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Picture books often have an agenda.

I’ve illustrated a few picture books with particular messages for their audience. It’s a genre of picture book that seems to be increasingly popular, especially as self publishing becomes more accessible. If you have a burning need to get a message into the world a picture book can be a very effective medium. I think it needs some very careful thought though. Do picture books always have to be entertaining? Yes, I think they do, but that doesn’t mean they always have to be silly or funny.

A few examples of how it’s done well.

I picked four picture books off my shelf that tackle specific issues but are also wildly entertaining through glorious illustration and spot on writing.

1/ Friendship, bullying and inclusion – Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees

2/ Prejudice, isolation and community – Amelia Ellicott’s Garden by Liliana Stafford and Stephen Michael-King

3/ Grief and loss – The Very Best of Friends by Julie Vivas and Margaret Wild

4/ Capitalism and consumerism – Schumann the Shoeman by John and Stella Danalis

Some picture books tackle the really dark stuff.

Change is usually a test. That blurry-eyed period of adjustment to a new job or a new home and community can really take its toll until things settle. Becoming a parent is definitely one of the big ones. We had three children fairly close together and moved from the UK to Australia in the middle of it all. It was an intense time of managing sleep deprivation whilst enjoying these fabulous little people growing and discovering the world. But there can be a side to parenting that is dark and no one likes to talk about it.

Even Mummy Cries

A few years ago I illustrated a book by Naomi Hunter called ‘Even Mummy Cries’. It’s about mothering and mental health and is a bit on the dark side. These kinds of books can be an excellent way to open up discussions with children. A lot of the illustrations are taken directly from my own experience. The walk to school through the creek, the hectic morning routine and the mother wandering off to the chicken shed when it all gets too much. Our poor chickens have witnessed me sobbing uncontrollably so many times that they tip their heads and stare at me with true empathy when I walk towards them. Or maybe that’s just chickens.

I was reminded of this when I listened to Michael Rosen talking on the Grief Cast podcast this week. He talked about Sad Book, which is related to the death of his teenage son. I have a copy of it on my shelf. It’s not a book that children will ask to be read night after night. It’s a truely amazing book about a difficult subject that, whether we like it or not, children are exposed to all the time. Children can’t be protected from their parents struggles with mental health. They are with us at times when people dear to us die and they see our grief. They know when we are distressed, overwhelmed and in pain. But as a friend once said to me – it’s ok for them to witness the whole scope of our emotion and still know they are safe. So why not use a picture book to open up discussions about these difficult parts of being human?

Changes can be difficult and joyful all at once.

It’s been an odd and overwhelming couple of weeks in our household. Having got into a pretty good rhythm with D working from home and finalising the renovations on our house together, we decided to throw ourselves a curve ball by getting a new puppy. In the past week I’ve also had a stinking cold and D went away for three nights. So, add sleep deprivation and the endless mopping up of puppy wee and poo muttering “For the love of god! Where’s it all coming from?” That familiar feeling of overwhelm has reared its ugly head at times. But he is so cute! And we’ll get there.

It’s getting better, of course. Walking in the creek with Doug, the older dog, is the one thing I make sure I do everyday. I’m illustrating a book that features a lot of Australian foliage and scenery, so the walks are work really. It’s also definitely mental health care. I met a friend in the creek the other day who has adopted a dog that is trained to work with people with disabilities. Dogs are just great aren’t they? I can totally appreciate why there’s been a huge increase in dog ownership through the pandemic. I know Doug has been a massive help to our family. He was a dream puppy though – honestly, never pooed or pissed inside the house!

Dogs and mental health.

So all this has got me thinking about how great dogs are. I don’t know where this idea might go but through my sleep deprived brain I want to scribble down some ideas about dogs helping us. We’ll see.

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