PB&J Episode 7: Interview with Lucy and James Catchpole
0:33 A: Tonight, I am so excited to have on the show Lucy and James Catchpole, of the Catchpole Literary Agency. Lucy and James run a Boutique Literary Agency in Oxford England, they represent picture books, and Young Adult books, both Authors and Illustrators. They are both disabled, and have a fantastic Instagram Account mostly run by Lucy called @thecatchpoles where they blog about their experiences as parents, disability and even host live singing play groups! Today however we are going to focus on the incredibly exciting release of James’ very own picture book! “What happened to You?” About a boy with one leg, who really just wants to play without being bothered by lots of invasive questions, inspired by James’ own experience which, we would love to hear more about. Welcome to the show!
1:34 L: Hello Ale, thank you for that lovely introduction by the way.
A:Oh Ahaha Thank you.So, James tell us about your book that is coming out and about how your life experiences have shaped this story that you have put together.
1:49 J: Thank you Ale I’ll give it a shot, so I never meant to write this book I’m an agent of books I have authors they write books, I edit them and I sell them but I also get sent books all the time. And I’ve been sent a fair few books about disability books about disabled children, or that purport to be about disabled children and I’ve noticed over the years that it’s extremely hard to get them right and people very rarely do and I noticed the books that are out there that we’ll probably talk about that have been published about disabled children so often get it wrong. So eventually, it sort of occurred to me that I probably had to have a go at it myself. Being within that world and being disabled.
2:36 A: So you kind of touched on it in your answer there, but you guys have been very vocal on the internet about your feelings regarding the existing state of disability representation in kid lit or the lack of authentic and respectful representation, so how do you feel like your book and coming from of your own experiences may challenge the status quo of what is already out there?
3:03 L : Yeah ,well I think James’ book centres the disabled child and that’s the big issue that seems to be, I went through loads and loads of books that are for children about disability or about disabled characters recently and what we both looked at them and what we found is that most of them were for siblings of disabled children or for completely non disabled children to find out about disability. So they’re not really centring the disabled child and their needs, definitely not centring and I think that’s what James has done completely.
3:43 A: SO THANK YOU! So do you feel that the publishing as a whole is open to receiving and representing more disabled own voices at this point right now?
3:56 J: I think in theory, it should be and there’s getting better at doing so, I think the industry has had to make strides recently in terms of opening its doors to people of ethnicities other than white and quite rightly it’s making progress in that direction, but in terms of disability I’m not sure it’s quite as advanced there’s probably still an acceptance of the idea of people who are disability adjacent or not even disability adjacent. They’re writing the books they’re writing books for non disabled children about disability. That’s I think still the norm.
4:44 A: SO many people like you’re saying are not disabled and writing about the experience and sort of shaping the way people are meant to think about disability. Lucy and I have talked a few times in the past about sensitivity readings so for those of you listening who don’t know what a sensitivity reader it’s when somebody has written a book about a person or characters who have experiences that they are not part of that group. So, if you are not disabled and writing about somebody who is disabled or if you are a white author writing about a Black child, what some publishers will do is they will hire or find sometimes they don’t pay you I think, a person of that group to read it, a sensitivity reader and to highlight, flag any problems and give suggestions. Now, do you think that the whole process is enough to ensure that books written by someone outside of the disabled community are acceptable?
5:55 L: We have a few problems with the term sensitivity reader. I think that’s quite an interesting place to start with this. What was your thing about that?
6:07 J: Yeah sensitivity readers always sound to me like it’s someone who’s been brought in to indulge the feelings of the overly sensitive when really this isn’t about that you’re consulting an expert in a given field in the same way that if you were to write about a heart surgeon you might consult a heart surgeon on the detail. So, Lucy has done a so called sensitivity reading recently on a book and I think we have asked them to credit her as “Disability expert”
J: And that may or may not be capitalized.
