You’ve probably never sat down, scratched your head, and said, “You know what I ought to do? Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” If you have, you were probably pretty certain that you’re already checking off all five boxes, but you might be surprised. Because smack-dab in the middle of that color-coded pyramid, is the label Belongingness and Love Needs. According to Maslow, this includes things like connectedness, trust, and acceptance, all of which rely on one vital building block to get their footing: Understanding.
To be understood is to be known, flaws and all. It’s having your word-jumbles be translated in a second-flat by someone who’s taken the time to learn your language. It’s having someone see the full scope of your past, and be happy to walk with you toward the future. And more often than not, it’s having someone see you and be willing to speak up on your behalf, allowing others to bask in the wondrous whole of you, too.
Let’s take a look at how A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, Restart by Gordon Korman, and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper employ the use of an advocate, and how such a figure is instrumental to changing the course of each narrative for the better.
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Really, with such earnestness and heart, it’s no surprise that A Boy Called Bat has become a Read to Them staple. Bixby Alexander Tam has a routine and likes to stick with it, but on a day full of surprises, his Mom (a veterinarian) brings home a baby skunk. Bat feels an immediate connection with the kit. It’s an easy creature to love, “so small that Bat couldn’t even tell he was in the towel except for the tiny face that peeked out.” However, Bat only has one month to prove to his Mom that he’s responsible enough to keep the baby skunk as a pet. But where, you may ask, does having an advocate come into play?
Though Arnold never says as much in the text, Bat is on the autism spectrum. For instance, vanilla yogurt is one of his safe foods and he carries around a pair of earmuffs for when his senses get over-stimulated. Bat also has a far easier time interacting with animals, as their language is pretty straightforward. As for people, “…it wasn’t worth it to try to explain… what he’d meant. [His sister Janie] usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did.”
Bat’s mother is not everyone.
Dr. Tam knows that her son sees the world differently, that the ways he interacts with others are different, too— and that’s perfectly okay. She defends Bat when Janie gets frustrated with him and she gently corrects Bat when he misses certain social cues. He’s often blunt, accidentally saying something hurtful without realizing the sharpness of his words. Dr. Tam frequently reminds Bat of the “unspoken rules… about things that people are supposed to know without having been told.” While this advice doesn’t always prevent awkward interaction, it’s a reminder Bat keeps at close hand and a tool he uses at school.
Bat also has trouble dealing with emotions. The day his Mom brought the skunk kit home, she ran late. It inspired quite the surge of feeling in Bat and he “…felt a ball of anger rising up in his chest, hot and hard and loud, wanting to escape through his mouth in a yell.” But it doesn’t escalate any further, because Bat’s mom is there with her “soothing voice,” being patient, kneeling with Bat until he is calm enough to use his own voice.
Most vital of all, Bat’s mother builds a sort of scaffolding to help Bat find his way with Janie. Like any pair of siblings, Bat and Janie have fights and disagreements. Bat even knows that “Janie thought he was weird” sometimes, “but he still didn’t like to hear her say it out loud.” Once the baby skunk is added to the equation, for instance, Bat takes one of Janie’s pajama tops and puts it in the kit’s enclosure. All Bat wanted to do is ensure the kit remained familiar with Janie’s scent, but Janie was furious. Bat isn’t sure where he went wrong, and while Janie fumes in her room, Dr. Tam offers to teach Bat how to do laundry so he can get the animal smell out of Janie’s pajama shirt. Bat then makes a suggestion of his own: “Maybe if we use extra fabric softener, and make the pajama top softer than it’s ever been, then maybe Janie won’t be so mad.” Such a beautiful yet understated moment could not have come to fruition without Dr. Tam meeting Bat at his level with an abundance of patience, or without Bat seizing the social tools his mother has gently introduced to him.
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In other instances, an advocate can arrive in your life from a place you’d least expect. Take Chase Ambrose from Restart. Before he suffered an accident that claimed his memories, he was a school bully, the kind of kid who’d send others fleeing in the opposite direction. In fact, Chase did send a student moving out of town to a different, out of state school. However, after head injury-induced amnesia, things are different now: Chase is quieter, more thoughtful. Kind, even – but none of the kids he’s hurt in the past believe he’s capable of such drastic change, and trying to make amends isn’t something that can be achieved with the snap of a finger.
But it can be achieved by joining a video club.
It’s a mere chance that Chase ends up having a brief encounter with Brendan Espinoza on one of his first days back to school. Brendan, unbeknownst to Chase, is one of the kids who used to be bullied terribly by Chase and his buddies. When the rumors of Chase’s amnesia seem to be validated by Chase’s changed behavior, Brendan invites Chase to act as a cameraman, and it leads to quite the surprising realization: “The Chase Ambrose who worked on this video was not the same person… He was helpful. He had good ideas. He was even nice.” This testimony-slash-olive branch is what invites other students in the video club to smooth out their hackles and start an unlikely camaraderie with Chase.
