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Joseph Elliott: The Good Hawk’s Down Syndrome Heroine

It’s December 2012 and we’re midway through the dress rehearsal of A Christmas Carol. The Ghost of Christmas Past – an autistic student of Bangladeshi heritage – has spontaneously decided to play his entire role with a Jamaican accent. I have no idea where this has come from. As I try to convince him he may prefer to do it as rehearsed, The Ghost of Christmas Present comes up to me -- the elastic has gone in his waistband and his trousers keep falling down. Bob Cratchit is off sick, and all Ebenezer Scrooge wants to do is practice his bows. But the show must go on!

I worked at a Special Needs school in Westminster for nearly five years. I started as a teaching assistant, and over the years gradually started teaching my own lessons – English, Drama, Photography. At one point I was even convinced to teach Yoga. I’m the least flexible person on the planet, so not quite sure how that came about, but we made it work. As the end of the year approached, I volunteered to write and direct the school show in collaboration with the Music teacher, Emily, who’s a good friend of mine.

Our ambitions were big. We wrote a whole musical with eight original songs, and parts for the whole school of over a hundred children with learning difficulties and disabilities. With the children’s help, we made all the set and props and scraped together costumes from the limited resources the school had. Nothing like this had ever been done at the school before. As the lights went down, we all held our breath. Children with additional needs – like all children – can be… unpredictable at the best of times, let alone when on stage for the very first time, in front of an audience of two hundred parents.

The show was an incredible success – on account of everything that went as planned, as well as for all of the more ‘spontaneous’ moments. I could not have been prouder of what my pupils achieved that day. During the rehearsal process, I’d discovered how transformative the power of drama can be. Students who rarely spoke in a classroom setting would suddenly burst into great, confident speeches. It’s the magic of character and storytelling.

It’s the magic of character and storytelling.

Yet, when we look at children’s literature, the number of characters with learning differences is decidedly limited. Where are the characters in which these children can see themselves reflected? The characters they can relate to, and be inspired by?

When I came to start writing The Good Hawk, one of the first decisions I made was that one of my protagonists would have Down syndrome. Because, why not? The book isn’t about Down syndrome. It’s an epic fantasy set in an alternate version of Scotland, with warring clans, deadly shadows and magical creatures… And the heroine just happens to have Down syndrome.

Agatha is a ‘Hawk’ – a lookout for her clan. She patrols the sea wall on the northernmost tip of the Isle of Skye, keeping watch for potential threats. There are some in her clan who bully or belittle her on account of her condition, but she is brave and fierce and resilient to their taunts. When the clan is invaded and enslaved by brutal warriors from across the seas, it is up to Agatha and her friend Jamie to cross the haunted mainland in an attempt to rescue them.

Through the course of doing so, Agatha proves that – even though she sometimes processes the world differently to those around her – her differences are often her greatest strengths.

Through the course of doing so, Agatha proves that – even though she sometimes processes the world differently to those around her – her differences are often her greatest strengths. My hope is that Agatha will help encourage readers not to judge on first impressions, and that she’ll represent an inspirational role model for children (and adults) who may not have encountered a character like her in literature before.

Children with special educational needs have always been a part of Joseph’s life. His mother is a primary school teacher specializing in SEN and, as a young child, his parents provided respite foster care for children with additional needs. One of Joseph’s first jobs involved working with children with learning difficulties and disabilities. He then went on to work as a teaching assistant at Westminster Special Schools for over four years. Agatha, the heroine in The Good Hawk, was inspired by some of the incredible children he worked with during that time, particularly those with Down syndrome.

Originally from Bristol, Joseph studied English Literature and Drama at the University of Manchester, before doing an MA in performance at Central School of Speech and Drama. For the last twelve years, he has worked as an actor, predominantly in comedy and children’s television. He is best known for playing pirate ‘Cook’ in the BAFTA-winning CBeebies series, Swashbuckle, for which he also writes many of the scripts. Joseph lives in London.

TWITTER: @joseph_elliott


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