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SCBWI-MI Winter Spotlight The Benefits of ASL in Children's Picture Books for Three Authors

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Friday, January 28, 2022

Writer Spotlight: Three Members "Speak" Sign Language Writers Come to American Sign Language In Different Ways, But Find it Boosts their Communication Skills Visually Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet three SCBWI-MI members who know and use (in varying degrees) American Sign Language (ASL).

Melissa Bailey

How were you introduced to sign language? Why did you take it up? Where did you learn it? Do you use ASL on a regular basis?

I learned sign language about 15 years ago – a deaf friend taught me. While I did take an ASL class, I was mostly taught by the deaf. Since moving to be closer to family, now I mostly use ASL when I get together with deaf friends, so not much in the past two years!

Do you ever dream in ASL?

Yes! All the time, even though it's been a while since I've been immersed in the community. ASL wormed its way into my heart and synapses and didn't let go.

My daughter learned some sign language. She told me it's a combination of painting a picture and directing a stage play. How might you describe ASL in action?

It's very much like charades, but with grammar and vocabulary and structure—just as with any other language. Communication in ASL isn't just with the hands; it's been said that 80% is facial expressions. When chatting with a deaf person, you look in their eyes. You catch what they're signing in the periphery of your vision; your focus is on their face and expressions. It's a rich language based on concepts, not words, and is incomparable in conveying emotions and ideas.

The comparison to painting a picture is apt. ASL is structured very much like the process of drawing a picture. For example, in English, we would say, "The cat sat in the tree." If you were to draw that, you draw the tree first, then place the cat in it. ASL grammar is exactly the same; you would sign 'tree cat sit'. Actually, if I were signing it, I'd sign 'tree', then 'cat', then use a classifier to show the cat running up the tree and sitting in it (acting out the action like charades). I could also use expressions and body language to communicate the cat's emotions or whether this scene is humorous, safe, mysterious, dangerous…

(A classifier is a handshape that is used to represent something else. For example, the 'number one' handshape is often used to represent a person, and how you move the 'person' describes or communicates what they’re doing. They could be walking, running away, meeting another 'they'reperson', etc. – all depending on how you move that classifier.)

As a children's book creator, does ASL ever work its way into your stories?

All the time! Not often directly with a deaf character or describing/illustrating the language, but indirectly it has influenced and affected every book I've worked on. Especially illustrating – I really focus on expression, emotion, and storytelling, and sign language is to thank for that.

Was there a moment when sign language was especially helpful to you?

So many moments! One moment was when our family went to Europe – being in Poland and Hungary, not knowing the language and needing to order food or get directions. Knowing ASL helped me communicate with acting and gestures, and we had a great time!

This isn't a 'moment', per se, but the biggest help that learning sign language has given me is in personal growth. Learning a new language, and a new culture has allowed me to see the world from others' point of view and lived experiences. And I've also gained lifelong friends I never would have made if I hadn't learned sign language.

Another of Melissa's Covers Who inspired you to love books and writing?

I have always loved books and stories. My mom is a reader and made sure that plenty of books were available, but she didn't push my sister and me to read. She said I'd spend hours looking at books (I remember laying on the floor, poring over illustrations by Beatrix Potter and Eloise Wilkins). According to Mom, I asked her to read to me so much that when I showed an interest in learning how to read, she taught me so that I could read on my own (and maybe give her some free time?). So though the love of books and writing has always been there, all thanks goes to my mom for encouraging us to be creative and promoting literacy (both my sister and I learned to read well before kindergarten).

What is your Work In Progress? What are you working on now?

Thanks for asking! Right now, I’m working on illustrating two picture books, with two more waiting in the wings when these are completed. As far as writing, I'mI'm working on a few new story ideas, but my main focus has been working on picture book dummies – the goal is to have one or two ready for submission in 2022.

Contact info:

IG - @mbaileyart


Kathleen Marcath

How were you introduced to sign language?

