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Reassuring Signs for Lonely Deaf Children


As a child, Carole Addabbo was convinced she was unique.

"I truly believed I was the only person in the world who could not hear," she says. "And I felt very, very alone."

Although she could read lips, she shunned groups for fear of embarrassing herself by misinterpreting conversations. Unable to understand her teacher, she struggled in school; she had no friends, and even her family made few attempts to really talk with her, going as far as forbidding her to practice sign language.

"I grew to resent my family's refusal to learn this language and leave me to be alone through family dinner discussions and, often, through life itself," she says.

All this took place more than 30 years ago, and though medical science--and society--have made enormous strides in helping deaf children adapt, Addabbo believes there are still many children who feel as lonely as she once did. It's for those children and their families that she wrote "Dina the Deaf Dinosaur" (illustrated by Valentine; Hannarcroix Creek Books, 32 pages, $19.95), a warmly colored book that follows the travails of a deaf dinosaur who runs away from home because her parents would not allow her to learn sign language.

In the woods, Dina encounters a trio of animals including a wise owl who not only can sign, but who is something of an expert on deaf culture as well. Together, they help broker a tearful reunion between Dina and her parents, which takes place under a huge banner that reads "Communication is the beginning of love."

OK, so the plot's not exactly Shakespearean. But the book was never intended to be anything other than what it is: a straightforward plea for acceptance on behalf of children who may not know how to ask for it themselves.

"I hope to send a message to the sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents, cousins and schoolmates of deaf children," Addabbo writes in an author's note. "Your efforts to communicate with deaf people can open their world to you and you will be all the richer for it."

Addabbo's book closes with a bibliography, a short reference list of the nation's leading advocacy organizations for deaf children and diagrams on how to make 10 simple signs.

A more complete reference for learning sign language is Cindy Wheeler's "More Simple Signs" (Viking, 28 pages, $14.99), which teaches not only the sign language alphabet but 28 words, including "play" and "blue."

The point underlying Addabbo's and Wheeler's books is that hearing-impaired children are, above all, children with the same needs and desires as other kids their age. That's a theme Ellen B. Senisi expands on in "Just Kids: Visiting a Class for Children With Special Needs" (Dutton, 40 pages, $16.99).

Aimed at readers 8 to 11, the book is based on an incident that took place at a school in upstate New York. The story begins with a grade-school student named Cindy making a disparaging remark about a child with epilepsy. The comment is overheard by a teacher who arranges for Cindy to spend two weeks interacting with children in the school's special-needs class.

There, Cindy meets kids with Down syndrome, autism and a host of learning disorders. Senisi's vivid photos and simple prose follow Cindy as she comes to understand and respect her new schoolmates.

Learning to understand and respect others is also the aim of "Free to Be . . . You and Me" and "Free to Be . . . a Family," an updated 25th-anniversary reprint of two New York Times bestsellers (Running Press, 244 pages, $21.95). The eclectic collection, parts of which are accessible to children of all ages, includes pictures, poems, songs, short stories, comics and plays from such varied sources as the Fat Boys, Carly Simon, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume, Whoopi Goldberg and a host of others.

The idea for the books came from actress Marlo Thomas, who envisioned a collection that would break down misconceptions about family and cut through sexist and racist stereotypes in a nonthreatening way.

For older readers, a slightly more challenging read is Lori Hewett's "Lives of Our Own" (Dutton's Children's Books, 214 pages, $15.99). Aimed at young adults, the story centers on Shawna and Kari, two girls growing up in Georgia who have nothing in common, least of all their skin color. When Shawna, who is black, writes an editorial for the school paper attacking the school's traditional--and racist--Old South Ball, Kari, who is white, begins to rethink her position on the celebration.

As the two drift together in the fight for a common cause, they discover a connection between them that goes back to their parents' school days and resolve to learn the truth behind events hidden for a generation.

* Kevin Baxter reviews books for children and young adults every four weeks. Next week: book reviews by Times readers.

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