Episode 6 - Differences - TRANSCRIPT

(Courtney) “No matter where you are, you can do it. You just need to believe in yourself and I believe in you.”


This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.


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When I started this project I forced myself to make a list of my top ten favorite picture books. It wasn’t easy. There are so many to love.

But one that made the top ten list is a book called Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr and John Archambault and illustrated by Ted Rand. The truth is I have a whole other story to tell you about this book in episode 7. Stay tuned for that. But for now I’ll tell you how this book sparked a different train of thought on this project.

Knots on a Counting Rope is a conversation between a grandfather who can see and his grandson who is blind - and I’ll never forget how I was absolutely floored reading this book as a kid when the blind boy asks his grandfather to tell him what blue is. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have never seen blue. But it was so hard to unsee the blues I’d already been seeing my whole life.

Which brings me to the topic of this episode. I’ve declared that when words and pictures come together to tell a story and a child and an adult come together to read a story, there’s magic. But what if you can’t see the pictures? And what if you can’t hear or read the words? Where’s the magic then?

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I spoke with Karen Smith, Community Outreach Manager at Seedlings Braille Books for Children, an organization that makes free or low cost Braille books for children with vision loss around the world.

Here’s Karen:

“Well, we publish 1300 different titles and we publish children's favorite children's books. We publish the books that sighted children enjoy reading and are talking about because we want to give access to blind children to the same literature that sighted children enjoy.”

Karen shared with me the three types of Braille books that Seedlings makes. They make books for independent readers which are just in Braille - no imagery or print. They make books for beginning readers which include printed text as well as Braille which allows someone who is sighted and someone with vision loss to read together.

The third category of books that Seedlings makes is picture books for early readers.

(Karen) “For the very, very young children, for infants through preschool age, what we do is we get a, the standard baby board books that you would get from any kind of print publisher and they have pictures, they have print words in them and then we apply the Braille in clear plastic type above or below. The print as close to the print as possible. Um, and we try to choose books that are tactile in nature and we're careful not to place a braille over the tactile elements so that children, um, you know, who do have a little bit of vision, can see the pictures and obviously all of the children can feel the tactile elements, including the Braille.”

These are the books that I’m most interested in for this project as I’m focusing on picture books. As it turns out, these picture, print, and Braille books are also the most popular books at Seedlings and they account for about half of the books that the organization produces. Seedlings started these types of books because of how important it is for very young children with sight loss to be exposed to Braille.

(Karen) “If you think about it, sighted children see thousands upon thousands, millions, even of letters before they even start kindergarten. If they're in the grocery store, it's on a cereal boxes and on signs, but children who are blind don't have that same option. Um, they're not being exposed to Braille at the same rate that a sighted child is exploded, exposed to print by kindergarten, so our books which sighted parents can read to their blind children, uh, because there's the print in them, they can start to teach them about the Braille and help them follow along or feel the Braille as they're reading.”

As I spoke with Karen I discovered some startling differences between literacy for sighted children and children with vision loss. But I also learned about some profound similarities.

(Karen) “Most children in this country don't go to a particular school for the blind anymore. I think they were probably more in vogue years ago. A lot of children go to their local public school and then they get Braille instruction. There may be pulled out of the classroom a few times a week if they're lucky, if the school provides that kind of resource. Um, but the importance of what we do is we provide them opportunities for pleasure reading to enhance the Braille reading skills that they're learning in school. Um, unfortunately today, it's still true that because Braille books are typically very expensive, they can still be $100 a book. They're also quite rare, um, for every hundred books a sighted child might have at home, a blind child might have just five books in Braille. So what we try to do is give them the resources to practice that reading in books that they enjoy reading.”

The stark difference here is in the numbers: 5 Braille books for every 100 books that a sighted child has. But the clear similarity here is the importance of reading for pleasure. Children - whether they have vision loss or not - benefit not just from reading but from ENJOYING reading. Karen shared with me story of a successful software engineer with vision loss who, growing up, insisted on only listening to audio books until he found the Goosebumps series in Braille. He loved Goosebumps and Braille versions of those books got him reading. He credits Seedlings for his being fluent in Braille today - and for his success in his job.

This is another profound similarity - the link between literacy and employment.

(Karen) “The other statistic I like to share with folks is that um of the blind adults living in the US, only about 30 percent, 20 to 30 percent of them are employed, um, for various reasons, but of those who are working, nine out of 10 are fluent in Braille. So Braille literacy is often the difference between poverty and prosperity for the blind. It's the same as it would be for a sighted individual. If you can't read and write, you're not going to be able to get a job that will support you and your family. And Braille is the only true way for a person who's blind to become fully literate because they're able to read and write with Braille.”