L: haha yeah, I think there are lots of inherent potential difficulties with sensitivity readers, one of which is it’s always something brought in right at the end of the process basically to rubber stamp a book that’s already essentially finished and I think that then puts the disability expert or sensitivity reader in quite a difficult position because you know that’s when, that’s what the publisher wants from you and that could be quite a difficult power balance and just because you’re a disability expert you’re not, not everyone is also an expert in publishing and books and to someone, often these things are just wrong, like from the core. Someone has started off with a bad idea like using disability as an allegory, which just isn’t something that should be happening anymore. I mean in the 17th century they had some really great idea to write books like Othello where we used Black or Brown as an allegory for a dark soul but quite sensibly we’ve kind of moved past that, and no one would ever think of that I don’t think with race but people do still do that sort of thing with disability all the time.
8:01 J: Sensitivity reader brought in on the last draft of a book, would it have made any difference?
J: Disability was used as sort of an emotional tool throughout that book, it was there from the whole conception so actually as to the disabled character then we interfered with them.
8:35 L: So I think sensitivity readers were probably involved with Sonya Sotomayer’s book “Just Ask” you can see there are some bits where they’re showing two different, deaf maybe, characters who, one used sign language one perhaps had a hearing aid and you think yeah maybe there were some sensitivity readers involved with that but they’re going to be making those little tweaks where as our problem with just ask is literally from the title, we think there is really a problem with saying that the best way to approach disabled people is to ask them intrusive questions, so in that sort of scenario there’s not much you can do really.
9:17 A : RIght, so it sounds to me like that the way that they’re treating people who are doing this “Sensitivity Readings “ is really to just give them carte blanche to say whatever they were gonna say and put the name on it.
9:30 L: ICould be I should add that the only sensitivity read I have done was paid and they completely rewrote it and it was a very good experience, much better than I have expected to be honest, but I know from reading around that that is not the universal experience and because I work in the industry I had a level of confidence to suggest dramatic changes. And I don’t think everyone is in that position.
10:03 A: That’s true and it’s hard to with publishing because I’m sure some people who are doing these readings may find other employment in the industry later on.
10:14 A:So there’s definitely a weird power balance there that’s not cool.
10:17 L: Yeah also I think it’s often charity and disability adjacent people generally being asked to do sensitivity reading instead of actual disabled people that’s the impression I get.
10:28 A: That actually leads me to one of my next questions which is, that a lot of the people being asked to do these “sensitivity readings” are not actually of the community but adjacent, where this is also true of a lot of the people writing these books is that they’re adjacent to the communities of people that they are seeking to represent and that they’re using that experience of being near experience, as authority to say whatever they want, like, um, I do, I personally receive a lot of requests to review books, many of the are self published and I see a lot of people who are asking me to review their books that and they are not themselves autistic. Do you think that their experiences are valid enough to be writing with the voice of that person?
11:40 L: I would say of course their experience is valid as the mother or father of a disabled child that is an entirely valid experience and voice, but, no they aren’t own voices as an autistic person or a disabled person. Disability adjacent is very very different, to actually being disabled yourself even really close family members of disabled people frequently have a very different perspective on the matter.
12:13 J: It always shows up in the books and then written not the disabled child that ends up being centred but the able bodied children. I also wonder when, whether being a parent of a disabled child might make it harder in a way? In one sense you have an extreme proximity to their mind set and in another hand you have a great lack of objectivity I think. I think as a parent myself, it must be a hard thing, there are examples of able bodied people who have written about disabled people and. It doesn’t have to be own voices.
L: Yeah, Mama Zooms is absolutely wonderful. And She’s a disability adjacent author Jane Karen Fletcher, and I think her sister was a wheel chair user or she was thirty years ago when she wrote this book. She just gets it very very right, it’s not, we’re not saying that no able bodied people should try to write books about disabled people.
