One of the most popular Halloween characters, a pirate, is often portrayed with an eye patch, a peg leg or a hook in place of a hand. But good luck finding characters with real disabilities in children’s books on the holiday—just ask Brooke Parsons ’19.
Parsons recently examined about 150 illustrated children’s Halloween books to see how persons with disabilities are depicted or described. The research project, part of the Summer Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (SURI) program, combined her love of Halloween with her career plans.
“I found only a limited number of books with a character with a disability, and most of these characters were in the background. It was upsetting that there weren’t more characters,” said Parsons, a future high-school special education teacher. “It’s important for young readers with a disability to see themselves as a protagonist or main character in a book once in a while. It’s also important for able-bodied readers to see a person who might be in a wheelchair or on crutches not as an exaggerated character but as someone just a little different from them.”
In her project, “Behind the Halloween Mask: Using Disability Theory to Read Otherness in Halloween Children’s Literature,” she also created an annotated 67-page bibliography on 20 topics related to children’s Halloween books. The topics evolved from brainstorming with Dr. Jennifer Miskec, associate professor of children’s and young adult literature.
“These are 20 ways these books could be used in research,” said Miskec. “When we started looking for one topic, we found other topics, which kept splintering off from each other. The books were guiding us. We found books I never knew were there. Eventually we said, ‘Let’s just go for an even 20.’”
The brainstorming took place during Miskec’s study abroad class on Croatian children’s literature, in which Parsons was a student. This was the third consecutive year that Miskec has taught the course, which met not only throughout Croatia but also in Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Montenegro in late May and June.
Parsons, who did most of her SURI work after returning home, was struck by Croatia’s beauty. “At many places we went to, I kept thinking, ‘They should shoot movies here,’” said Parsons, who will apply to present her project at the 2018 conference of the Children’s Literature Association.
In a related SURI project, Miskec, who is interested in witches, is doing research on costuming and gender issues related to Halloween. She hopes to publish a journal article on her project, which is titled “Boo! Costuming, Carnivalesque, and Children’s Literature: The Halloween Edition.”
Parsons, from Springfield, is in the five-year special education program, from which she expects to receive a master’s degree in 2020. She called herself a “very big fan of Halloween.”
“I recently was shopping at Tuesday Morning and saw some Halloween stuff but said to myself, ‘No, I’m shopping for someone else today,’” she said with a smile. A week later, though, she bought a black and purple spider outfit for her dog to wear this Halloween.