In her debut novel, Show Me a Sign, Ann Clare LeZotte, who has been Deaf since childhood, introduced 11-year-old Mary Lambert who, like her father and many of his ancestors, has been deaf from birth. The historical novel (winner of the 2021 Schneider Family Book Award) takes place on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The year is 1805, a time when deaf and hearing Islanders used a common sign language to communicate. Mary has no idea that deaf people anywhere are treated as anything but equal by society until, through an act of brutality disguised as scholarship, Mary is taken to Boston where she’s treated as a medical subject. Set three years later, LeZotte’s companion novel, Set Me Free, brings Mary to a remote manor house, where she is tasked with teaching a younger deaf girl with no prior language how to communicate. PW spoke with LeZotte via email about the inspiration behind her novels, her research into Martha’s Vineyard life in the early 19th century, and how her work as a librarian in Florida has impacted her writing.[Note: The author refers to herself and others living in the present time as “Deaf” and uses “deaf” to refer to the historical Vineyarders, since the word was not capitalized during their lifetimes.]
How did you first learn of the historic, expansive deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard, and what was it about the Islanders that compelled you to write Show Me a Sign and Set Me Free?
I grew up in Long Island, N.Y. I was a beachcomber from a young age. After I received my B.A., I moved back home and worked at the local library. I have itchy feet. When a college friend invited me to come live with her on Cape Cod, I packed up my car and arrived on her doorstep. My first visit to the Vineyard was in the winter. It was a cab driver from the airport who told me about the island’s history of deafness. I became immediately fascinated. At that time, I was becoming radicalized as a Deaf person, and right in front of me was the history of an ideal deaf community, very far from the one I grew up in, where everybody spoke sign language and deafness wasn’t seen as abnormal or wrong. It was part of my Deaf identity roots, the beginnings of formalized sign language in the U.S., and a story unique to a certain place and time. I was language-deprived and came slowly to literacy, so it took decades really to understand how I could best tell this story. But I never abandoned it.
Visiting the Vineyard, how did you gain insight into this remarkable insular community, and did Mary’s character spring to life easily for you?
During that first trip, I visited the Chilmark Free Public Library, where the staff was very welcoming and accommodating. I also visited Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven and bought literature by Vineyard authors. Returning to the island, I talked to as many people as I could. My communication skills at the time were sketchy, so I amassed a box of handwritten notes. I also walked quite a bit around Chilmark, and took tours of the Allen Farm there, to get a feel for the land. I’ve worked closely with several local experts, including Penny Gamble-Williams, who is a Black Wampanoag Chappaquiddick leader, historian, and artist, and she’s Hard of Hearing.
I decided to make Mary the great-great granddaughter of Jonathan Lambert, one of the first recorded—in 1694—deaf people on the island. I wanted her to have the confidence of someone who has numerous deaf family members who were successful, and the Lamberts were a prominent family in the island’s deaf community. On one of my visits, I remember watching some kids playing in the fog on a beach and something in their freedom and directness informed Mary’s character. Honestly, I struggled to make her take shape mainly because I was scared to fully inhabit her and feel all her feelings. I’d put all my own early experiences with extreme bullying and lack of self-worth into a lock box, compartmentalized from my adult life. But I knew that in order to bring her to life fully and authentically, I’d need to go there and open it, painful as it was.
How has your work as a librarian encouraged or informed your writing for young people—and the telling of Mary’s story in particular?
Oh, it changed everything! At my hometown library, I was behind the scenes in charge of interlibrary loans. When I was hired in Florida, I was asked to do story times and school visits. Was that possible? I discovered that being bilingual—ASL and English—and culturally Deaf were assets. I taught multigenerational ASL classes for years. I worked with disabled and other marginalized youth, notably Miccosukee and Seminole teens who have gone on to their own successes. I saw which stories were on the shelves and what was lacking. I also read many middle grade books that I’d missed because of my language delays. Christopher Paul Curtis was a particular inspiration. I dug out my box of research and notes about Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. I finally knew what to do with it!
You have written, “Growing up as the only Deaf member of a hearing family in an era when sign language was discouraged, I maintain a vivid memory of what it’s like to watch spoken interactions and be completely locked out of that world.” To what extent are Mary’s challenges and triumphs inspired by your own—albeit in another era and setting, and what do you hope that her story conveys to young readers?
Many authors say they write the book they wanted to see in their youth. I suppose I’m no different. But I got to know a group of wonderful d/Deaf kids who have many needs that aren’t being met and never get to see themselves as characters in their own adventures. They also don’t have their pain and isolation acknowledged; that’s a part of healing. So, I mostly wrote the books they need to see now.
Mary is me, through and through—her fire and stubbornness. But I hope she’s also a vessel for readers to dream. And Ladybird in Set Me Free, whose story does not feel finished in my mind, is deaf in a different way from Mary. She’s also a part of me, language-deprived and traumatized—but full of possibilities. I want all young readers to see d/Deaf people as whole and complete rather than pitiful and lacking. It’s up to them to disrupt the systemic audism that holds us back today. I know they can do it.
Set Me Free by Ann Clare LeZotte. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Sept 21 ISBN 978-1-338-74249-7.