One of the most incredible things about children is their curiosity and fabulous imaginations. But curiosity should never invade another person’s privacy. What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George is the first picture book to answer a very important question: how do we teach our children, despite any curiosities they may have, to always be respectful to disabled people?
Joe is a boy who loves to play pirates. He has one leg. When some children see Joe playing pirates, they ask what happened to his leg. But Joe just wants to play pirates. So what should he do? What should the children do?
So often, we tell children if they don’t know something, “just ask”, but when it comes to another person’s private life, such as how they became disabled, asking them questions is not the solution. What Happened to You? helps the reader to understand, that while a non-disabled person may want to “just ask”, a disabled person may not want to “just answer”. And even more than that, it invites the reader to stop and think – do they really need to know?
At first, all the children can see is Joe’s missing leg. And all Joe sees is another nameless child asking The Question. Instead of answering, he asks them what they think happened to his leg. The children’s imaginations run wild. Did it fall down the toilet? Get eaten by a lion? Or even a thousand lions?!
All the while they are guessing, Joe responds with humour, but it is a front. Inside, Joe is feeling increasingly upset. Why do the children only want to talk about his leg? Karen’s illustrations are packed full of expression and my daughter really connected with the characters’ emotional journeys.
Eventually, the children stop asking The Question and instead see Joe for who he is: a little boy, a pirate. And Joe sees them as Simone, Yuto, Caspar, Mainie and Ibrahim. His pirate friends.
What Happened to You? invites the reader to step into Joe’s shoe for just a moment. To get a glimpse at just one of the challenges he faces: protecting his right to privacy and to bravely realise that eventually the other children’s curiosity will fade and they will accept him, no questions asked.
What makes this book so special is that while it is helping children (and adults!) consider important issues, it does so with humour and a lightness of touch that never feels preachy, pretentious or patronising. James has said that he wrote this book for his five-year-old-self, and I think it will be a brilliant book for disabled children. But it is also a much-needed book for non-disabled children and adults, to help instil empathy.
At the back of the book, James chooses to share with us a personal note on his lived experience. Like Joe, the author has one leg. He gives five suggestions for adults about what to do if a child is curious about a disability. But he forgot one very useful suggestion: read What Happened to You? with your child, and then recommend it to your local school, community centre and library. This is a book everyone should read.
Published by Faber & Faber, 1 April 2021
If you would like to read more about James’ experience with writing the book, he did a great Q&A with The Federation of Children’s Book Groups.
About the Author:
Like Joe, James Catchpole also has one leg, and was destined to be either an itinerant singer or an amputee footballer. He managed to get off the substitutes’ bench a couple times for the England Amputee Football Team, and also busked around Provence with a guitar, but reached the limits of his talent in both fields by his mid-twenties, and so joined the family business of children’s books. James now runs The Catchpole Agency with his wife Lucy, and represents authors and illustrators of children’s books. Lucy and James live in Oxford with their two young daughters.
About the Illustrator:
Karen George has spent a LOT of time drawing and painting. When she was small that’s what she liked doing best. When she was a little older, Karen gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art followed by an MA from The Royal College of Art. In 2009, she won Waterstones’ Picture This competition to illustrate a book with Julia Donaldson. Karen lives in Bristol with her family and Dr Calamari the cat.
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion.