If you've ever wondered how to teach your child about kids with special needs (or if you're suddenly thinking, "Oh yeah, that's something I should talk to my child about!"), In Jesse's Shoes is an excellent way to bring up the topic. This picture book is written by Beverly Lewis, better known as the best selling author of novels about the Amish, but Lewis is uniquely qualified to write a book about disabled children. Not only was she once a teacher, but she's the adoptive mother of several disabled kids. As should be expected by her background, she treats this subject with sensitivity and depth.
In Jesse's Shoes is narrated by Allie, a girl with an older brother named Jesse...who happens to be disabled. As the book opens, she's walking Jesse to the school bus - and is annoyed because this activity is always such a chore. Jesse lingers to look at caterpillars, staring for what seems like forever. Although she knows Jesse is "just wired differently," she can't help but feel sorry for herself. Why can't she have a "regular" brother? Then some other kids begin making fun of Jesse - and, Allie is sure - her, too. As Jesse rides off in the short yellow bus, she feels nothing but relief.
Allie feels guilty. She knows it's not Jesse's fault. She knows she should do a much better job of sticking up for her brother. But she's embarrassed - and she wonders why God made her brother so...weird. Jesse gets his words jumbled up; his speech is difficult to understand; he acts like a much, much younger child; he presses his ear to the sidewalk for hours; he rocks himself to sleep..."I just don't understand him!" Allie cries. Her father replies: "Of course you don't, honey. You haven't walked in Jesse's shoes."
Regretful, Allie prays, "I'm sorry, God. You love Jesse just the way he is, and I should, too."
The next day, Jesse removes his tennis shoes and puts then on Allies' feet. "Sisser...you be me now," he says. Hoping to appease him, Allie agrees...but she's sure glad no one else is around to see them. Jesse takes his sister on a walk, pointing out the beauty he sees in the world. Allie stops and looks - really looks - at the clouds and sees all sorts of fun images in them. She lays down in the grass and smells earthy scents. She watches some ants working. "Does Sisser feel it?" Jesse asks. Indeed, Allie is beginning to see and hear and smell and feel the world Jesse lives in. In the end, she decides, "My brother was way smarter than anybody knew." And when she spots the kids who always make fun of Jesse, she sends Jesse inside the house before confronting them. "Help me say the right thing, God," she prays.
"Different isn't weird. Or bad...In lots of ways, Jesse's just like you...He likes chicken fingers with lots of ketchup. He's crazy about chocolate milk shakes and orange Popsicles. He's scared of thunderstorms and cheers at ball games with Dad. All that kind of stuff. Like anyone...He's born the way he is. The doctors said Jesse would never talk. But you heard him...he talks all the time...He wasn't ever supposed to walk, but he ran a race at the high school last summer..."
One of the kids remarks that maybe they could have been born like Jesse, and a few more kids mumble apologies. Allie concludes, "I figure God knew what He was doing when He picked me to be Jesse's sister. And the other way around."
What I Like: It's difficult for me to imagine a better way to approach this topic. Lewis has given us a flesh and blood narrator who feels exactly what many siblings of kids with special needs feel. She loves her brother, but struggles to come to terms with his uniqueness. This will not only speak to real-life children in her position, but it helps kids who don't know anything about disabled children sympathize. Jesse is also an attractive character; he is different, to be sure, but we come to see that he's a sweet guy from whom we can learn a lot. In addition, the vivid illustrations by Laura Nikiel display lots of emotion, making them a good companion to the heartwarming text.
What I Dislike: The children who taunt Jesse seem to change too quickly for my taste. Their transition from "mean kids" to children who now appreciate and accept Jesse happens in a single page. Nonetheless, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise terrific book.
Overall Rating: Excellent.
Age Appeal: 4 - 8.
Publishing Info: Bethany, 2007; ISBN: 0764203134; hardback, $9.99.
Special Info: You may wish to visit the author's website.