Seedlings was founded in 1984; during the first year the organization distributed 221 books. In 2017, they hit the half million mark.  Debra Bonde who founded seedlings called it seedlings because she believes that if you place a book into the hands of a child, the love for reading will grow.

It’s also inspiring to see the growth of the organization.

(Karen) “The other thing that we're finding is that because we've been in existence for 34 years, is that children who read our books as, as youngsters are now getting married and having children of their own, uh, one of them, an example is one of our board members, he was born with no useful vision, grew up reading our books. He is now father of a sighted baby who is about six months old and so he is buying our picture books for his sighted daughter and he can read the because they have Braille and um, he's able to read to her.”

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One of my guiding questions, as you might remember, is “how is reading together different from reading alone.” One answer to this question is that most of the time when you’re reading together you’re reading aloud.

So, what about kids and parents with hearing loss?

I discovered an incredible resource at Gallaudet University, which is the world's only university in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. Gallaudet is the home of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center which is dedicated to supporting parents and educators of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. The Clerc Center developed a program called the Shared Reading Project, led by Literacy Coordinator David Schleper. This program, based on observations of how deaf parents and caregivers read aloud teaches hearing families and caregivers how to read to deaf and hard of hearing children using American Sign Language or ASL.

The Clerc Center published a book called Reading to Deaf Children; Learning from Deaf Adults by David Schleper, in which he outlines 15 principles for reading to deaf children. And I was struck - again - as I read through this book - by the number of similarities as well as differences. Establishing a literacy-rich environment, reading every day, relating books to the real world, letting the child choose the book and lead the conversation, encouraging children to share their ideas. This all aligns with best practices for literacy for any children … and reminds me of the principles of Megan Dowd Lambert’s Whole Book Approach.

Of course the read aloud experience with children who are deaf is different than reading aloud with children who are hearing because readers use ASL in addition to reading words and pictures in the page. All three components are necessary. The Clerc Center research indicates that a child needs to be able to see both ASL and the English text and the pictures in order to understand the book and to learn to read.

Another difference is that parents and teachers of children who are deaf or hard of hearing re-read stories on what’s called a “storytelling to story reading continuum.” What this means, According to David Schleper, is that “Deaf readers extend the text liberally the first time they read a story, but each successive reading of the book has less and less elaboration. The signing comes closer and closer to the actual text. What occurs is a continuum, moving from the inclusion of background, context, or other details in ASL towards a more direct representation of the English text.”

I spoke via email with Tara Miles, Clerc Center Family Educator. She helped me understand something I had never understood before. That ASL and English are actually separate languages. That ASL has its own unique grammar and vocabulary. And that the two languages should be kept separate but that both should be used when reading aloud with children. And David Schleper’s book explains that “ASL and English present the same information in different ways.” Schleper writes, “Fluent Deaf signers translate the English of the text into structurally correct ASL, helping deaf children to keep the two languages separate and distinct.” This helped me understand how complex and how vital it is to read aloud with ASL with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. So that they have the opportunity to develop fluency in BOTH languages.

Tara also told me “picture books are the best.” She explained why saying, “you can talk about what you see. You are giving them vocabulary and information. … With deaf children we are constantly sharing language with them. For everything they see we show and tell them what it is.” She continued, “if I am looking at a picture book, and there is a picture of a cat.  I will not just point to the picture and sign ‘cat.’ But I would add the color of the cat. I would add what the cat is doing, or point to physical features of the cat.” In Tara’s descriptions I recognize the same literacy-rich environment that all children benefit from.

As I’m learning about the use of ASL, I am beginning to see it as a bridge - parents reading aloud using ASL build a bridge that enables a child to read English. Family members who are learning ASL become more confident and comfortable signing and thus can build a bridge - can communicate more effectively with their children. And research shows that parents and deaf children bond better through book sharing. Tara also shared this with me, “The bottom line,” she wrote, “is we want our young deaf readers to enjoy books and to develop a love for books so that they too will come to love reading as they grow older.  Nothing,” she wrote, “can compare to that special parent bonding time over a book.”

These are the warm, positive interactions that books can foster for any parent and child and in this case … since these books and shared reading transactions enable families with deaf or hard of hearing children to overcome a challenge … well, that feels like a little bit of extra book magic.

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Research on the Shared Reading Program indicates that 84% of children who are deaf or hard of hearing have hearing parents and that when hearing parents learn about deaf people and Deaf culture, they have more positive interactions with their deaf and hard of hearing children. This is empathy at work and empathy goes a long way towards improving relationships. Empathy enables us to embrace differences instead of fearing them.

