I came across Rebecca Elliott’s first book for Lion Children’s Books, Just Because, quite late, as it was first published last year. When I finally found out about it, two further books were already on the way to being published. These three books,which I am focusing on today are beautifully crafted, but also touch on some very tough social and personal subjects, told in the most compassionate way.
Toby and Clemmie are more than just brother and sister. Clemmie is Toby’s best friend and even though she can’t move around much, they have tons of fun together. Toby does not know why Clemmie does or does not do certain things. To him, the answer is simple: it is “just because” (and this phrase is repeated throughout the book to great effect, and further emphasised by a change of font). And it has no effect whatsoever about how he feels about his sister: all he knows and cares about is that he that he loves her very much, and that she loves him very much too. And this is the most beautiful message about this book: the strength of love between two siblings; it just happens that one of them is disabled. Disability is not at the centre of this story, unconditional love is.
How often is disability portrayed in picture books? Almost never. In fact I can only think of one at this very moment, and that’s Susan Laughs, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. And one wonders why not, because young children are so receptive, so accepting of others’ differences that it is a wonder that picture books are not used more as a vessel to combat prejudice. The fact that Clemmie’s disability is not the focus of the story, and that the story is told by Toby make Clemmie’s condition even less of a “big deal” for the young reader. But it a big deal of course, especially once one realises that Toby and Clemmie are actually Rebecca Elliott’s children. That she lets us be witness to her children’s love for each other as well as being open about the challenges that Clemmie faces makes this book all the more poignant.
Just Because is an amazingly positive introduction to the notion that everybody is different; it is a heartfelt and effective first exposure at disability.
With gorgeous artwork which oozes happiness and a lovely flowing text Just Because
is real success; it is a beautiful book, and one that, as many more illustrious individuals have said before me, should have a place on the shelves of every public and school library.
In this second book, we join Toby and Clemmie again, this time in an adventure which focuses on going to hospital. Sometimes, Clemmie needs to spend some time in hospital; when she is there, there are things that she can’t do. And sometimes, she needs to be very brave, and sometimes Toby too needs to be very brave. But throughout that, Toby and Clemmie have each other and always manage to have some fun together. This second book featuring siblings Toby and Clemmie follows a similar pattern, with Rebecca Elliott’s lovely soothing and yet vibrant drawing style as well as a a simple flowing text and the repetition of the word “sometimes”. Again Clemmie’s disability is present but is not the focus; rather, here, it is a consequence from her disability, staying at hospital, which the story focuses on. But any young reader who has to stay in hospital for any length of time and for any reason, or even who has a friend or relative spending time in hospital, will be able to relate to this story. Rebecca Elliott doesn’t shy away from showing the scary bits of hospital: the needles, the feeding tubs, the reality of being a child with a serious illness. But this is balanced with a lot of happy moments. I think one of the strengths of Rebecca Elliott’s books is that she puts a lot of trust in her young readers’ resilience and understanding, which allows her to be honest about the reality of hospital life, and life in general. I think it works very well, because children are resilient and accepting, and appreciate honesty too. Toby and Clemmie’s close relationship is yet again at the core of the story and their support for each other and their courage at difficult times shine through, and this makes Sometimes
an uplifting, positive and powerful story.
The first thing that struck me the first time I caught glimpse of Zoo Girl is the difference in style between this book and Just Because and Sometimes. Not unlike Emily Gravett, Rebecca Elliott obviously has two distinctive styles, and the particular style she uses for Zoo Girl
, which is much darker in tones and atmosphere, fits the story perfectly. Zoo Girl
is a Jungle-Book type story of a little girl who lives in a children’s home and feels lost and lonely. When she inadvertently gets left behind at the zoo after a visit there, it is a blessing in disguise for the little girl who has never felt happier than amongst the animals, who are loving and accepting. When she is found sleeping in a cage by the zoo-keepers (who appear childless and wanting a child of their own) after her wild adventures, she finally finds herself, for the first time, feeling wanted.
The very sparse text is incredibly effective and there is so much emotion conveyed in the artwork, especially through the little girl’s facial expressions, that in fact few words are needed. The young audience will be able to draw their own conclusions from the artwork and make sense of the story. There is a lot that can be discussed with the targeted audience throughout the story; for example why the little girl might be feeling this way (it is important to point out here that all the other children seem very happy, therefore there is no negative portrayal of children’s homes), and why the little girl might feel happier amongst the animals (who are all part of family units). It is not a book that you can share with children without having to tackle some issues, but I think despite the serious issues, the message of Zoo Girl
is a positive one. It is about belonging, about what makes us happy (and that could be different from what makes others happy), about where and how we find love and how being loved makes us feel, about finding oneself. It is beautifully lyrical book, which will not leave you unmoved.
I think it is fair to say that Rebecca Elliott’s picture books for Lion Children’s Books are thought-provoking and discussion-inducing stories. Although they tackle some difficult issues, they are also beautiful books and highly readable stories which are well-worth sharing with children. Yes, they are picture books with a purpose, but first and foremost, they are beautifully illustrated enjoyable stories. I highly recommend you look out for them if you have not already done so.
All illustrations © Rebecca Elliott
Many thanks to Lion’s Children’s Books for providing review copies of the books.