It’s just one milestone in this ongoing attempt to make children’s books more accessible and diverse,” says Michael Leventhal, who has just published what could just be the first ever Jewish children’s book in braille.
This is My Shabbat — a joyous, colourful celebration of the day of rest as experienced by its blind protagonist — features printed braille alongside the usual text and illustrations, and was a labour of love for the Green Bean publisher that cost three times more to print than the average children’s board book he produces. But it was of utmost importance.
“If I look at my bookshelves, 90 percent of the characters in them are white boys,” he says. “There’s no diversity.”
Leventhal is buoyed to see children’s book publishers “genuinely” trying to make books more accessible and diverse. But it’s not just about a lack of diversity — Leventhal has long been tired of the ham-fisted way in which he believes many authors included difference.
“They’re so bad,” he says, dismissively. “What I and the authors have tried to do with this book, is the fact that this child is blind is completely irrelevant to the story. It’s incidental.”
This is My Shabbat was a particularly good opportunity because its focus lies in the different senses, which it does in the sound of the little boy’s sandals on the walk to shul, the smell and taste of the challah and icy lemonade, the sound of screeching gulls at the seaside, the feel of the hot sun.
But the book’s creators noticed a sense missing from the book: sight. Leventhal said to the author Chris Barash and illustrator Aviel Basil, “Why don’t you make the child blind?” Receptive to the idea, they went one step further and decided to include braille to ensure that the book is accessible to anyone who’s blind or partially sighted.
“We need casual diversity and almost background accessibility,” Leventhal says. “There are books screaming about it, when it just needs to be normalised. You don’t want it to be something that has to be specially celebrated, because books should be representative.
“I really hope that it is another step in a much bigger journey to making books accessible and diverse.”
It isn’t just about making the book accessible to blind or visually impaired children or their families, either — it’s the fact that anyone who receives a copy of the book will be introduced to braille. After all, having a lesson on the history of braille, Leventhal points out, is very different to running your finger over it. Most people have no direct experience of it, apart from being in a lift or a bus and pressing a button with braille on it.
And while only a small percentage of the Jewish community is blind or partially sighted this teaches the whole community about that experience.
“Hopefully it gives something of a genuine tactile experience that will educate both kids and their parents. Even if you know they’re perfectly sighted, it’s still important for them to learn what it’s like.”
Working with braille for the first time posed numerous challenges. The story’s English language text first has to be translated into braille, and then there are the different grades to consider. Not to mention the technical challenge of printing a large number of books with the essential correct spacing and height of the dots.
Polly Hanchett, a specialist teacher working in Barnet with children and young people with vision impairment — which describes a difficulty with vision that cannot be corrected with spectacles — has been crucial to the project.
Vision impairment, she says, is relatively rare in the borough. Many experiencing it are the only child with vision impairment in their school, and there are even fewer children with such a severe vision impairment that they need to read braille and use a white cane, like the little boy in the book.
“Because of this, having a vision impairment can be very isolating,” says Hanchett. “Many of our children have felt like they are quite alone in the world, that no-one else has to cope with the things that they cope with, and it’s a big part of my job to build up their self-esteem, help them make links with other people with vision impairment, and help them find their own way of living and learning in a sighted world.”
She adds: “Books like this, with a main character who has a vision impairment, play such an important part in raising self-esteem and feelings of belonging among my students. There are so few people with vision impairments in films and books, far less the main character, and it’s really powerful for my children to see children like them represented.”
She particularly likes the way the impairment is never made explicit in the text of This Is My Shabbat, nor talked about specifically.
In fact, you might not even notice that the character has poor vision unless someone points out his long cane, or that he focuses on sounds, touch and smells rather than what he sees.
“His vision impairment isn’t his defining feature,” says Hanchett. “This is such an important message for the children I support: you are so much more than your vision impairment.”
Getting the braille right was “enormously complicated” — a fact confirmed by the subject heading of the email thread that went between Leventhal and Hanchett throughout the year-long process: “cracking the Braille conundrum”.
“It seemed like a great idea at the time, but I didn’t quite anticipate how challenging it was going to be,” Leventhal reflects, with a smile. “It took so much time and work to get it right.”
But it was worth the effort. Leventhal is “pretty positive” that there has never been a Jewish children’s book published with braille before, and he knows of no English language children’s books printed with braille either. What charities and organisations normally do is take a children’s book, rip off the spine and splice in a braille translation on clear acetate paper, and they’ll then rebind it with spiral binding.
“It works perfectly well,” says Leventhal, “But I wanted to do something where we had braille in every copy of the book and, frankly, this looks and feels nicer. I hope it’ll act as a catalyst for more debate on accessibility and diversity in Jewish children’s books.”
And as Hanchett says, the book plays a key role in building a more inclusive society that recognises and values people of all backgrounds and abilities.
“It challenges preconceptions about what blind children are like, what they can and can’t do,” she says. “It shows that they are just like us.”
It’s now been put to the test by children at Kisharon Noe School, who explored with their teacher Eitan Cohn, head of Kodesh, what Shabbat means to them and how they each experience it differently.
Aidan, who is 14, said: “This is My Shabbat taught me about how some people who can’t see can read with their fingers instead, and that they can use a stick to feel things and use their ears more to hear everything around them.”
Cohn added: “Our pupils were very excited about the idea of actually reading the story together with someone who is visually impaired, enjoying the same book in completely different ways - really bringing inclusion to life.
“I look forward to seeing other inclusive books that bring together the stories and experiences of different people with different needs, treasured members of our wonderful community, and that help us live our cherished Jewish life even more together. “
This is My Shabbat is out now on Green Bean Books