Review: What Happened To You? By Catchpole & George

I have been waiting incredibly too long to finally share this book with you. This has launched itself to the top of my favorites pile for months. A book about disability, questions, imagination, and most of all pirates. Delight in What Happened To You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George, 2021.

The story opens with a boy named Joe playing his favorite game at a playground. Joe is clearly a pirate and fighting sharks.

A white boy with one leg is playing on a balance beam near a ship and imagining a shark fin in the grass below.

Joe is having a fantastic time and can easily handle sharks, but, as the text tells us, “sharks are easy compared to kids Joe hadn’t met yet.” And we see a kid coming in the background looking quite shocked.

The child points out loudly and obviously that Joe only has one leg. Joe agrees and looks annoyed, telling her she just squashed his shark.

A Black girl points to her leg and shouts that Joe only has one leg. Joe is swinging away on the right page and looking annoyed as he responds.

The girl continues to follow Joe and asks “What happened to you?” Joe is not interested in sharing, so he turns the question back and asks what she thinks. She doesn’t know. But unfortunately, many other kids have slowly joined the loud scene and begin to chime in with questions and guesses of their own. It’s almost like a game to them, but clearly the observant reader can see that Joe is not having fun.

Lots of kids are excitedly making guesses about Joe's leg, one imagining it fell off, one that a burglar took it and one that it fell in the toilet. Joe is looking frustrated and attempting to play around them.

The guesses and questions get more outrageous until Joe finally just yells “No!”

There is a lovely resolution, very childlike, and the play continues with new friends having been made and new boundaries having been unspokenly set, yet understood.

Joe is imagining himself as a pirate again and the new friends are all happily balancing on the beam as pirates too.

I love this book. It is so immensely fun, and so incredibly deep in its message. This is a prime example of a book with a lesson without an ounce of browbeating or overly didactic tactics. This book is much like Joe, it just wants to have fun with pirates and sharks and crocodiles, but intrusive questions get in the way for a bit.

But my favorite thing about this book (necessary and brilliantly done spoiler alert) is that there is no explanation about Joe, ever. That’s the whole point. Joe does not need to explain his body and doesn’t want to either. He doesn’t owe anyone, even us readers, anything. And life moves on, as do the sharks with pirates chasing. So brilliant.

I have loved following the Catchpoles on Instagram for a long while. I adore glimpses of their cottage and life with their girls, love their aesthetic, humor, singing videos, the books they rep, and have appreciated quietly learning about disability through their experiences. I had many issues getting a hold of this book thanks to international release, pandemic issues, and back-ordered waiting; but was thrilled to finally hold it. We all love it, just as I was sure we would.

Joe and his friends are sharing a snack on a bench. There are six children in different colors and fun patterned clothes eating grapes, bananas, and cherries. The first Black girl who asked him a question is handing Joe a green apple. Joe's crutches lean against the bench, nearly invisible in the scene.

James’ writing is perfection. The text is just enough and easily cues you on emotion and tone to use when reading aloud and when to pause and turn the page.

Karen George’s illustrations are equally fantastic. I love her style. It is simple and yet so emotive. The design and pages are quite minimal, but expertly handled with layout, color-palette and fashion choices. There are even some important little details to notice as you read again and again. Really, incredibly well done.

Also included, as an extra special bonus, is a note from James in the back to adults. He shares helpful tips for navigating your children’s questions about disabled people. So helpful, so thoughtful, and clever of course too.

Cannot recommend this book enough. It’s hard to find books that teach important life lessons with subtlety, grace, and fun. You’ll love it!

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