I had the chance to hear Grace Byers speak at an event in the spring of 2018. She is the author of I Am Enough a beautiful and affirming picture book illustrated by Keturah A Bobo - that embraces differences of all kinds. In her presentation, she told of how her upbringing as a biracial and bicultural kid who was also a “CODA” - a child of deaf adults - made her different from her peers in a lot of ways. There were many kids who didn’t understand how to deal with all those differences. Those children, Grace Byers said, “[are] not unlike a lot of people in our world today …  sometimes when we don’t fully understand something,” she said, “we tend to respond in fear. We tend to ostracize and sometimes we can reject. And we do that from a very young age depending on what’s surrounding us.”

Grace’s book - and her work with the non profit Saving Our Daughters - was spurred on by her desire to empower girls against the effects of bullying and her belief that the greatest weapon against bullying is love. Love for other people but also self love. Because those who get bullied and those who do the bullying BOTH need know to know deep down inside “I am enough.”

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There’s another difference in the reading experience that I want to point out here. Even for children who are sighted and hearing, there still might be something that stands in the way of that magic. Here’s Courtney Hinshaw, a teacher in CA who uses picture books with her 5th graders. Courtney’s energy and passion for books and reading are so inspiring and contagious. You might not guess that as a kid, she struggled with dyslexia.

(Courtney) “So my story is long, but I feel like it's worth telling because I think kids and teachers need to hear it. I think my story can help so many kids and parents and teachers know that every single student sitting in their classroom has a chance. And I was never the first to tie my shoe, write my name or read, but I had the will to continue to fight. it really started at an early age. There was never a time where I didn't see reading as a normal routine in my life. As a child words were around me all the time. My mom was a high school English teacher, so she was always reading essays or reading novels. My Dad was in business and he was always reading the Wall Street Journal and then I remember as a kid my mom would get the Highlight magazines or the American Girl magazines and so reading was always a constant and it's funny because as much as I had such a problem with reading and I really struggled. I loved books. Books were my happy place and on Fridays I remember my mom would take me to the local bookstore and we would read books and that's kind of where I found that books were magic. So after elementary school, high school, I went to the University of Arizona and up until then uh. academics was super hard for me. I was, I'm dyslexic. School was just really hard. My parents had every tutor known to man and when I went to college, the first two years, you know, your gs, those just kind of get it out of the way. But then I found my place, I entered in the college of education and this was my love language, like yes, there were hard classes and, but I created study groups. I went to all the office hours, but I knew that's exactly where I was meant to be an in fact, even in second grade I knew I'm going to be a teacher when I grow up.”

Courtney opted to take a year off from teaching in order to get her masters - in reading, of course. Meanwhile she worked as an instructional assistant and decided to start recommending books online. In November of 2013 she started Ramona Recommends where she shares her insights and resources with the community of teachers and parents that she’s built over time. I am especially intrigued by Courtney’s emphasis on picture books at the upper elementary level.

(Courtney) “And then I just decided, you know, I really want to focus on picture books, but here's kind of why. So I used them to help my kids love reading because I feel that in every picture book there's what's called a confetti moment for a student. A confetti moment is anytime when they're reading a book or I'm reading it too, that they can connect. I mean, what a powerful message to tell a kid read a book and you might find yourself in this book or you might find a new world and learn so much about something else and become even more incredible. So that's kind of where I kind of just said, you know, I wanna do the picture book saying I want to be on the, you know, on my little soap box about how picture books are for everyone and that e does not mean easy. It means everyone.”

What I love about this metaphor is that it’s so visual and evocative a description of that experience that I think many of us have had. I can almost picture the confetti, as if we were reading a picture book about confetti moments. Courtney’s story is also a story about the power of teachers to help students overcome their challenges. Listening to Courtney’s story I thought of the book Thank you, Mr Falker by Patricia Polacco, which tells the story of a young student who struggles year after year to read until finally, one teacher sees her struggles and helps her to overcome. While the book doesn’t explicitly mention dyslexia, it is clear that that’s the struggle of young Trish - whom, we discover later, is Patricia Polacco herself.

It’s fitting, then, that Thank You, Mr Falker, is Courtney’s all time favorite picture book. I asked her if she had a Mr Falker of her own.

(Courtney) “I do. Oh my gosh. So I have like two. So my second grade teacher, Mrs and my fourth grade teacher, Mrs Greco actually have three and my fifth grade math teacher Mrs Ableman, which if you don't know, I won't tell that story now because it's a little long, but if you look back on my Instagram about two years ago in February, I got reconnected with her because and author and she came to my class and it was tears of joy for days about that. But I would say those three really showed me that no matter where I was in my life that I could do it, I just hadn't put the effort in and I had to have the support system. And I did. My parents were amazing. My teachers were amazing and I think that really helped me create who I am today because I just kept going and I think that's why I love teaching so much is because I tell my kids all the time, like, no matter where you are, you can do it. You just need to believe in yourself and I believe in you.”

