Award-winning children’s book biographer Jen Bryant wasn’t new to the life of Louis Braille when she decided to write Six Dots, a new picture book that takes a look at him as the child inventor he was. But, as she explains in our email chat below, she wanted to bring readers his story, this one illustrated by Boris Kulikov, from a first-person, more intimate perspective. The results are good, the Kirkus review describing it as an “inspiring look at a child inventor whose drive and intelligence changed the world—for the blind and sighted alike.”
You talk at the close of the book about how this is your second book about Braille and that, for this one, you wanted to explore what it felt like to be him. What brought on those questions for you?
Over the last decade or so, I’ve had the chance to meet (and also hear and be inspired by) several people with visual impairments, and I always come away with a strong sense of their resilience and intellectual curiosity. They all use braille to read and to write, and I started to ask myself: What was the emotional journey of young Louis Braille, the youngest person to ever invent something that has had such a lasting and profound impact on millions of people all over the world? In my earlier book about him, I engaged in some good reporting and lining up of facts and dates and events. But I never really got inside his head and his heart. That’s what I tried to do this time.
Did you know right off the bat that you wanted this to present itself in a first-person voice with Louis narrating?
Ha! No. I rarely know anything about a piece of writing “right off the bat.” (I wish, I wish.) Every narrative is the culmination of a lot of experimentation. For this story, I did know that I wanted readers to feel as if they were experiencing a lot of what Louis was going through as he lost his sight and grappled with what the rest of his life would become because of that. First-person was ultimately the best choice for this, of course, but I also wrote a few drafts in third person and even considered more than one narrator.
Can you talk about the research you undertook for this one?
Like many of my non-fiction topics (and even some of my novel-in-verse topics), I was “researching” for this decades ago, before I started writing professionally. I majored in French at Gettysburg College and studied in France for a summer. During my stay, I visited Louis’s village of Coupvray, and although his family home was closed to the public at the time, it gave me a good idea of the physical environment in which he grew up. I also did some reading for a blind college student and that gave me a huge appreciation for the braille system. (I would read his textbooks out loud to him, and he’d take notes in braille.) After college, I taught French and German for several years and kept coming across Braille’s story in various ways in my teaching materials. Then in 1994, once I’d left teaching and started writing full-time, I wrote two young adult biographies on famous Frenchmen (Braille and artist Toulouse-Lautrec) for Chelsea House. So I had all of that behind me before I started this project.
But I wanted it to be a very different kind of book, so I mined sources from archives, English and French websites, and more recently published adult books about blindness and braille. I also read as many first-hand accounts as I could from visually handicapped children and adults whose lives were changed by their learning of braille. The American Foundation for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, and the National Braille Press all provided answers to my many pesky questions about the development of braille, its gradual adoption in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the ongoing challenges and triumphs of providing the blind with access to information, education, and job training in the digital age. I owe tons of thanks to Liz Burns, Youth Services Librarian at the NJ State Library and Talking Book and Braille Center in Trenton. She allowed me to spend a day with her and showed me how the TBBC works to provide braille books, recorded books, and other materials to the visually-impaired. I even got to see the braille-published version of my 1994 book!
I like how the book celebrates Louis as the "great inventor" he was. Was that really important to you?
Thanks for saying that. It is a very important part of this project! Helen Keller called Louis Braille the Gutenberg of the blind—and it’s an apt comparison. Before the invention of the printing press, knowledge, literacy, and education were inaccessible to ordinary people. Sitting in a village school and having no books to read and no way to write, Louis knew that frustration all too well. The promise of “books for the blind,” which the Royal School in Paris was rumored to have, was the reason he agreed to go there. But when he realized that the “books” were more like huge, heavy, waxy-lettered posters with just a few words on each page, he must have been emotionally devastated. But then, upon touching the raised dots used in a military code, something must have become clear to him, even though the Army code in its original form was nearly useless as a practical system.
For me, this is where everything that his family had done in his earliest years of blindness and everything that he’d been exposed to up to that moment coalesced into an immense possibility. In a Steve-Jobs-like way, Louis refused to give up until he had perfected what he knew was possible: a universal code that could be read by touch and written with a simple tool, much like the one his father had used in his harness shop. There’s a magnificent irony in that – more proof that reality is often more unbelievable than fiction!
What was it like for you to see Kulikov's illustrations for this?
The first (very early) ones I saw were letter-sized black and white photo copies, so I really couldn’t get a good sense for what the final ones would look like. At that stage, I was more concerned with accuracy and scale. Later, however, when I saw the final page layouts, I was thrilled and astonished at his wonderful use of light and dark, his masterful composition and application of perspective, and his ability to take a serious subject and treat it seriously—yet in a way that is inviting to all ages. One detail I loved especially (being a longtime fan of the Wyeth family of artists here in Pennsylvania) was his use of windows. Physically, windows are a part of the story itself, but he uses them so well in his art, both literally and metaphorically, to underscore the sense of thresholds and possibilities in Louis’s personal journey. That’s the kind of thing that we authors hope an illustrator will bring to our words—and Boris certainly does!
We did look into having actual braille in the book. Of course, that put the cost of the book way, way out of reach for readers. However, anyone who wants a braille alphabet sample card can send their address to me and I’ll provide one. There’s also a link on my website for that. (With the help of my awesome website folks at Winding Oak, I’ve created a page for Six Dots—with lots of helpful links—on my website. I’m also posting a special series called “Insights” on my blog page, with short pieces that focus on issues related to Braille’s life, the braille code, and the victories and challenges of the visually-impaired. I hope kids will go there and get a new perspective on blindness and how important it is for the visually challenged of all ages to have access to braille.)
Working on any new books?
I’ve contributed to two poetry books this fall, which I’m excited to see published very soon: One Minute Till Bedtime, edited by Kenn Nesbitt, and You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book for Tweens & Teens by the prolific Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell. I’m also working hard on a new picture book biography, but it’s a little early to spill the beans on that one just yet.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
SIX DOTS: A STORY OF YOUNG LOUIS BRAILLE. Copyright © 2016 by Jen Bryant. Illustrations © 2016 by Boris Kulikov. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Knopf, New York.