The only special need that any child has (or any adult, for that matter) is to be loved and accepted just the way they are. And, if there’s a children’s book that sparkles as it tells a story around this much-needed theme, it has got to be Zai Whitaker’s Kanna Panna!
Words roll, tumble and do cartwheels inside Kanna’s head, yet he is a very quiet boy. We know this because when the story begins, people are always talking to or talking about him. His Appa gives him the “heads-up” order many times in a day. His Amma instructs him about the clothes he wears and how he should wear them. Kanna just listens and says nothing. Of course, the words keep playing inside his head all the while, “and look for rhymes in each other”.
When Amma said,
“Don’t play with dirt,”
my mind said,
“And tuck in your shirt.”
When Appa said, “Hold up your head,”
my mind replied, “What did you said?”
One day, Kanna visits some cave temples with his Chithi and her family when the lights suddenly go off. It is pitch dark inside. Everyone is frightened (even the adults) and unsure about finding their way back through the maze of tunnels. Everyone, except Kanna. Light or no light, it makes no difference to him because he can’t see anyway! And that’s when the reader actually realizes that Kanna is blind.
Don’t you realise we are trapped? How are we going to get out of here? We are finished! Kanna’s Chithi exclaims. Finished binished. Just hold hands and follow me, Kanna says confidently, surprising his family, and then leads them out of the labyrinthine maze, talking all the time.
This incident changes Kanna’s live forever. He goes on to become a chatterbox, making friends at school and being the happy, naughty, curious child we want children to be. And the words – oh they never stop! …The teacher asked me my name and I said, “Kanna”. Then, before I could stop my voice, it said, “Kanna Panna”.
Much credit goes to Zai Whitaker for portraying disability in a matter-of-fact manner and keeping it secondary to her storyline. In fact, she successfully inverts our notion of disability by showing how the physically-disabled are no different from the physically-abled through her heartwarming and happy tale. Of course, like all good stories, Whitaker lets her readers reflect on what is left unsaid.
Bright-eyed Kanna endears right from the first page of the book, especially because of Niloufer Wadia‘s beautiful nuanced illustrations. His large, expressive face gives away nothing of his disability, which takes the author’s treatment of the theme up by many notches.
It is World Disability Day today, and I hope books like this one will help us recognize that what we need instead is a World Ability Day. Because there’s no two ways about it – everyone’s ability is much stronger than their disability!
Why Are You Afraid to Hold my Hand? by Sheila Dhir (Tulika)
Wings to Fly by Sowmya Rajendran (Tulika)
Catch that Cat by Tharini Viswanath (Tulika)
Chuskit Goes to School by Sujata Padmanabhan (Pratham Books)
Sept-Opus: Adventures of an Almost-Octopus by Jyotin Goel (Red Turtle)