Monday 14 September 2020

CHATTER MATTERS: Picture books featuring characters with SLCN (Speech, Language and Communication Needs) by Lucy Rowland

During the school holidays, I noticed a few people tweeting to ask for recommendations of picture books that feature characters with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN).  Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find exactly what they were looking for.

Children with SLCN are, I believe, quite under-represented within picture books and yet it is estimated that the prevalence of DLD (Developmental Language Disorder- where children have severe and persisting difficulties with their understanding and use of spoken language) is approximately 7.5% (Norbury et al. 2016).  Therefore, in each UK classroom, it is likely that there are, on average, two children who have DLD.   Usually there are also other children within the class who have communication needs as a result of different diagnoses e.g. ASD, Learning Difficulties, Down's Syndrome. 

Last week, ‘Wanda’s Words Got Stuck’ (written by me and illustrated Paula Bowles) was published by Nosy Crow.

As a Speech and Language Therapist, this book is very close to my heart.  It is dedicated to the brilliant NHS Speech and Language Therapy Team in Lewisham, where I used to work.  

'Wanda’s Words Got Stuck' isn’t about any one particular communication diagnosis.  Our little Wanda could have Selective Mutism? Or perhaps she has DLD and, therefore, has a reduced vocabulary, finds it hard to understand verbal information and struggles to express herself in sentences? She might have a Stammer- her words get stuck and don’t come out easily? Or perhaps she is just very anxious and feels shy about talking in class? 

Either way, I wanted to write about a character who finds talking tricky, who finds words sticky. And I wanted to write about how talking is not the only way to communicate and make friends. 

‘Some words are meant well but come out all wrong.

Some are important (and ever so long.)

Some words can be brave (even if they’re just small)

And sometimes you find you don’t need words at all’. 

I also knew that I wanted to write a blog post focusing on characters with SLCN in picture books but, I have to admit, that I couldn’t initially find very many! So I do have to say a big THANK YOU here to the twitter world and to everyone who responded to my call for help with their brilliant suggestions.  I haven't been able to include every single book here but thank you so much.  I really enjoyed researching them.

Talking is not my thing! by Rose Robbins

'The autistic sister in this sibling pair is non verbal, but she finds plenty of ways to communicate and have fun with her brother. Although she can't talk, this little girl understands everything, and has plenty to say, and lots of ideas. Through body language, drawing pictures, making gestures or using flash cards, she is able to contribute to their life together. Her brother and granny are able to understand her whether she needs help or is helping them!'

This is a lovely book highlighting alternative methods of communication. 

What the Jackdaw Saw- written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Nick Sharratt

'The jackdaw wants all his friends to come to his party, but when he calls out his invitation the animals just touch their heads. Why won't they answer? And what do their actions mean? Luckily a brown owl can help him with the puzzle!

This book about friendship and sign language was created by Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, with a group of deaf children in a workshop organized by the not-for-profit organisation Life & Deaf which helps deaf children to explore their identities through poetry, film, performance and art.'

The first time I read this book I knew I had to buy it.  I gave it to the Hearing Impairment Specialist in our Speech and Language Therapy Team. It's really great to see sign language being celebrated within a picture book.

Penguin- by Polly Dunbar

'This is the story of Ben, who couldn’t be more delighted to find a penguin friend inside his present. “Hello, Penguin!” he says. Penguin says nothing. Ben tickles Penguin, pulls his funniest face, puts on a happy hat, sings a silly song and does a dizzy dance ... but still Penguin says nothing. It isn’t until a passing lion intervenes that Penguin finally speaks – and, when he does, Ben discovers that some things are worth the wait. '

I love this picture book! It's a real classic and reminds me of some of the children I have worked with who can be so quiet and shy until you find the key (communication method, motivator, relationship or subject matter) that unlocks their voice!

I Talk like a River- written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith

'When a boy who stutters feels isolated, alone, and incapable of communicating in the way he'd like, it takes a kindly father and a walk by the river to help him find his voice. Compassionate parents everywhere will instantly recognize a father's ability to reconnect a child with the world around him.'

This book isn't out until September but it looks absolutely beautiful and I have heard very good things about it! I thought the illustrations by Sydney Smith in 'Town is by the Sea' were stunning and these look totally wonderful too.  It is so important that children who stutter are able to see themselves and their experiences represented within the books they read.

Another recommended picture book, featuring a character with a stutter, was 'A Boy and A Jaguar' written by Alan Rabinowitz and illustrated by Catia Chien.

Boy- written by Phil Cummings and illustrated by Shane Devries

'The king’s battles with the dragon were always mighty and loud. Boy lived in silence and couldn’t hear the fighting. But Boy could see the fear around him… and how everyone would be much happier without it.'

