I Am Not A Label: addressing stories of disability representation for older children

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A new collection of stories: I Am Not A Label, written by disabled CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell is intelligent, politically bold and beautiful to browse, says reviewer Kate Lovell

book cover

Book cover for ‘I Am Not A Label’ written by disabled CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell

I Am Not A Label is an anthology of stories aimed at older children, exploring the lives of 34 “disabled artists, thinkers, athletes and activists from past and present”, published by Wide Eyed Editions.

The first word that springs to mind upon opening I Am Not A Label is: ‘finally’. What a delight to find a book brimming with deaf and disabled role models who are the star of each story. This book is overdue, and it’s fantastically written and curated, hitting the mark for a mind-opening and world-expanding read for children, young people and adults, too.

This book sings the right note from the start with Cerrie Burnell’s brilliant introduction. Aimed at children, Burnell uses jargon-free language, but never patronises, writing with a refreshing frankness. She starts with telling part of her own story: growing up, she longed to see herself reflected in the heroes of the books she read but disappointingly found that she looked a great deal more like one of the villainous pirates than Peter Pan.

In a few succinct paragraphs, Burnell expertly sums up why representation in books and the arts matters. It’s her motivation for writing this book, a collection of lesser-heard or completely unknown stories about the lives of disabled people who have led interesting or noteworthy lives.

highly coloured illustration featuring blind singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder

Page from I Am Not A Label featuring an illustration of Stevie Wonder

The book is framed by the social model and it’s exciting to see this explained with ease and confidence in a book aimed at young people. Each person featured in the collection has led “a fascinating life, often overcoming misconceptions and prejudice to do so” – not a whiff of the “overcoming their disability” narrative that too often permeates.

The book is gorgeous – a matt-finished hardback with stunning, vibrant illustrations by Lauren Baldo that accompany each story. The format is similar to the best-selling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: one disabled person featured on each double-page spread, with a short summary of their life, achievements and the barriers they faced to finding their success.

There are some well-known names in the book, from Stephen Hawking to Frida Kahlo, but the difference here is the way their stories are told using the social model: the barriers described are societal and medical conditions are used simply for context. This treatment is vital in a book aimed at highlighting role models for children and young people, both disabled and non-disabled.

The especially exciting element of this book, including for an adult reader, is the wealth of stories about disabled people that are far less famous: the pioneering Nigerian software engineer Farida Bedwei, the Japanese author Naoki Higashida and the Guatemalan fashion designer Isabella Springmuhl Tejada to name but three.

There are also sections on mental health management and invisible impairments, discussion of terms like neurodiversity and the damaging effects of disabled people being used as “inspiration”. All of this knowledge is power for young people reading, particularly for disabled young people, being armed with an arsenal of capable people to look up to that they can identify with. They are not doomed to play Hook or Smee: they can be Peter Pan.

highly coloured illustration featuring model Aaron Philip

Page from I Am Not A Label featuring an illustration of Caribbean trans model, Aaron Philip

I Am Not A Label is intelligent and politically bold at the same time as being beautiful to browse – every bookshelf needs a copy.

I Am Not A Label is out now, available to buy both online through Hive and in your local bookshops.