Interview with Dr. Joan Blaska (Inclusionary Literature 101)

We had been planning our first video blog for weeks and, boy, were we excited! Dr. Joan Blaska is one of the foremost thought leaders on inclusion in children’s literature and she was excited to share her deep experience with us.

The date and time were set.

                Our interview script was prepared.

Zoom had been downloaded on all of our computers!

And then…. our internet connection went unstable throughout our conversation.

 

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, our first attempt at recording a video blog was foiled! However, we were able to capture most of the call transcript which is included below. Be on the lookout though – this won’t be our last video blog!

 

Video Transcript:

Erin:

Hey guys it’s Erin & Mike, the founders of Keepsake Tales. We’re so excited for our first video blog and are thrilled for you to meet our guest!

Mike:

We’re here today with Dr. Joan Blaska. Joan is a retired professor Emeritus from St. Cloud University and taught in the Department of Child and Family studies. Joan is the thought leader for inclusion in children’s literature, in fact, coining the important term and concept of “Inclusionary Literature”. Joan – thanks so much for being here with us.

Joan:

You’re very welcome – it’s my pleasure.

Erin:

Joan, thanks for being on with us today. I’m curious how you came to be so passionate about children with disabilities. Can you tell us how you first started to study inclusion and diversity in children’s literature?

Joan:

I’d be happy to. I was teaching at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and I had a colleague at another University in Minnesota. We had the same jobs at different universities and we talked often.

She was the grandmother of a child with a disability and I’m the mother of a son with a disability. So, we were going back and forth, and complaining about how difficult it was to find a book that had a child with a disability.

So, as we were talking, we realized that if we’re having such difficulty finding books for our children or grandchildren, others must be as well.

As university professors, we realized that we had to prove that this was a problem. So, we developed a study. We developed a tool that we used in the study and, as time passed, there was a national study that included projects for young children. We thought that our study would be a great fit, so we sent in our proposal.

Our proposal was accepted and we got funding to begin our study! It was about this time that we began calling books that have children with disabilities, “Inclusionary Literature”.

Mike:

I resonate so much with your statement that it’s really hard to find books that include children with disabilities! At Keepsake Tales, when we started doing research on rates of inclusion within children’s literature, we have found it to be insanely difficult to find any data regarding rates of inclusion for children with disabilities or sicknesses within children’s literature.

In fact, the only information that I was able to find was from your study from 1992! Can you tell us more about that study?  

Joan:

Yes. In 1992 we conducted our study called:  Children’s Literature that includes Characters with Disabilities. We reviewed 500 award-winning and best-selling children’s books using a checklist that we developed to measure whether the stories included children with disabilities and, if they did, what role children with disabilities played in the story.

We learned that out of those 500 books, only 10 of them included a character with a disability. That’s only 2%! Further, out of those 10, only 6 of the characters were integral to the story.

Our research demonstrated that very few books exist that we would classify as Inclusionary Literature.

Erin:

Wow – that’s crazy! I’d love to learn more about Inclusionary Literature. How would you define the term?

Joan:

Well, there are two kind of books that include children with a disability.

There are some books that are about somebody with a disability. Many of these stories revolve around the disability that a key character has. Often, we find that these books make the disability the whole point of the story.

There are other books that include a character with a disability, but don’t make the whole point of the story about the disability. In other words, the character with a disability becomes part of the storyline or in illustrations, without necessarily becoming the focal point of the story.

When I talk about Inclusionary Literature, I’m talking about the second of these types of stories.

Some examples include: MaMa Zooms, Where’s Chimpy, and Beads on One String.

Mike:

This is really helpful. Why is Inclusionary Literature so important? It sounds like stories that include children with disabilities are more important than stories that are about children with disabilities. Why is that?

Joan:

When children learn more about likenesses and differences of others, they begin to develop empathy and often become more sensitive.

When children see pictures of children with disabilities, they often ask questions.  Then parents and teachers can provide answers to increase their understanding. Books provide a safe and healthy space for kids to ask questions and to learn.

When pictures of disabilities are included in stories, all children begin to see how we are all alike in value, while some of us may look (or think) differently!

This is best accomplished not by focusing on the disability (something that emphasizes our difference), but by focusing on the story and including a character with a disability (emphasizing a healthy relationship between people with disabilities and people without disabilities).

When children are exposed to disabilities they aren’t as surprised or scared when they see a child with a disability in their classroom!

Erin:

Thank you for that explanation. It’s so helpful to understand the nuances that you’re describing.

As you know, we have taken this idea of Inclusionary Literature to heart at Keepsake Tales. In fact, we took your vision so seriously that we are including a child with a disability or sickness in the story and illustrations for each new Keepsake Tale original story.

We’re committed to being part of the solution. And, we know that we aren’t alone.

What other resources that you would recommend for those seeking out Inclusionary Literature?

Joan:

Honestly, it’s not easy to find many of these books! I would recommend asking your local librarian what books they have that include children with disabilities. Your librarian may not be familiar with the term Inclusionary Literature, but they will know what books they have that would fit our definition.

Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, I am unable to access my personal collection of Inclusionary Literature at this time. I donated my collection to the University of St. Cloud and am not able to enter the library at this time to catalogue a list of Inclusionary Literature stories at this time.

However, I’ll stay in touch and provide a list of the stories that I’ve been able to find and document over the years as soon as I’m able to access the library!

Mike:

Joan, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for continuing to invest your time in helping us to build Keepsake Tales into a resource that makes a real impact in this world.

We so appreciate your coaching and mentorship. Is there anything else that you’d like to leave our listeners (readers) with today?

Joan:

Many thanks to Mike and Erin for being excited about Inclusionary Literature. It warms my heart, as this has been my love for a very long time.

Let us all remember children need to be exposed to all abilities and people.

We are more accepting when we’ve had a positive experience with someone with a disability or of another culture.

We also need to remember the young children reading these books are our future parents, doctors, teachers, neighbors, etc.

I think that Inclusionary Literature should be a part of every child’s preparation for life!

Erin:

Thanks so much for education us today, Joan.

And thank YOU, for tuning in to the very first Keepsake Tales video blog. We are thrilled to have been able to have this great conversation with the wonderful Dr. Joan Blaska. We hope that you start to use the power of Inclusionary Literature to help the children in your life better understand that - regardless of what somebody looks like - every person is one of a kind and has intrinsic value.

Be sure to sign up for our mailing list and to check stay up to date with our latest product offerings – all of which will adhere to Joan’s Inclusionary Literature framework.

We’ll be sharing more resources about Inclusionary Literature as soon as we can and will even invite YOU to help us add to Joan’s collection.

Thanks, and we’ll see you back on the Keepsake Tales blog soon!

 

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