On Deafness, ASL, and Cattywampus

While I like to see Deaf characters in books, a few points in this book – especially the use of SimCom – felt awkward and forced.

Where do all my conversational essays come from? Reviews that have gotten far too long, of course. Yesterday my review of a novel called Cattywampus went up (or should have, I’m writing this well before posting).

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, learn to fingerspell your name or other words at http://www.scholastic.com/wonderstruck/signs.html

Overall I enjoyed the novel (see the review for more details) but the ASL aspect sometimes felt off in ways that were hard to describe. Talking about it took up way too much of the review, so here’s a separate post for those who wish to delve deeper into this aspect of the book. First I wish to give a major disclaimer that I personally am not Deaf nor Appalachian so it is very possible that I’ve gotten some aspects of this wrong. I do have deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing friends and family, and am familiar with, although not fluent in, American Sign Language.

If you are yourself or know of reviewers who discuss this topic from either of those standpoints, or from the intersex view which I don’t get into here but discuss in the main review (as it is a more major part of the novel) please share those reviews! Since Disability in Kidlit is now ended, I have been hoping for Sharon Pajka to review this book on her blog, but haven’t seen a post about it yet.

Having gotten a book intending to review it, I don’t usually check out other reviews before writing my own, but I do read lots of reviews when searching out books and looking for new reads. This one got a lot of buzz, but either none of the reviews mentioned it, or I forgot that Katybird’s younger brother is Deaf. So I was surprised when ASL featured in chapter six!

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.

However, something felt off – I had to reread the scenes a few times to figure out why. The major tension in this scene is supposed to be over Katy’s hidden dabbling with magic, and whether her secret will remain hidden even after it caused trouble. But once the signing started, I didn’t understand why Katybird’s mother would be doing SimCom (while preparing breakfast!) when communicating with her Deaf son and daughter who is portrayed as close to fluent.

Many Deaf people see SimCom as a symbol of oppression and disrespect. This is because the spoken word tends to be chosen as priority over the sign language.

https://blog.ai-media.tv/blog/what-is-simcom

Initially, I thought maybe Katybird didn’t know ASL, so her mom was doing it to speak with both her children at once. However, within the same chapter she’s asked to teach her brother ASL vocabulary words… not a task for the beginning signer. So eventually my verdict was that the author didn’t feel comfortable writing ASL for any length of time, and came up with this explanation that doesn’t fit the scenario or characters. The problem here is that when characters are described as doing simultaneous communication without any reason to do so, it’s unrealistic and can put knowledgeable readers out of the novel.

In Cattywampus, the characters speak with an Appalachian dialect or accent, including Katybird’s mom in that particular scene. But writing English dialect versus ASL is very different, and I don’t know that both can be done well at the same time. It’s okay that Van Otterloo doesn’t feel comfortable writing extended scenes in ASL, it’s difficult even for people who know ASL and are familiar with Deaf culture. I’m just grateful that 1) it was several chapters in, so I was already invested enough in the story to continue reading, and 2) I personally didn’t come to this book with any preconceived ideas about the Deaf representation.

when sign language appears on the page, I have a lot of questions as a reader. I instantly want to know who’s deaf, who signs, how well they sign, etc. There’s a whole world of history in simply referencing sign language, as a hearing character who is well versed in ASL would have had an early reason to learn […] it depends on the story whether these questions stop me as a reader, or keep me going forward.

https://disabilityinkidlit.com/2017/05/19/asl-writing-a-visual-language/

ASL competency does actually play a role in the plot (without giving too much of a spoiler, a character is able to sign when speaking is not possible) so this aspect didn’t feel as forced as other elements occasionally did. Katybird is also trying to keep magical side effects hidden so needing to sign versus putting her hands in her pockets adds some mild tension.

Later on in the book, there again was a concerning point where Katy leaves her younger brother alone with a person who can’t sign – he’s six years old. But there are also several points where she described a sign accurately, or had Caleb acting in ways that make sense for a young Deaf boy.

I do want to point out that nothing seemed overtly problematic to me – hearing and bilingual people do SimCom even when there’s no reason to do so, Deaf people born into hearing families do often find themselves in situations where communication is difficult or nonexistent, and ASL is incredibly useful in situations where someone is unable to speak or hear for whatever reason.

But because some other aspects of the representation were well done, that first scene in particular was heavily disappointing for me. As Laura Brown describes in the article linked above, when ASL enters the story, it instantly brings many questions and associations to my mind. Having ASL come in while a character was unnecessarily using SimCom was instantly confusing and bothersome. This stands in sharp contrast to other novels like You’re Welcome, Universe which had a Deaf protagonist who felt very real, or even the brief but affirming mention of ASL in A Festival of Ghosts.

You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner.

This is now the second middle grade fantasy novel I’ve read where signing played a minor role. Still waiting for a Deaf main character in a MG fantasy novel though!

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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