Raymond Antrobus, a deaf poet and teacher, is a Ted Hughes Award winner and became the first poet to be awarded the Rathbones Folio Prize. About Can Bears Ski?, his first picture book, he says, “It’s the book I could see myself reaching for as a child, and I can’t wait to have it exist in the world.” Originally from London, Antrobus now lives in Oklahoma City. Polly Dunbar is a partially deaf author-illustrator living in England who has created a number of picture books, including Penguin, the Tilly and Friends series, and A Lion Is a Lion. She is also the illustrator of Pat-a-Cake Baby and Here’s a Little Poem, among other titles. We asked Antrobus and Dunbar to interview each other about their new picture book and expanding representation for young readers.
Polly Dunbar: Hello, Raymond, I’m so excited that our book Can Bears Ski? is out in the world at last! When I was first sent the text, I was so moved by your beautiful writing; it tackles coming to terms with deafness in a way that is helpful in practical terms but also has all the magic of your writing for adults. I believe this story was inspired by your poem “Happy Birthday Moon.” Can you tell me how it came about?
Raymond Antrobus: Hi, Polly! So great to have worked with you and to write a book like Can Bears Ski? with someone who is also hard of hearing. “Happy Birthday Moon” is the closing poem in my poetry collection The Perseverance. It asks the question “where does language begin for a deaf child?” and examines the earliest memory I have of being read to. I’ve always loved children’s picture books and the book that I remember asking my dad to read was Happy Birthday, Moon by Frank Asch. That book uses a lot of repetition, which is a great poetic device for a deaf poet in the hearing world.
Can I ask you how you feel about Can Bears Ski? and if it resonated with your experience growing up?
Dunbar: It’s a happy coincidence that I also loved Happy Birthday, Moon when I was a child. I hadn’t thought about the book all this time—that is until I read your story. I don’t know if you noticed but I put a picture of the moon wearing a top hat in the library scene as a little nod to it. Your story resonated deeply with me because of the deafness in my family. My mother, whom you met, is profoundly deaf so as a child I had an understanding of what it is like. I was taken to the audiologist every year and I have very vivid memories of the experience. The padded room cubicle with no windows where you listen for strange beeps. Deafness is hereditary in my family; my mum’s [hearing] started declining when she was five and mine not until I was in my 20s. It has been very gradual for me. It was almost as though people were beginning to speak in a slightly foreign language; I’d spend a lot of time trying to decipher or decode what people were saying. That’s why Can Bears Ski? struck me as being so brilliant and clever, and when the penny dropped that “can bears ski?” was actually “can you hear me?,” little fireworks went off in my brain. I was so inspired to illustrate it.
My mum is also a writer. She has said to me that if she hadn’t been deaf, she maybe wouldn’t have found writing. Sometimes feeling shut out of the external world, she would retreat more into her inner world and her imagination. Does this ring true for you at all as a writer? Or do you think your writing would be very different if you weren’t hard of hearing. There is an almost silent moment in the book where Boy Bear retreats to the library as if taking solace in the books. I loved illustrating this page. You left so many beautiful clues in your story for me to draw “quietness” and “loudness,” if that makes sense.
Antrobus: Yes! Of course! I did notice the top hat! What a moment that was to see that! Ah! Thank you. I’m a fan of your mum (Joyce Dunbar). She was so kind and encouraging of my writing when I met her and she continues to be a friend! What a coincidence that Walker Books paired us up—I hadn’t said anything about knowing Joyce personally.
That’s a good question, too. I think I would have been less likely to cultivate my writing if I wasn’t deaf. I think my tendency for writing would still be there but my voice and perspective would be different. You capture noise and silence in this book so beautifully, I honestly cried when I first read my words with your pictures. It’s interesting you say your deafness was heredity. Mine seemed to come out of nowhere because no one in my family that I’ve met has it. Did you feel afraid of going deaf or was it comforting having a deaf mother? I ask this because in my mind, I hope Can Bears Ski? comforts and educates those who only have negative (and ableist) connotations with deafness, and shows it as an experience rather than a kind of trauma. What are your hopes for our book?
Dunbar: An experience rather than a trauma is a very good way of describing it. It has been that way for me and yes, my mum being deaf and still living an absolutely full life will have been an example to me without me even realizing. I love how Boy Bear is a strong and lively little boy; he wears bold colors, he leaps out of bed, he is proud and happy. So already the book is setting an example for children who are maybe going through a similar experience. There isn’t a deaf stereotype and this little boy is not a victim. What has been interesting to me and my journey is that deafness doesn’t only affect the person who is hard of hearing but those around them too. People may have to adjust the way they speak around deaf people, not by shouting but with direct and open communication, and then of course patience. This can be difficult, perhaps because of shyness or even fear of the unknown. I often find myself trying to thread together wisps of conversation and can easily get the wrong end of the stick. People may think I’m rude if I don’t answer at all or a bit nutty when I respond with a completely different answer to the question asked.
