At the bottom of this post I reveal the cover of my next picture book. But first I’d like you to read this.
Four years ago I worked part-time as a Student Support Worker in Swindon’s art college. I took the job because I needed the money and it was the only job in Swindon connected with art. This was after I took voluntary redundancy from Thames Water and before my first book deal.
I had never worked with Special Needs students before so I really didn’t know what to expect.
One of my students was a wheelchair user. Every time I worked with him he would update me on all the fun things he’d done over the weekend. He’d even keep me posted on his social life. In spite of his limitations, he had this infectious zest for life, not to mention a wry sense of humour. I worked with another wheelchair user who wanted to be a games designer, and I worked with and supported many other special needs students. Some were dyslexic, some were colour-blind (like me), some wore hearing aides, some had ADHD, and some had Aspergers.
This was a truly eye-opening job, and as I settled into my new role I became more acutely aware of the challenges, embarrassing moments and narrow-mindedness some of my students faced on a daily basis. Let's face it, being a teenager can be rough at the best of times. Peer pressure, fitting in, feeling isolated, depression. It’s even tougher if you’re in a minority - the only gay one in class, the only Asian one, the only wheelchair user. But when you’re a teenager you at least have a better understanding of who you are. Younger children are still figuring stuff out. In elementary school I can remember a really pale girl with bright white hair and eyebrows. I remember how she was picked on by the playground bullies. I had never seen anyone like her. Not on TV, not in books, not anywhere.
Anyway, I worked as a Special Needs Support Worker for about a year and a half before becoming a full-time author/illustrator, and so I really only had a little glimpse of what it must be like to have a disability or to live with and support someone with special needs. But as an aspiring author, I developed this huge desire to write a story that featured a disabled child, and so I did just that. The story is simply called AMAZING.
But here’s the thing: I did not want the child’s disability to define his AMAZING story in the same way that my students did not want to be defined by their disability. In my mind my students were defined by their hobbies, interests and aspirations. Yes, they required different levels of assistance but they really didn’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else.
I wanted the inclusion of my main character’s wheelchair to be entirely incidental. This is very important. And believe it not, it’s rare to find this sort of incidental inclusion so boldly depicted on the front cover of a UK trade picture book, even in 2018.
I wanted to focus on possibility and what makes each and every one one of us amazing, so I invented Zibbo. Zibbo is a loveable, cheeky and a-little-bit-naughty dragon. He’s also very small; possibly the smallest dragon anyone has ever seen.
Simply put, in AMAZING the child is telling us about his little dragon.
“Some children have cats. Some children have dogs. I have a dragon...”
Zibbo the little dragon embodies that very special something inside us all that makes each and every one of us amazing in our own unique way.
I wrote this book before The Queen’s Hat was adapted into a musical concert, before Please Mr Panda began appearing in Sainsburys down the road, before the Famous Five cover, Tim Minchin and all of my other books. In fact, I actually showed the book to a publisher at the Bologna Book Fair before I was published. She liked it but said it’s too niche and that a picture book with a wheelchair on the front cover could be a very hard sell (I won’t name the publisher, but I could see her point even though I disagreed). So I shelved the book until I eventually showed it to my editor, Emma at Hodder, last year. Without hesitance, Emma and the team all agreed, “We want to publish this.”
I want to prove that earlier publisher wrong, which is why I am sincerely hoping that booksellers (including supermarkets) really get behind this book and prove that a picture book with a wheelchair on the cover can and will sell. Heck, I’ll even come and decorate your windows, just contact me.
I know of parents, teachers and librarians who are proactively looking for more books that feature incidental inclusions of children in minorities, and I really hope they (you) like this book. Also, the secondary characters include girls wearing camo or violet or yellow flowers and boys wearing pink or viking helmets. One child (also on the cover) wears a hearing aid. Incidentally, this book also features the winner of last year's National Literacy Trust 'On the Shelf' charity auction. He appears inside the book as one of the main character's friends.
Without further ado, here is the cover! Feel free to share #Amazing2019. AMAZING will publish first in the UK by Hodder Children's in Jan 2019.