We start the year by celebrating World Braille Day, a day of commemoration initiated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 to raise awareness of the significance of Braille as a channel and tool of communication for the visually impaired. This special day falls on Janurary 4th and it was set aside to remember Louis Braille, the creator of Braille. Eva Wong Nava, editor of Representation for Words & Pictures takes a look at some books and pictures for World Braille Day.


Louis Braille was born on January 4th, 1809 in Coupvray, a town located not far from Paris. Louis’ maman was Monique Baron-Braille and she was the daughter of a labourer who worked in agriculture. Louis’ papa was Simon-René Braille, who was a saddle maker. The couple had four children and little Louis was the youngest. He was born eleven years after Monique gave birth to her third child. So, little Louis was often left to his own devices as his siblings went to school and his parents worked.


Simon-René had a workshop across the yard from their stone house. Little Louis adored being with his father, watching and learning by imitating what his father did. Louis loved the smell of leather, the coolness of the skin in his hand. He loved the fascinating tools of his father’s trade — the mallet, the scissors, pliers and especially the awls. He watched as his père pierced a hole in a piece of leather with an awl. Three-year old Louis thought to himself, “Ahhh! I can do this too!” Louis picked up this sharp tool and a piece of leather that his father had tossed aside. There were always many pieces of leather scraps for Louis to handle. He had seen his father make holes in the leather with an awl so many times that it looked easy enough. Louis tried to copy his father but his hand slipped, as the story goes, and something tragic happened that day that would change the way Louis looked at things forever. Although the details are foggy, we know that Louis Braille never saw light of day again.


A picture book biography of Louis Braille, published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2016

Louis Braille was a curious child and his “eyes studied everything”, wrote Jen Bryant in Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille (Random House for Young Reader, 2016). This picture book biography of Louis Braille was illustrated by Boris Kulikov.


Turn the pages to find out what happened to young Louis (pronounced loo-WEE as the pronunciation guide in the book instructs) and how he was blinded at a young age to how he became the inventor of Braille, a reading system for the visually impaired comprising of raised dots — six to be precise.


This is also a great book to learn some French phrases. Pourquoi pas? I love that so much can be packed into a picture book that tells a layered story of a man’s life, his life’s invention and how this invention went on to help blind people to read. Oui, I love languages, as some of you may know, and as a writer, words are my tools of creation. But what Louis did goes beyond words: he raised the way the visually impaired would read going forward outside France from 1824.


Braille is a reading system for the visually impaired; it is not a language but a code. Louis Braille had invented it, but it only became quotidien and popular after 1852, after Louis Braille had died in misery. It was only two years before his death that the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in France started to teach Braille.


After his accident, little Louis’s injured eye became infected. The infection spread to his other eye and by the time he turned five, little Louis was shrouded in complete darkness. Not wanting their child to miss out in life and his education, Simon-René and Monique sent their son to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. Many years later, Louis created a code of dots, punctured on paper and/or iron sheets by a machine, that gave blind people access to words and symbols they could hear but couldn’t see or read. The awl used to puncture holes in tough leather must have given Louis some ideas.


A tactile ballot guide for blind voters in Sierra Leone [source]

“Braille is a tactile representation of alphabetic and numerical symbols using six dots to represent each letter and number, and even musical, mathematical and scientific symbols.”
[UN website]

 Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan [source]

I first became aware of the struggles of the visually impaired when I was a child of ten. It was Helen Keller who showed me the challenges that the blind, deaf and mute faced in the sighted, hearing and speaking world. I had read Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, which she had written in 1903, when she was a student at Radcliffe College, an American Liberal Arts College for women. I became fascinated by how she had learned to read, with the help of Anne Sullivan (b. 1866) her lifelong teacher and companion, who had taught her to read using the Braille system. Sullivan was partially blind and was educated at the Perkins School for The Blind, America’s oldest institute of education for the visually impaired. Sullivan had learned how to spell using signs, or the manual alphabet, which she showed Keller how to do with her hands.


Being disabled does not mean that you can’t do the things that able-bodied people can do. In the United Kingdom, we celebrate Jessikah Inaba, who recently became the first Black and blind barrister. You can read her story here.


Jessikah Inaba, the first Black and blind barrister. [source]

Sight is one of our five senses. It is not unknown that with one sense missing, humans learn to hone our other senses, such as our olfactory sense or our auditory sense. Our sense of touch is also significant because this is how the visually impaired read Braille — they read with their fingers. Then, let’s not forget our sense of taste. To me this is a pleasure sense because it enables us to taste sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, sour and the much sought after, umami. Umami is a nebulous taste profile because it can’t really be described.


Christine Ha, the the first-ever blind contestant of MasterChef. [source]


My favourite chef in the world is Christine Ha, the blind cook. She inspired a picture book story — Sahara’s Special Senses. The illustrations are by Debasmita Dasgupta.


I take Sahara to schools with me to show little ones how we can all be what we want to be…with a little help, of course, like how Sullivan had helped Keller. The children learn about how Sahara learned to cook with “Khala jaan always by her side” and by using her other senses. They learn to chant, “I am fearless. I am strong. I am tough,” along with Sahara Khan.


Louis Braille did not let his handicap stop him and his invention changed the world for blind people forever. Neither did Jessikah Inaba and Christine Ha let their lack of sight prevent them from being successful women — both are the first women to succeed in their fields and industry despite lacking one of their five senses. Let us be encouraged by these two formidable women. And for my young readers, their parents and teachers, let them be encouraged by Sahara Khan, a little girl born from my imagination who I hope will light the fires in every child’s belly to aim to be whatever they can and want to be.


Before I go, I want to bring your attention to these three books that were written for the visually impaired:


  1. DK Braille Animals, (DK Children, 2016) 
  2. The Black Book of Colours (Walker Books, 2010) 
  3. Grumpy Monkey (Random House USA Children’s Books, 2019)


*Header image by Debasmita Dasgupta 



Eva Wong Nava is a child of the diaspora. She lives in between two worlds and is a citizen of many universes. She writes picture books that she hopes would help encourage children to be fearless, tough and strong. She co-founded Picture Book Matters with Debasmita Dasgupta to support and mentor aspiring picture book creators from East, South and Southeast Asia. Find Eva on Twitter and Instagram @evawongnava. Email her at w&

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