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As I think through the differences I realize that the fundamental outcomes can be quite similar. The experience of sharing a book with someone you love? The meeting space of reading together. The ability to experience a story as uniquely your own. And connecting through a book with someone you love. None of these are impossible even with challenges that seemed to me impossible to overcome. That’s a little bit of magic right there.

Would it be too ambitious of me to suggest that Martha V Parravano’s equation - from episode 5 - is still possible? One child, one reader, one book - with just the right supports - can create this unique space - can work that everyday magic.

Earlier this year my kids and I learned the phrase “limb difference.” All in the space of a couple of weeks, we had several encounters. Through Bravery magazine we learned about a brave young girl with limb difference who was the same age as Julia, my oldest; at work I attended a presentation featuring a Hallmark artist and a young Hallmark fan both of whom have the same limb difference. And then, one weekend we saw two people out and about in our neighborhood - both with limb difference. Julia, who tends to be pretty articulate with her emotions, pulled me aside at one point and whispered, “Mommy, that’s disturbing” in regards to the salesperson we saw who had limb difference. I didn’t want her to think of it as disturbing. But I had to admit that it’s not something we see everyday. And for a small child, it probably is disturbing. I did my best to honor Julia’s reaction but then also to help shift her perspective a little. Yes, it might be disturbing at first - but think of this. That girl with limb difference might not be that different from you. I’m sure she has friends and family like you do; I bet her mother loves her as much as I love you. It looks like she is enjoying her job. It looks like she’s having fun making her friends laugh. Maybe we are more alike than we are different? Maybe we shouldn’t let our reactions make us think less of people.  

I struggle though. I want to both normalize and highlight these differences. Normalize them so they aren’t so jarring to us when we encounter them. But also highlight them because it is SO important for any of us to acknowledge and respect someone else’s unique experience and to be able to understand the world through someone else’s perception.

About 10 years ago I went to an exhibit called Dialog in the Dark, which was designed to immerse sighted people in darkness and to invite them to experience the world without sight. The environment was completely without light. Pitch black. Darkness. Strict rules were enforced - no glowing watches or phones. The guides were all blind. They led the sighted crowds through each room of the exhibit and invited them to experience the world expressly through smell, sound, and touch. I wish I could find the words to explain to you how garbled my brain was by the experience. But in a good way.

In the fall of 2018, in Washington, DC, near Gallaudet University, actually, Starbucks opened its first US store in sign language. The store’s design is more accessible, the decor celebrates Deaf culture, and all 24 employees - whether they’re deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing - are fluent in American Sign Language. Not only does this store provide employment opportunities and welcoming places for members of the deaf community. It also immerses hearing customers in deaf spaces and challenges the stigmas around ability - challenges the perception of limited ability.

So what do Dialog in the Dark and Starbucks have to do with kidlit? Well, I think there are two separate but connected points I want to make here. One is … that even with differences in ability, reading can still be transformative. Magic, even. The second is … that no matter what your abilities are, you benefit - we all benefit - from imagining other people’s experiences - from empathizing with others - from seeing what others see. And a powerful way to immerse yourself in someone else’s world is … you guessed it … books.

(Karen) “I'm blessed to have six grandchildren, but they happened to all be sighted. for Christmas I've given each of them a copy of one of our books with Braille in it one of our picture books and it has made them aware of people with disabilities it's a great way to introduce sighted children to the idea that there are other people in this world who don't read the way they do and now when they're out in public, they're all, they're all young, they're all like seven and under. They see Braille on signage and they pointed it out to their parents. Look, mommy, there's Braille. So I advocate parents um buying copies of our books just for that purpose to open up a discussion about that.”

If we’re going to say that books are magic, then we’re saying that books are powerful. And in this case they have the power to do so much.


The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.

This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.

Special thanks today to Karen Smith, Tara Miles, Stacy Abrams and Nicholas Gould at the Clerc Center, and Courtney Hinshaw.

And thanks to you, too, for listening.

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com.



(Nina) My name is Nina. I’m 11 years old and my favorite books is Ghost Boys. Um, my favorite place to read is my room and I like to read by myself or with my dog.

(Emilio) My name is Emilio. I’m 9 years old and my favorite book series is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I like to read by myself in my room and I like turtles.



Emily AkinsComment