We’ll Paint the Octopus Red

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We’ll Paint the Octopus Red is a children’s picture book that has been recommended to me several times in the almost-four years I’ve been Avery’s mom. It’s a little bit like the “Welcome to Holland” essay in that it always seems to come up.

In it, a father reassures his daughter, who is a new sister to a baby with Down syndrome. The little girl is worried that the baby won’t be able to run, or play, or read, or paint, and the father tells her the baby will be able to do all these things, in time.

I have a problem with the book, for this reason: if your child, (or children) has experienced only positive attitudes and love for their sibling with Down syndrome, then it serves as a very first introduction to the negative stereotypes of DS.

Tom and I had a discussion about reading this book at the B&N event. He, like many parents, read it and saw the father’s concern, and the daughter’s eventual acceptance.

I felt differently. I said I couldn’t sit at the front of the group and look out at all the little faces, one of them belonging to Avery, and read the words, “If Issac has this Down thing, what can’t he do?”

We chose instead to read My Friend Isabelle, which I can read to anyone, anytime (see the post below). And I’m glad I did. Looking out over the crowd, I noticed three teenagers with Down syndrome. I’d talked with them earlier, about haircuts, clothes, and the new Melissa Riggio CD.

I knew, looking out at them, that the words about all the things people with DS can’t do would have been hurtful–and ridiculous.

Have you read this book, and if so, what do you think? Am I being too hard on it?

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17 thoughts on “We’ll Paint the Octopus Red

  1. This is one of those books that I LOVED when we FIRST got the girls. The more time that passed, the more I grew to dislike it. I hate how it immediately jumps to “oh, he can’t do this and he can’t do that” instead of being a more positive wording. I agree with your decision to not read it. Down syndrome is no longer a “diagnosis” it’s my child. A child who we view in the light of what they CAN do, not what they can’t.

  2. The discussion on this post has shown me that there are families who find value in confronting the stereotypes head-on. And that children are much more aware of them, even at tender ages, than I’d realized. I also have learned that familes are very good at choosing which books are supportive to them, and which ones are not…hooray for the careful reader!

    I ask Carter often if he knows about DS, and if he wants to talk about it, and what it means to him. I have always done this…but really, he could care less. I am not sure if it’s good or bad. But for now, I am not going to push it. I think he’ll let me know, in time, when he wants to talk about it. Or maybe life will show us…we may run into some situations with other people that will require conversations. Time will tell.

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I appreciate them, and I have learned a lot. I think I will keep the book around just in case Bennett, Avery’s twin, needs it some day.

  3. I would definitely recommend this book for siblings of a certain age (say 4-10). We’ve had it for a couple of years, and my son Bobby, who’s now 7, requested it for bedtime reading just the other night. At this stage, he enjoys the Q&A in the back almost as much as the story.

    He was only 22 months old when Stella was born, and we didn’t start really talking to him about DS until he was 4 or so. When Stella was a baby, Bobby knew that she was sick (because of her heart defect), but that was it. He used to pray that Baby Stella’s heart would be fixed. Then it was.

    Today he said that Stella was doing something he thought childish “because she’s only five,” not because she has DS. He’s become an open-minded and sensitive kid, and I hope he can transmit that to others.

  4. Oh my sister-in-law gave us this book (Octopus) for Christmas. It made me cry so I haven’t read it again. When I read it to Noah I just missed out the bit about the dad having red eyes and he really enjoyed it. Just a bit much for me though! I felt that really it was more for parents than for children.
    Noah’s only three so I’m not worrying about ‘telling him’ that Alfie’s got DS as such. Thought I would just keep it as part of our continuing conversation so it’s always out there. But then again, my ex-boyfriend’s older brother has Down Syndrome and he said he didn’t notice until he was 17!!! That’s boys for you – maybe they need things being spelt out.

