Steven is Retarded

My brother stephen is retarded coverMy Brother Steven is Retarded

Submitter: We found this *horror* while weeding a school library. Perhaps once upon a time this may have been helpful to a elementary/middle school child, but now it’s just awful. And it’s photographs, so Steven is probably still out there, as well as his sister. Can you imagine a sibling bringing this book home today?

Holly: There are definitely better books on the subject (with  more current photographs and terminology) today! The content seems very candid, though, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kids probably really have these thoughts. I’m with submitter, though – it may have been helpful back in the day but should really be replaced with something more current.

My brother stephen is retarded title page

Retarded is not catching

Whose fault is retardation


  1. The euphemism treadmill strikes again. “Retarded” entered the language as a more compassionate term than “feeble-minded” or “imbecilic.”

    Now its day is done. It was too broad anyway. There are different ways people can be mentally challenged. I hope our present descriptive terms are both accurate and compassionate, and will last a while.

  2. It’s amazing to me how fast “retarded” went from a euphemistic medical description to a word nobody would dare to say. Also, the 70s were a very honest time, apparently! It’s hard for me to imagine a current book talking about a child’s real thoughts like that.

    1. Imagine if the book was called My Brother Steven Has Cancer. I don’t believe they would have taken the liberty of saying “I’m glad he has cancer and not me.” Yet with special needs and disabilities, anything goes.

      1. It wouldn’t be that surprising; “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (1984) says “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. And many kids whose sibling has cancer have probably thought that; shouldn’t a book about the subject acknowledge that that’s a natural reaction?

        1. That line is sung with dripping sarcasm, but I agree that it’s probably something a kid would think sincerely.

  3. As soon as I saw the title my jaw hit fit the floor. Yes, I know it was a more acceptable word back then, but I hate it with a passion. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s back in 2001, but the doctor at first thought I was “mildly mentally retarded”. She later dropped that theory because I was “too smart”, and she even thought I shouldn’t know I had Asperger’s. In 2-0-0-1, and I was in my late 20’s. My mother convinced her otherwise, and I thank her every day for that. So when people use that word, even for someone who actually is mentally challenged, my berserk button has been officially pressed. Hard.

  4. If we substituted one of today’s more compassionate terms, how would it read then?

    I think it would be helpfully candid. After all, children with developmentally challenged siblings DO have difficult questions and feelings about it. They need books that speak to their experience. (I do want to know what follows that devastatingly honest “I’m glad it’s him and not me” before I judge it acceptable. It might be over the line.)

    It seems to me that if we’ve advanced so much since the 1970s, we should have books by mentally challenged kids about what their lives are like.

  5. We have this same book in our collection and are in the process of weeding. I’ve started what I call “terrible title Tuesday” on Instagram and Twitter (@glassesgirl79) with collages of the awful finds sitting on my library shelves!

  6. Today’s compassionate and politically correct terms will be tomorrow’s embarrassing words.

  7. I’m an information school professor and a former medical librarian; because my research and teaching is centered on consumer health, I pay attention to health/health issues books on this great site. This is one of several books I’ve noticed on AwfulLibraryBooks — which I just LOVE, don’t get me wrong — and tell my collection development classes about every term ..

    … in which the criticism is leaning towards “Why does this book exist?” instead of “Why is this book on the shelf?” And I’m not sure these are fair criticisms.

    I wouldn’t keep it on the shelf either. No argument there. You have to put it in context, though, to understand why this book exists. Books about kids living with health issues (developmental, physical, chronic illness, terminal illness, you name it) were relatively rare prior to the 1990s. Books about these kids’ *siblings* were even rarer. This must have been an unusual item. Even today, there are diagnoses for which there are no children’s books, for either patients or siblings.

    Here’s another blogger’s take about it which shows more scanned pages.

    1. This sounds like something that would be more appropriate for an OB’s office to have as a handout for the appropriate situations, rather than just being on a library shelf.

Comments are closed.