Dorothée Chabas is a French-American neurologist who lives in a lemon-yellow house in Haight & Ashbury, San Francisco. She practiced medicine in Paris and at UC San Francisco for many years, taking care of adults and children with multiple sclerosis.
Her first book, “The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco” is a retelling of the classic fairy tale and the princess happens to be in a wheelchair. She’s just one of the main characters and her disability isn’t part of story.
Dr Heather Fullerton, Child Neurologist, Director of the Pediatric Brain Center at the University of California, San Francisco sums up how I also feel about the book:
“What I love the most is how this story normalizes disability – the heroine’s wheelchair is never explained, it is simply a feature of her no more remarkable than the color of her hair.”
Dorothée, tell us about The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco.
It is a retelling of the classic fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” set in San Francisco. In my version, the prince seeks his princess from his lemon-yellow castle. He seeks far and wide but one day a girl arrives right at his front door. Could this be his princess? His mother knows just the way to tell…
My twist is a modern, irreverent fairy tale retelling with all of San Francisco’s trademark fun, diversity, and a smattering of Silicon Valley tech thrown in. I invite young readers to reflect on what makes a real princess and what does not. The princess happens to be in a wheelchair, but this is never mentioned in the text.
The queen, instead of a green pea, hides a cell phone underneath the pile of mattresses, that buzzes and prevents the princess from sleeping. In The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco, disability doesn’t define a person, and real princesses don’t sleep with cell phones in their bedrooms.
What inspired you to write it?
I wanted to write a story about disability and inclusiveness. As a neurologist, I took care of adults and children with disabilities for many years. I was also raised with family members with neurological and genetic diseases that required special care. I learned very early on to see everyone as who they are and not the disability they presented with.
Writing a book with a heroine in a wheelchair was my way to advocate for people with special needs and share my motto that “disability doesn’t define who you are.”
Who’s your illustrator and why was she perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
I am the author and illustrator of the book. When I write a story, I can’t dissociate words from drawings. Both come to me at the same time. I enjoyed using the graphic skills I’ve acquired over the years as a painter and use them in a more shareable way.
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco is meant to be read by or for children 3-10 years old. I learned from readings I did in various schools that there are multiple ways to enjoy the book:
- Some groups focus on the fairy aspect of it (princesses and princes)
- Some on the humorous style (the cell phone buzzing, the comic book style of drawing)
- For others, they enjoy the San Francisco aspect (the yellow house, the map of the Bay Area, the peace and love sign),
- Some like the travel (with the multiple countries represented in the page where the prince travels all around the world),
- Others focus on the small details and read the book over and over again (following the cat, the scarf of the prince, the flower crown, etc.)
- Occasionally, they ask questions about the wheelchair, or the incubator
- From my experience, parents enjoy the second degree reading of the book, too (offbeat, San Francisco vibe)
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?
Disability doesn’t define who you are.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco is the first volume of a picture book series. It is my intention that “Fairy Tales of the City” published by Yellow House Publishing offer an offbeat, fun retelling of classic fairy tales set in today’s San Francisco, a city that grapples with inclusiveness and our relationship with technology.
The series emphasizes universal values such as inclusiveness, which is essential to building families and communities, and promotes human communication in the age of technology. Fairy tales are still relevant today. Look around you, there are heroes, villains, plots, rich and poor all around us. San Francisco is a vibrant, magic and ideal setting in which to retell these stories.
Do you have a proud moment you’d like to share?
There are two moments that I consistently enjoy the most during readings.
“I am filled with joy when young readers see the princess for the first time and don’t even mention that she is in a wheelchair, but comment on the fact that she has a fun crown of flowers and is wet by the rain from head to toes.”
I also laugh with them when the princess wakes up in the middle of the night, along with the cat, the bunny and the people portrayed in the pictures on the wall, and they realize, all of a sudden, that it is because a cell phone just turned on and started buzzing under the 40 layers of the bed! This is their big “Aha” moment and it is hilarious to see their faces light up with laughter.
Why is it so important to include characters with disabilities in children’s books that aren’t about the disability?
My medical career was about the care of patients with neurological disorders, in particular multiple sclerosis, a leading cause of disability. I kept reminding my patients that disability, while often visible, did not define who they were. Their wheelchair was just a tool, not a signature. I, as their physician, did not see them primarily as disabled persons, but as people.
I found myself limited in my ability to convey this message to other people, especially children, who don’t often get to see a wheelchair or somebody with any kind of noticeable disability. This book is an attempt to help change that perception.
Find out more about Dorothée and The Princess and the Pea in San Francisco:
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