That’s another reason I think this is an important book—it explores not only the child’s journey, discovering what it is to be deaf, but also the father’s—it is an experience for him too. Their relationship was the thing I most enjoyed illustrating; it is touchingly real. The dad doesn’t always get it right. He goes from frustration to being perhaps overly protective and then to being genuinely worried. At the end Dad Bear loses his temper because Boy Bear “loses” his hearing aids. It’s not a quick fix of getting little robots in your ears that make you hear; it is about love and patience, and again that word communication. This is what’s happening when the father is reading to his son and by the end of the book, they have both learnt to “ski,” they have found their wings.
I’m so glad that you were touched when seeing your words paired with my pictures. There is a trust in handing over words to an illustrator, especially ones that have such personal meaning. To answer your question, I hope this book is useful, not only to the child experiencing deafness but also to teachers, parents, and classmates. Raymond, if you had been handed this book as a child, do you think it would have helped? I have spoken about the father-son relationship, but perhaps that’s for you to talk about. I hope I got it right, is there anything about it you want to say? And another question, do you have any more children’s books on the horizon?
Antrobus: What a thoughtful and generous answer! Thank you, Polly. Yeah, you did it justice. To be honest, my mother was great and did a lot of the leg work to get me into SEN [Special Education Needs] spaces as well as doctors and hearing aid support. My dad was completely absent from that part of my life and Can Bears Ski? is a portrait of what I wished had happened with my father, but I don’t think there was any model for him to engage with it. As a teacher I really took to heart the idea of modeling yourself on what you are teaching, so that’s why I wanted the story to be about the father-son relationship. I had no confidence that I would do this justice initially, but I just tried it and it seemed to have worked out. I imagined myself as a kid again, and thought of the book I wish I could’ve reached for and given my dad to read me. My mum would be working through the night, so he had more time to be present with me at bedtime.
I am actually thinking of another children’s book about siblings. One of my identities is being a little brother. My older sister and I fought a lot as kids. I saw a statistic that showed domestic violence is soaring under Covid-19 and a lot of those incidents are between siblings fighting, many violent cases with people ending up hospitalized. I’m thinking of writing a book about conflict resolution between siblings, but we’ll see. What about you, are you working on another book? Have you ever written or drawn for adults?
Dunbar: That’s so interesting to hear, that “it’s a portrait of what you wished had happened.” It’s like caring for the child you once were and of course caring for the children who will read the book. I hope that when parents are handed this book it will give them an understanding of the experience of deafness. I love that it’s the dad who stars in it and not the mum, who would perhaps be the more obvious choice. It was also your suggestion to have a male primary school teacher and female audiologist; these are small decisions but make a huge difference in seeing people (or bears!) in opposite roles that are often assumed for their genders. Hopefully this sort of thing isn’t even noticeable when reading the book, it’s just there. For me it’s the magic that shines through most of all, it’s a story about relationships, disability, and the power of imagination. The moon talking at the end is so beautiful.
Talking about your new work, domestic violence is a big and brave one to tackle. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to hear about the rise in cases. I hadn’t considered it, but of course it must be rife between siblings. Having said that, I had my two boys at home for six months. They are three and six and the “togetherness” of it all often strained their relationship, but also they bonded in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have happened if they were going about their normal life at school and nursery.
Just as you have taken your first step into children’s publishing with this book, my first book for adults comes out next year. It’s called Hello, Mum and it’s a book of doodles based on family life. A lot of those stresses and strains I just mentioned are in the book and also the moments when things seemed to come together.
Going back to Can Bears Ski?, I have to say that it has already been useful for my two boys—just as I had to go to the audiologist every year as a child to have my hearing tested, so do they. Being able to read this story with them, and for them to see it in the making, has normalized these visits and given them an understanding of what it’s like to be deaf. Thank you for writing it!
Antrobus: Ahh! Polly! That makes me so happy to know. I haven’t received much feedback from readers yet so your early impressions with your family have lit me up. Hello, Mum sounds great! Best of luck with your next venture and thank you so much for everything you’ve done for Can Bears Ski?!
Can Bears Ski? by Raymond Antrobus, illus. by Polly Dunbar. Candlewick, $16.99 Nov. 10 ISBN 978-1-5362-1266-2