Everything goes up in the air, though, when two of Chase’s old buddies start a fight that ends up nearly destroying the music room. Chase accidentally strikes a student with a fire extinguisher, and lets himself “get drawn back into the old life” to evade punishment. Just as quickly as he won his classmates over, opinions switched and once again, he’s seen as nothing more than a bully. Brendan is the only one to come to Chase’s defense: “I know what it looks like. But doesn’t Chase deserve the benefit of the doubt?” No one is convinced, nor takes the time to listen to Chase’s side of the story.
Brendan discovers he caught the fight on film and it was an accident after all. He even assembles film club kids at his house to play the footage, to prove that Chase has been innocent this whole time. Having others understand you when you know yourself is hard enough, but having someone help the world see you when you’re little more than a blank slate is an entirely different beast. With Brendan at his side, though, it’s a beast that Chase manages to defeat.
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Melody, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Out of My Mind, is highly intelligent. She’s a great listener, and her narrative voice is so incredibly funny. In the beginning, though, only the reader knows these things. Melody has cerebral palsy, which means she can’t speak or write, she’s wheelchair-bound, and almost everyone around her underestimates just how smart she is. (“Nobody gets it. Nobody. Drives me crazy.”) Note, here: the keyword is almost everyone. Melody is supported by a small village of fierce advocates, all of whom help her voice be heard for the first time in her life.
Like Bat, Melody’s earliest advocate is her mother who has this sort of “Mom sense” that is essential in helping with Melody’s needs. She observes that Melody laughs right at the punchline of a joke, knows which genres of music make Melody wiggle around with joy. When the time comes to consider enrolling Melody into school, Melody and her mother go to a doctor that is meant to gauge Melody’s intelligence. It results in Melody being treated in a way that’s incredibly cold and insensitive, unleashing an explosive reaction from Melody’s mother: “You’re not so intelligent, sir – you’re just lucky! All of us who have all our faculties intact are just plain blessed. Melody is able to figure out things, communicate, and manage in a world where nothing works right for her. She’s the one with the true intelligence!” This is the same sort of fury that’s unleashed when Mrs. Billups, one of Melody’s teachers in Room H-5, neglects Melody’s needs by refusing to read the careful records a previous teacher left behind. Both of these interactions, while uncomfortable to read, ultimately result in reinforcing the idea that Melody deserves to be treated fairly. She may have a disability, but “she is extremely intelligent! And you better learn to accept that!”
The first person outside of Melody’s family to see the potential in Melody is a colorful woman named Mrs. Violet Valencia, who lives next door. During the first meeting when Melody is barely two, she declares: “All kids are special. But this one has hidden superpowers. I’d love to help her find them.” And she does. Mrs. V gives Melody a priceless gift: literal piles of words, “making it her mission to give [Melody] language” to communicate with others.
Ultimately, it’s the combined efforts of Mrs. V. and Catherine, a school aide, that result in Melody receiving a Medi-Talker. This device is similar to the computer that Stephen Hawking used, something that contains “nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives – thousands of them – as well as a cool sentence-maker that is located on another level.” It allows Melody to prepare “hundreds of phrases and sentences and get to them with just a touch.” More than anything else, when Melody is folded into inclusion classes, the Medi-Talker allows her to communicate with her classmates. To joke with them. To defend herself in the face of bullying. Though it isn’t exactly smooth sailing, she’s able to show her peers the true Melody that’s been there all along, helping them to see that, “Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all.”
In all three books, advocates go beyond just offering support— each work to ensure the protagonists feel validated, that Bat, Chase, and Melody have no doubt that they are more than the labels the world has thrust upon them. A kid with autism. A bully. A girl with cerebral palsy. The narratives become fuller once each kids gains a fuller sense of who they actually are. It’s no small feat. After all, kids are constantly changing, trying out new personalities and phrases, tics and traits, like they’re the latest fashion trends. It’s how we all come into ourselves. It’s how we learn and ultimately, it’s how we grow.
But we don’t grow alone, and A Boy Called Bat, Restart, and Out of My Mind only reinforce this notion.
Still, there are times that no matter how sure of ourselves we may be, others will misunderstand us. If all you hear is that you’re “weird” or a “bully” or “empty-headed” you may miss the chance to discover your true self: that you have a knack for working with animals, that you can be a real asset to a film club, or that you’re incredibly funny and clever. It’s why advocates are so vital in forging relationships with those around us. To serve as translators, as bridges, as a rock to lean against amid challenging times. To remind us not to let our need for Belonging and Love be neglected.
At Read to Them, we encourage you to read these books together, be it at home or across a whole school community. The lessons about understanding that Dr. Tam, Brendan, Melanie’s mother, Mrs. V., and Catherine teach are meant to guide advocates in the making— parents, teachers, and students, too. How lucky we are to have such important pieces of children’s literature to give us the tools to best understand those around us. How lucky we are to have those same guides so we, ourselves, can be understood, too.