A picture book featuring a boy who is deaf.  Unfortunately, I was not able to source this book from my book seller in the UK, but a few different people recommended this one and highlighted it as good for exploring communication breakdown.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

'El Deafo is a funny, deeply honest graphic novel memoir for middle graders. It chronicles the author's hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with a powerful and very awkward hearing aid called the Phonic Ear. It gives her the ability to hear--sometimes things she shouldn't--but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her, Phonic Ear and all. Finally, she is able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become "El Deafo, Listener for All." And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she's longed for.' 

The Bear who Stared- by Duncan Beedie

'There once was a bear who liked to stare... and stare... and STARE.

Bear doesn't mean to be rude, he's just curious but too shy to say anything. But nobody likes being stared at and it soon gets Bear into trouble. Luckily a goggly-eyed frog helps Bear realise that sometimes a smile is all you need to turn a stare into a friendly hello.'

Perfect for children who have difficulties knowing how to initiate conversation and play.  Sometimes the children I worked with just needed a bit of support to know how to join in and make friends. 

Duncan Beedie's new book 'Oof makes an Ouch', which I bought for the purpose of writing this blog post, is also about communication and has a lovely section about some of the behaviours that we sometimes see when children don't yet have the right words to communicate their emotions. 

I go quiet by David Ouimet

'I Go Quiet is the exquisite story of an introverted girl, struggling to find her place in a noisy world. Through the power of books, creativity and imagination, she begins to see possibilities for herself beyond the present, to a future where her voice will finally be heard.'

A book for older readers, the words read 'When I speak, I'm not understood. So I go quiet.'  This reminds me so much of some of the children I worked with in a specialist Language Resource Base in London. It is vital that there are books like this highlighting the difficulties that some of these children face. 

For this blog post, I also explored picture books which use alien characters as a way of dealing with those feelings that children with SLCN often experience- of not understanding, of not being understood and of not belonging.  These books are also good for exploring other methods of communication.  For example, use of non-verbal communication such as gesture, body language and facial expression.  Some of the books that fall into this category are:  

Krong by Garry Parsons 

The Cow Who Fell to Earth by Nadia Shireen (which I also treated myself to as part of the research for this blog post and it's great!) 

Beegu by Alexis Deacon

Of course, picture books don't have to use alien characters to explore these themes.  Chatterbox Bear by Pippa Curnick is the tale of Gary the Bear who is a real chatterbox until he finds himself on an island full of birds, who don't speak 'Bear', and must learn to communicate in other ways. 

All the Ways to be Smart written by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys

'Celebrates the myriad ways for kids to be smart--being empathetic, artistic, athletic, and inquisitive.

A tender, funny, and exquisitely illustrated picture book celebrating all the unique and wonderful qualities that make children who they are.'

Whilst this book does not explicitly feature children with SLCN, I wanted to include it because it has SUCH a wonderful message.  The children I worked with often focused on what they struggled with, what they couldn't do.  Some of the most important work that their therapists and specialist teachers did was to support them to focus on and celebrate their individual strengths.  This book reads....

Smart is not just ticks and crosses,
smart is building boats from boxes.
Painting patterns, wheeling wagons,
being mermaids, riding dragons...

I really hope that the books discussed in this post can be shared and enjoyed with children who, for whatever reason, are struggling to find their voice. 

Please do comment below with any suggestions of books I have missed. I would love to find more picture books featuring characters with SLCN.  Thank you.

Wanda's Words Got Stuck

written by Lucy Rowland

illustrated by Paula Bowles

published by Nosy Crow.


Pippa Goodhart said...

What a wonderful range of different stories and styles! A really useful round-up of books for children who struggle with speech. Thank you, Lucy. I'm passing the link on to speech and language therapist friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Pippa! I hope it helps the children they work with :)

Clare Helen Welsh said...

What a fabulous and important post, thanks for all your insight and research Lucy xx

David McMullin said...

What a fantastic post. Thank you so much for highlighting this issue, and creating this wonderful collection of books.

Unknown said...

Really interesting collection of books to cherry pick from..Thank you

Unknown said...

Wonderful post! Thank you. I will certainly be recommending this list of books to my speech and language students and their parents.

Sherry McMillan said...

Thanks for this wonderful blog! I'm a children's author who has speech sound disorders. May I recommend my book My S's Are Messes - When your voice won't obey what you're trying to say, it's OK.

This is the book I wish I'd had as a child. It's a book about speech differences by an author who knows what it's like.

In this book, the children are working really hard but the sounds are running away and making a big mess. We learn how our challenges make us "World Champion Listeners" and how "there's no mistaking how we feel when we speak heart to heart."

But, most importantly, we learn that we are not alone.

You can find the book on amazon and other major retailers. THANKS for letting me share!