I was with friends at a weekend retreat. We were busily chatting; music came up loud, bringing our attention to a small woman who stood strong and mighty,

radiant with confidence. She began passionately signing to the music. She awed us with the passion, power, and beauty of her signing along to the music. Before long, she invited everyone to join in. She taught several songs to us in American Sign Language.You know how a song will repeatedly play in your mind? Well, all week long, one song kept coming up in my head and on my hands, "Our God is an Awesome God." A week later, we signed the song for our church family, and I experienced the power and beautiful magic of ASL. I certainly wasn't looking to learn Sign Language. But the experience powerfully grabbed me!

I would say sign language found me. It tapped me on the shoulder and kept knocking at my door. Finally, I OPENED THE DOOR because I promised my passing mother to follow my dreams and not let life pass me by. Why did you take it up? Where did you learn it? Sometime later, I attended the mid-week service at Word of Faith. There were thousands of people in that room! On a Wednesday night, can you imagine?! The seats were all occupied. I wanted to get closer so I wouldn't miss a thing, and I spotted an empty seat near the front. I quickly slipped into the one vacant seat, which happened to be in the Deaf section. Everyone sat watching a woman interpret the speaker. Then, the time came for worship. All around me, the people copied the signer with a new song, and I followed along. As people were leaving, she stopped me to ask me where I had learned to sign. "Who, me?" I answered, "I only know one song; I just copied you!" "For real?" she said, "Girl, you got talent. Go take classes!" I registered for courses in a four-year program at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. In class, I heard the story of Alice Cogswell, a deaf girl back in the 1800s. My heart cried for her and all the children who were left out and ignored. Alice was alone by herself while a group of girls played together down the beach. A young minister, Thomas Gallaudet, noticed this beautiful but unfortunate girl all alone. He asked the group of girls why they were not playing with her. To which they responded callously, ""She is deaf and dumb." He asked them what her name was, and they told him, "Alice." The young priest approached Alice. He then began to write her name in the sand. All-day, he worked with her until she understood that he was writing her name. Finally, for the first time in nine years, this child heard she had a name: ALICE!

In my English classes at Madonna University, we also discussed inclusion literature. To my surprise, I found out there were no children's picture books with children signing in them. So I set out to change that by creating ASL Picture Books. I'd always wanted to write for children, and Alice Cogswell had moved me so much! Alice, along with every child, has a gift to give. It's our job as adults to help them discover who they are. It's our job to help them uncover what they are meant to achieve in life that only they can. So many children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing are left behind in the classroom, ignored at home, and struggle to achieve their dreams. It saddens me deeply because children bring such joy to our world! So, it became my mission to bring smiles to little faces and hope to the world. In creating ASL Picture Books, I wish every child to experience the joy and magical experience ASL offers. Every child should know that they have a name and know they can do great things. Do you use ASL on a regular basis? When I was working with d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, I used ASL every day. I have witnessed the magic of ASL in children learning to sign. With the ability to tell a story using ASL, their faces light up! Working as a special education sign language supporter further kindled my passion for helping children reach their educational potential, for families to build relationships with full language access. As a result, in 2020, I self-published my first children's picture book, My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me, illustrated in American Sign Language. I am delighted to help fill the need for picture books illustrated with characters using American Sign Language. Do you ever dream in ASL? Perhaps I have, but not that I recall. I love that question, though. Dreams are such a great place for ASL to show up since it is a visual language, not a spoken one, and dreams are so intensely visual, with great details and vivid colors, full of rich and unique characters.

My daughter learned some sign language. She told me it's a combination of painting a picture and directing a stage play. How might you describe ASL in action? Your daughter describes ASL very well! Sign language is like painting a picture and directing a stage play. A signer can arrange characters on a stage, in a room, anywhere. Once the stage is set, the signer can then reference them by pointing to that space. The expressions of the signer's production can be compared to the tone and inflection of one's voice. I would describe ASL as the most enlivening, descriptive, best live painting and stage play ever!