In his first 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 her ancestors, is deaf from birth. The historical novel (winner of the Schneider Family Book Award 2021) is set on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It 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 scholarly, Mary is taken to Boston where she is treated as a medical subject. Set three years later, LeZotte’s companion novel, To release myself, takes Mary to a secluded mansion, where she is tasked with teaching a deaf girl with no prior language how to communicate. PW spoke to LeZotte via email about the inspiration behind his novels, his research into Martha’s Vineyard life in the early 19th century, and the impact of his work as a Florida librarian on his writing.
[Note: The author refers to herself and others living in the present time as âDeafâ and uses âdeafâ to refer to the historical Vineyarders, since the word was not capitalized during their lifetimes.]
How did you first hear about the historic and expansive deaf community of Martha’s Vineyard, and what prompted you to write about the Islanders Show me a sign and To release myself?
I grew up in Long Island, NY I was a beachcomber from a young age. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I returned home and worked at the local library. I have itchy feet. When a friend from college invited me to come live with her on Cape Cod, I packed my car and drove to her door. My first visit to the vineyard was in winter. It was an airport taxi driver who told me the story of the island’s deafness. I immediately became fascinated. At that time, I was radicalizing as a deaf person, and right in front of me was the story of an ideal deaf community, far removed from the one I grew up in, where everyone spoke sign language and deafness was not considered abnormal or false. It was part of my deaf identity roots, the beginnings of formalized sign language in the United States, and a unique history in a certain place and time. I was speechless and slowly came to literacy, so it took me decades to really figure out how I could best tell this story. But I never gave up on it.
As you toured the vineyard, how did you get a glimpse of this remarkable island community, and did Mary’s character easily come to life for you?
On this first trip I visited the Chilmark Free Public Library, where the staff were very welcoming and accommodating. I also visited the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and purchased literature from Vineyard authors. Back on the island, I spoke 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 around Chilmark a lot and visited the Allen farm there, to get a feel for the land. I have worked closely with several local experts, including Penny Gamble-Williams, who is a leader, historian and artist of Black Wampanoag Chappaquiddick, and she is hard of hearing.
I decided to make Marie the great-great-granddaughter of Jonathan Lambert, one of the first deaf people identified in 1694 on the island. I wanted her to have the trust of someone who has many successful Deaf family members, and the Lambert’s were an important family in the deaf community on the island. On one of my visits I remember seeing children playing in the fog on a beach and something in their freedom and frankness informed the character of Mary. Honestly, I had a hard time getting her to take shape mainly because I was afraid to inhabit her fully and feel all of her feelings. I had put all of my early experiences of extreme bullying and low self-esteem in a locked, compartmentalized box in my adult life. But I knew that in order to bring it to life fully and authentically, I had to go in there and open it, no matter how painful 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?
Ah that changed everything! In my hometown library, I was behind the scenes in charge of interlibrary loans. When I was hired in Florida, I was asked to do storytelling hours and school tours. Was it possible? I discovered that being bilingual – ASL and English – and culturally deaf were assets. I have taught multigenerational ASL classes for years. I have worked with disabled youth and other marginalized youth, including Miccosukee and Seminole teens who have experienced their own success. I saw what stories were on the shelves and what was missing. I also read many intermediate level books that I missed due to my language delays. Christopher Paul Curtis was a particular inspiration. I pulled out my Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language Research and Notes box. I finally knew what to do with it!
You wrote: âGrowing up as the only deaf member of a hearing family during a time when sign language was discouraged, I have a vivid memory of what it is like to watch oral interactions and to be completely excluded from this world. To what extent are Mary’s challenges and triumphs inspired by your own, albeit from another time and place, and what do you hope her story transmits to young readers?
Many authors say they wrote the book they wanted to see when they were young. I guess I’m no different. But I have met a group of wonderful d / Deaf children who have many unmet needs that never see themselves as characters in their own adventures. Nor do they see their pain and isolation recognized; it’s part of the healing. So, I mostly wrote the books that they need to see now.
Marie is me, through and through, her fire and her stubbornness. But I hope she’s a reader’s dream vessel too. And ladybug in To release myself, whose story does not seem finished in my mind, is deaf in a different way from Mary. She is also part of me, speechless and traumatized, but full of possibilities. I want all young readers to see s / Deaf as a whole rather than as pitiful and missing. It is up to them to disrupt the systemic audism which is slowing us down today. I know they can do it.
To release myself by Ann Clare LeZotte. Scholastic Press, $ 18.99, September 21 ISBN 978-1-338-74249-7.