What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George

We were thrilled to be able to read What Happened to YOU? and then pose some questions to author James Catchpole. This is a wonderful book which features Joe, a young boy with one leg, who is happily playing and attempting to answer the inevitable question, What Happened to you? by those around him. Delving into Joe’s side of the story is a brilliant narrative on just how normal he views himself until someone else loudly points out his differences.

Q&A with James Catchpole

This is an important book to help children understand the normality of our differences- was this the overriding message you want readers to understand?

That’s a good phrase, ‘the normality of our differences’.

On the one hand, I didn’t want to write a story that tried to pretend that Joe, our disabled hero, is no different from the children around him. Of course, Joe’s experience of life differs from that of his peers…but not actually because of Joe’s disability. No, Joe’s experience is different because whenever he meets a new child, they remind him of his disability – and loudly! So he can’t help but feel different, in those moments.

And on the other hand, I wanted to bring the reader inside Joe’s consciousness as far as I could, so they can see his disability is completely normal for him. As the story begins, Joe is playing his own private game in the playground. He is utterly unconscious of being different from anyone else, until other children arrive and remind him. The middle part of the story is all about how Joe negotiates their curiosity, and the way it singles him out. By the end of the story, the other children have almost forgotten about Joe’s difference. It has become normal for them, too.

How much of your own personal frustrations and emotions are mirrored in Joe?

The experience of being singled out from the crowd by strangers asking personal and intrusive questions is familiar for anyone with a visible disability or difference. Many disabled people face this every time they leave the house, from adults as well as children. It’s not that unusual for strangers to cross the road just to ask the question ‘what happened to you?’ And that counts as relatively polite. Somehow when the rule about not asking personal questions of strangers was invented, disabled people got left out. And it really is the most personal question, not just singling someone out, but tapping down into their vulnerabilities and often trauma, all to satisfy someone’s passing curiosity.

When children ask, it’s much more understandable. Young ones often do it with such a spirit of open astonishment. And I always answer them in a friendly way and make a brief connection…but I never tell them what did happen, because they don’t need to know, and they’re never too young to learn that they don’t have a right to know – that it’s not my job to tell them. Their own grown-ups can teach them all sorts of useful things about disability in general, but they don’t need my own story.

Then apply all this to disabled children, who face this experience every time they set foot in the playground… The current consensus in society, when it comes to disability, tells kids ‘if you want to know, then go ahead and just ask.’ This places the burden on disabled children to explain themselves. It couldn’t be more harmful and wrong.

The honesty and curiosity of children is both a blessing and creator of awkward situations- you offer some tips on the back cover.  Which of these would you emphasise to parents and children?

I know this as a parent, too. Which parent doesn’t?! At some point, every parent will squirm as their child pipes up with something as excruciating as it is innocent, like ‘why has that man got no hair?’ or ‘why is that mummy so fat?’ Other parents often come over to apologise, in the playground, and some then ask me ‘what should I do?’ I’ve given a few tips in the back of my book, to help them along. A summary would be to keep cool, don’t tell your child off or make them awkward, but do try to get them to understand the idea of personal questions, in as clear and simple a way as you can. And don’t send them over to ask me what happened! I’m probably trying to stop my own children from running down the slide…

The quote “Sharks were easy compared to kids Joe hadn’t met yet” sums up Joe’s reticence in playground antics- was this your experience as well?

From what I can remember I always stuck it out, in the playground, and trusted that the inquisition would blow over – which it always did, eventually. And my school reports were more likely to describe me as hurling myself about than being reticent. But I do remember that feeling which Joe knows so well, when some kid has clocked him for the first time and is gaping, open-mouthed. Because Joe knows so well what comes next: YOU’VE ONLY GOT ONE LEG! Then all eyes are on Joe, his peers have become a mob arrayed against him, and the interrogation begins…

How have you found the response to your book? 

The response so far is all on social media, but it has been phenomenal. For months now, since the cover reveal, we’ve had disability activists on Instagram coming on board and letting us know just how much the outline of the story resonates with them. So many disabled people have a far worse time of it than I do – a man missing a leg is generally seen as heroic in some way. Other disabilities engender far less positive responses. So the book already has its natural allies. And then there are some very hard-working and influential book-bloggers out there who know how desperately few ‘own voices’ books there are for kids on disability – books written by actual disabled people – and how confused and harmful some of the messaging in books written by well-meaning but non-disabled authors often is. All of that support has been very heartening.

But best have been the responses, since review copies have gone out, from disabled children and their parents. I can’t tell you how much that means. I wrote the book I wish had existed for my 5 year old self, so to see it hitting home for kids like I was, is just everything.

The illustrations are fantastic- what were your initial thoughts on them? And did you find barriers to getting it published?

The story of how Karen came to illustrate my book – or rather how I came to write hers – is one for another time! But suffice to say we came up with this project together, and then found ourselves a publisher – two publishers, in fact. As I say, it’s a long story… But we’ve worked much more closely together on this than authors and illustrators usually do, and I think it shows. Karen never met me when I was five, but somehow she’s managed to capture my physicality. It’s uncanny. And her attention to detail when it comes to emotional expression was exactly what the story needed. Plus she draws sharks with moustaches, which is always a win-win.

As much as I’d like to say it took us four years to bring it to publication because the mean old industry wasn’t ready for it, the truth is that editors were all receptive to the idea – and actually I think it took Karen and me four years to get the book right! I’m actually an agent, not an author, and it turns out this writing lark ain’t easy – who knew? But I’m very glad we took the rather winding path we did, because it afforded us the chance to work on it over and over until we found our way to the story this was always meant to be. And with the growth of the Own Voices movement, by the time we were ready to tell it finally, the world had become more ready to hear it.

Thank you to James Catchpole for answering our questions so wonderfully. What Happened to YOU? is available now!

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