J: No she’s writing about a disabled adult though as well. Maybe that helps. Yeah. I found it genuinely difficult to think back to my childhood experience of being a disabled child. To be able to sort of tap into an authenticity and truth to do this I think I managed in the end but it took me quite a few years to get this story right, so, someone who’s never had that experience at all I imagine it would be much harder.
14:12 A: And that book you’re talking about Mama Zooms, like you said it was from thirty years ago that’s really unusual isn’t it to find older books that are, dealing with experiences that are not normally represented in the way that is still considered respectful I suppose?
14:36 L: Yeah I think it is but it’s incredible to me how very very badly wrong, really quite recent books can get disability so, I just didn’t we seem to have quite a long quite a long way to go but yeah I was very surprised to find a book from thirty years ago and in a way it just shows that it was always possible. We could always just write about a disabled person with respect and empathy and as though they are a person. It was always possible. Haha.
15:12 A: So being old timey not an excuse.
L: No. no no. hahaha.
15:20 For the people out there who are aspiring authors and they’re very interested in writing about disabled characters, what would your advice to them be if they want to start this process?
15:36 L: I would say write for a disabled reader because if it isn’t good enough representation, if it isn’t a good enough representation of disability for disabled readers then why would I want my non disabled children reading it? And really I think everything will follow from there if you’re writing about a disabled character, imagine a disabled person reading it, and, if you’re comfortable with that then, you know, it’s probably good representation so that’s one thing also, just do research and take doing research as seriously as you would in other area of specialized knowledge like law, or the blue footed booby, or the outer Hebrides. If you were to write a book about any of these subjects you would take research and getting these things right seriously not because you want to be sensitive to someone’s feelings but because you just don’t wanna get a book wrong do you? But for some reason when it comes to disability people just are not doing their research and I’m not quite sure why. I wish they’d just take it seriously. And, don’t get a disability adjacent person, or a charity to rubber stamp it right at the end when in your heart of hearts you know you’re not really prepared to make any dramatic changes.
16:59 A: Now, Lucy you have a lot to say. AHaha and I love it but I do have to ask you the question how much of your voice is in James’ book?
17:12 L: Yeah really Ale I wrote the whole thing I just thought it would be more palatable coming from James so I got him to write….no that’s not true ….ahahahaha
17:24 J: You know what? Because I’ve been editing picture books for…I dunno, a decade or more, it was me that wrote it all and because it’s about a boy who was me, it’s me who wrote it all but I never would have written it Ale, had I not met Lucy because I’m the most sort of lack luster sort of disabled person I’m an amputee and we’re terrible disabled people.
J: We’re all dreadfully wretched people, and you hear us when we get together we’re like ‘garhhh I’d never be in a wheel chair, me? I’d rather, dreadful thing to be saying to each other, awful people amputees.
L: They are.
18:00 J: Partly because we’re the most acceptable form of disabled people but everyone can see what’s “Wrong with us” and the implications of us of our bodies knowing we get around we vaguely look heroic if we’re men. It’s harder if you’re a woman, but if you’re a male amputee people think we’re great they all think we fought in a war. So, it probably wouldn’t have occured to me to write this left to my own devices, and had I done so it would have been awful Ale, it would have been a list of all the groovy ways I can be heroic as an amputee. Look I can run upstairs, look I can kick a football, it’s only because I managed to meet and marry someone with a proper disability hahaha that meant my consciousness had to raise to some degree and I had to actually, eh, introspect if that’s not quite a verb but let’s pretend it is I did introspect a bit. And bring more to it so in the end I didn’t write a book about how great it is to be one legged I wrote a book about the thing that is genuinely difficult about being visually disabled which is the intrusive questions which is being visibly different to other people and other people’s sense that they’re gonna ask you at the drop of a hat from across the road
19:37 A: And do you think that when people read your book, and this message, do you think that they’re willing to accept that?
19:46 J: Hmmm ahaha well the proof will be in the pudding do you have that phrase in canada?
