Reviewed by Dovid M. Cohen
Our New Special Baby, written by Chaya Rosen and illustrated by Rivkie Braverman, tells the poignant story of parents sharing with their young children the news of the birth of their “special” sibling. The book is dedicated to the author’s very special brother, Ezra, who profoundly impacted her life and changed her family for the better.
This creative, beautifully illustrated children’s book portrays the children’s innocence and the delicateness with which the parents attempt to educate their young family as to the differences and uniqueness of their newest sibling. The parents take special care to present the situation in a positive but realistic way.
The father invokes the message that their family has been “selected” by Hashem for this challenging task. “So Hashem looked at all the families and He said, ‘Which family can I give this baby to?’ Hashem looked at all those families, and He saw that our family was the only family special enough to get this beautiful baby.”
The children learn about the various nuances and atypical features of a child with Down syndrome. Slowly, the father psychologically prepares his family to deal with the baby who will be arriving in their home. Throughout the discussion, he is compassionate and validates the children’s various questions and concerns.
Unfortunately, the book does resort to stereotypes, stating that people with Down syndrome give “great hugs” and are more affectionate and loving than most people. No doubt, the author drew upon these stereotypes as a way to assuage young readers’ fears.
Most impressive is the author’s ability to express profound ideas simply, so they can be easily grasped by young children. For example, the father explains that the new baby will be developmentally delayed. “That’s why every time he learns something new, it will be exciting, and we’ll make a party.” He includes the children as well, saying, “Mommy and I can count on you two to help us, right?”
Aside from being exposed to penetrating ideas of Jewish faith, the children in the story are also left to contemplate what it means to accomplish a difficult task. The father inculcates the message that one should be proud when one goes beyond his natural limits. He also reinforces the idea that their sibling is a person with real feelings and that in essence they have much in common with him.
Toward the end of the book, there is a lighter moment when the name of the syndrome is contemplated. The children find the name to be “funny,” and it is explained that it is named for the founder of the disorder, Dr. John Langdon Down. I found the discussion ironic, as many in the special-needs world joke that the condition should have been named “up syndrome” because of the common perception that those with Down syndrome are always warm, funny and friendly.
The book, as noted above, is informed by personal experience. One of the most difficult aspects of introducing a special-needs child into a family is sharing with those closest to the child how he will impact their lives and be integrated into society. Although my son with Down syndrome happened to be my first child, I recall the discomfort my wife and I felt when we shared the news with extended family and friends.
Many families struggle with sharing such news with other children, grandparents, friends and community members. Chaya Rosen has done a tremendous service, particularly for the siblings of a child with special needs, by simply articulating and thereby normalizing the adjustment process.
While this book is geared for young children, adults could also benefit from this very quick read. I remember the fear, sadness and vulnerability I initially experienced when I was told I had a special child. Receiving such news is initially a “mixed bag” at best and recipients often struggle to come to grips with their new reality. If “outsiders” have the benefit of the inside glimpse this book provides, they may be more sensitive in how they approach others in this situation.
The book contains an appendix introducing and explaining Down syndrome as well as various related medical concerns. It is a comprehensive and helpful aid to anyone interested in learning more about the condition. Take a few minutes, read the book and open your eyes to a uniquely special world you might not have been privileged to previously enter.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq., MSc, is rabbi of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan and a Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities board member. He travels the country advocating for greater inclusion of individuals with special needs and is the father of Yedidya, a precious nine-year-old boy with Down syndrome.