, family gatherings, and trips to McDonald’s. Alesia’s diary entries are not disheartening stories about how her physical disability disables her. Instead, Alesia details how her life with a wheelchair has a few pitfalls.

She writes about how she meets those pitfalls and challenges with grit, determination, courage, and humor. For example, Alesia writes: “When guys find out that I can’t walk … it scares them off before they can get to know me, and I want them to know me first, know what kind of person I am, and then I’ll tell them about my disability.”

Imaginative plot: People with physical and mental disabilities and their allies are disappointed by the lack of representation in life and in fiction. Because fiction is limitless, the lack of representation there is especially exasperating. A writer’s mind could conjure up a host of characteristics that reflect our cornucopia of experiences. 

Lesson plan: According to research, inclusive literature that “reflects the diversity of children’s life experiences” helps children feel safe and included. Writers can support inclusivity by presenting characters with or without disabilities who share the gamut of experiences and emotions that humans encounter. 

Talking points: 

  1. What books have you read that depict disabled people?
  2. In your opinion, why are people with mental or physical disabilities often left out of books?
  3. According to research, there are 5.8 million children with disabilities in the United States. What are some ways that readers can demand that disabled people are properly and accurately represented in literature?

Dr. Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book titled “Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature” will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2020.  To contact her, email literacyuniversity@gmail.com. For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to literacyuniversity.org.

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