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Beyond Helen Keller

She Touched the WorldIt is said that it is important for children to see and read about positive representations of themselves in popular culture. As books, films and television begin to feature more and more diversity, there is one minority group that seems slower to find itself in the spotlight – Deaf and hard of hearing characters. Thanks to shows like Switched at Birth and movies like Children of a Lesser God and The Family Stone, Deaf children have started to see a representation of themselves on the large and small screens. However, representations of Deaf and hard of hearing characters in children’s and adolescent literature can be more challenging.

If someone who is unacquainted with Deaf culture and deafness was asked to find a book about a deaf person for a child to read, chances are they will immediately think to look for a book on Helen Keller. And it is not surprising — an search for “Deaf, biography” in the children’s literature section yields 24 results, 19 of which are about Helen Keller.

My first year teaching high school in a Deaf/Hard of Hearing school, I mentioned Helen Keller to my students as someone they might research a biography about for English class. I was met with a collective eye roll. Growing up as Deaf children among teachers, friends and families for whom deafness and Deaf culture was unfamiliar, my students had been about Helen Keller’d to death.

But there are plenty of Deaf people for children to read about — William “Dummy” Hoy, the baseball player, is referenced in the young adult book about baseball and deafness, Sounds of Silence by Philip Tomosso. Marlee Matlin, actress from Children of a Lesser God, has written Leading Ladies, young adult fiction starring a Deaf character. There is even a predecessor to Helen Keller, a deaf/blind woman from 50 years prior named Laura Bridgman that children can read about in She Touched the World by Sally Hobart Alexander.

They may be harder to find, but books with Deaf and hard of hearing characters are out there — Teachers and other adults working with Deaf students should move beyond Helen Keller when considering books with Deaf or hard of hearing characters.

Jessica Scott About Jessica Scott

Jessica Scott is an applied instructor in Deaf Education at the University of Tulsa and a previous high school teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students at the Alaska State School for the Deaf.



  1. Leigh Woznick says:

    There’s a terrific historical mystery that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard and features the hereditary deaf community there, and the fact that even hearing people used sign language to communicate. It’s more for middle than high school, perhaps. It’s called Gaps in Stone Walls. OOP I’m afraid but you can get used on Amazon. But there are nonfic books abt that community as well.

  2. Yes! Another great one – I love the history of sign language of Martha’s Vineyard. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Leigh Woznick says:

    Would appreciate recommendations for YA fiction. My daughter is taking a college class on
    Cognition and Language Acquisition in Deaf Children and needs a fic book featuring deaf culture/ASL. I gave her Antony John’s Five Flavors of Dumb which is terrific but not set wholly in deaf culture. Any ideas?!

  4. Jessica Scott says:

    Marlee Matlin has a couple of YA novels about Deafness – Deaf Child Crossing, Leading Ladies and Nobody’s Perfect. T4 is about a Deaf girl in Nazi Germany – so not necessarily Deaf culture, but it does feature a Deaf teen. Hope that helps!

  5. Take a look at Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John for a contemporary YA novel about deaf culture.

  6. Here is the wonderful article from the September/October 2013 Horn Book Magazine, by Ariel Baker-Gibbs and Deirdre Baker, about depictions of sign language in children’s books

  7. Thank you Jessica! I too am a teacher who works with children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

    Currently I am looking forward to seeing El Deafo by Cece Bell art by David Lasky. This graphic novel for 8-12 year olds was in galley form at ALA but I only saw the cover via a tweet. Cece Bell writes about her experiences growing up deaf. It will be available September 2 2014 and can be pre-ordered.

    Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is a unique book told with two main characters. One of them acquires deafness and can speak but is unable to hear speech. The other character’s story is told in pictures. The real emotion and art in this book is exceptional.

    Annie Kubler did art for the board book I’m a Little Teapot. In it she features a child who is wearing one hearing aid complete with the safety cord in case it falls off. It is a nice gift for a toddler who has a hearing loss.

    Old now (1995-ish) but still available are the Invisible Inc mysteries by Elizabeth Levy and Denise Brunkus. School age kids solve mysteries and one of the group happens to wear hearing aids. The use of an FM transmitter is both funny and useful. In one of the books he overhears a teacher ask another teacher out because the teacher forgot to turn off the personal microphone.

    I love finding books that have real characters in them who have hearing loss.

    Kudos to Horn Book for spotlighting the books that are finding their way through editorial with role models for children and young adults who are deaf or hard of hearing.

  8. Jessica Scott says:

    Marty, thanks so much for sharing – I just pre-ordered El Deafo! I have Wonderstruck on my bookshelf, but I haven’t had time to pick it up yet. I think I will move it up on my priority list!

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