19:54 A: I have heard it but I don’t think we say it much.
19:58 J: I may have never said it before and I may never say it again. I think maybe? I think well intentioned liberal minded people might do because a few people who’ve read it who’ve actually been involved in it’s creation I won’t say who have confessed to me that they definitely were the ilk of parent who would had their child had questions about me on the playground, they would have sent their child up to me and say oh just go on ask him. Which a fair few parents do do and it comes from this instinct of, worrying that their child sees the disabled person as other so the most important thing is that their child recognizes the humanity of the person so send them over to say hello and ask as many questions as they might want to and those people have said to me since. ‘Oh yeah no I won’t be doing that now.” I mean it’s true because of course I’m not there to answer their child’s questions, and I generally do I don’t try to scare their child out of a sense of meanness, unless we’re at the beach in which case I definitely tell them yeah it was a shark, don’t go in the water. Don’t go in the water!
21:07 A: And now I didn’t, I should have disclosed this earlier I actually read this book I somehow sweet talked you both into sending me an early peek at the release and it is as hilarious as both of them are in person and I have to say it made me think a lot about my own reaction if I were to see a disabled person, and I am Canadian so we don’t so I wanna say we don’t do that I wouldn’t ask someone a rude question but I think people do. And I hope that by getting a chance to read your book in classrooms or people reading it at home they really think and rethink this curiosity or nosiness to be asking totally inappropriate questions. See like I just don’t understand it because you wouldn’t go up to somebody who had some other visual difference and be like hey what’s up with the giant thing on your face do you know what I mean? It’s just under no other circumstances would that be considered polite behaviour.
22:19 J: No no indeed.
A: It boggles my mind.
J: And yet it is the status quo, most of the amputees I know I know through amputee football, I have an amputee football team make who was once asked by the Daily Mail a dreadful conservative tabloid here in the UK they wanted him to be part of the campaign for awareness for disability, so they had him stand outside covent underground station, with a sign saying “I’m an amputee ask me anything” as if by doing so you were breaking down some difficult awful taboo, so of course people came up and asked him anything as they do and of course and the questions he got were the same questions you get as an amputee without the sign. So “What happened to you?” obviously and he also got “Can you have sex?” and given that he’s only a below the knee amputee on one side you have to wonder you know do they take a run up? How do they imagine he would have to do it and yet not do it? But you don’t you don’t actually need a sign to be asked that question, I’ve had that question in the post office queue?
A: You’ve had that question in a post office queue.
J: From the man behind the counter at the post office queue.
L: Didn’t you have one of our children with you at the time.
J: No no I didn’t, that helps answer that one.
A: That is shocking oh my goodness, okay, well, umm I also wanted to ask, so I’ve read your book and it is fantastic so I imagine your publisher for this book must be very excited, do you have plans to be doing any follow up or for Lucy to be doing a follow up?
24:08 J: Oh that’s an interesting question that’s a very interesting question hahaha, our publisher is excited about it it’s very gratifying yeah, no they’re definitely behind it and there could be what do you think Lucy?
J:It would be nice to say imagine we could do a whole long running series about all different kind of disability but we only have a couple of kinds of disability between us. We wouldn’t want to try to write a book about being blind because we don’t know anything about it. But I mean, I am an amputee, you’re a wheelchair user but you used to have an intriguing and invisible disability.
L:Yes I did,
J:I reckon so.
A: And I imagine they will be wonderfully written so I will be yelling on the rooftops of the internet for any books you guys put out!
Thanks so much for tuning in to another installment of PB&J, Picture Books and Justice. Thank you to our guests Lucy and James for coming on to the show, follow them on instagram @thecatchpoles, and definitely head over and preorder James’ Book “What Happened to You?” I already preordered my copy. You can find the link down in the show notes below. Let us know what you thought about tonight’s episode over on our own Instagram Page @picturebookstagang we love to hear from you! Goodnight!