  5. I have to agree with Kathy to a certain extent. The book helped open up a dialog with our also, at the time, 6 y.o. daughter about Nicky. She had 3 friends with older brothers with DS and a boy in the same grade. She understood the limitations and needed reassurance that he would do typical things even though she knew these older boys. It’s been interesting to see how my older two have reacted to the news. My daughter was very upset, seemed to go through a morning process (for lack of a better term) but accepted and still has sad spells from time to time. My son, who was 4 when Nicky was born, seemed to take it in stride. But lately has had some anger and frustration surface. They both love him dearly.

  6. Jennifer, I’m so glad you posted on my site!! I have been reading yours from beginning to end over the last few days. You are an awesome writer, and someone I think I’d make very fast friends with!

    Paige is almost 10 and Dakotah is almost 14, and to be honest, I have never had a single issue with Dakotah having a hard time accepting the fact that Paige has DS. We talked about it very openly and honestly from even before Paige was born, and Dakotah has always been very matter of fact about it.

    In fact, she LOVES showing off her sister, and loves the attention it brings her, lol. Everyone in our town knows Paige, and Dakotah sucks that right up, rofl. She knows a good thing when she sees it — she takes her little sister trick-or-treating and gets better candy because she’s so cute, lol, she tells her friends she doesn’t have to share phone time (yet) like their siblings do, etc.

    We are also very lucky to have a very big network of families who have kids with DS, and lots of those families have kids Dakotah’s age, so maybe that makes it easier for her as well.

    Fantastic blog!!!

    Betsy

  7. Wouldn’t it be terrific if no such negative stereotypes existed? If all children were welcomed and loved, and that that love and acceptance was reinforced by society at large? I dream of the day…

    But I know we do not live in that world. So thank you, Kathy, for your comment. If those concerns are already in a child’s (or parent’s) head, it’s good to talk about them, and this book provides an opening, I can see that now.

  8. I bought that book (Octopus) for my daughter Christine (then 6) when Thomas was brand new. It touched her deeply. She still asks me to read it to her on occasion. It touched me too. I needed the message as much as she did.

    Maybe in some families the whole concept of DS being limiting in some ways never comes up, but it did in mine. My oldest son was heartbroken when he heard about T’s diagnosis because he had seen kids with mental disabilities before, and he knew that society does not gloss over such differences. So our family needed this kind of dialogue, on many different levels.

  9. I think that’s a terrific point, Jen. Books for kids with learning differences and any other kind of difference should be able to hold weight with ALL kids. That should be the standard. It shouldn’t be, “Well, that’s a good book, for kids with DS…” It should be, “That’s a good book that all kids would love!” High expectations, I know! But why not?

  10. I love “I Can, Can You?” It says so much so clearly, without using many words at all. It’s terrific. And we have the “”Russ and the Firehouse” book, which Bennett loves (non-DS) because he loves all things firemen. I wish there was an equivalent series for little girls…any moms out there interested, here’s an opportunity! 🙂

  11. I like the book and the sequel “The Best Worst Brother.” Maybe part of the reason is that my daughter’s name is Emma and the other part of the reason is that she didn’t do many of the things that typical babies did (such as roll, crawl, etc) although she is a “typical” child. She is sort of empowered by the knowledge that “not doing something,” such as crawling, doesn’t mean much in the long run. Have you read the Russ series books (Russ and the Almost Perfect Day, Russ and the Firehouse)? You might like those better. As far as board books go, my all time favorite is “I Can, Can You?”

  12. I read it, and at first glance, it really didn’t strike me the way it struck you, but then again, I tend to skim sometimes.

    Not crazy about the line: “If Issac has this Down thing, what can’t he do?”
    I’ll have to re-read the book for context…it’s been awhile.

  13. I’ve heard of the book a lot, but haven’t read it (probably because Kayla is an only child and this is a book for a sibling). Interesting take on it though – I hadn’t thought of it that way and what you say make sense. If your child(ren) are already accepting of their sibling w/Ds why read a book that makes them question what they can do?

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