At the risk of being pelted with chocolate Hobnobs, I'm going to break my own cardinal rule of militant Christmas denial until the calendar has been officially flipped over and I have to come face to face with the month of December. Normally, when out among the human race, intermittently freezing and sweltering as I zigzag between the pavement and the shops, even a hint of sleigh bells in the music choice or a glimpse of a large, red cheeked plastic Santa’s hip wiggling to a snippet of a festive song is enough to make me curl my lip and utter a warning growl to anyone who is even considering trying to make me acknowledge the Christmas aisle, which is usually erected in all its tinselly glory before we've even properly dispensed with Halloween. Christmas, with all its demands, needs to be put in its place, which is December, where it belongs. Even November, a month that starts with a flourish, but fizzles out damply, does not need cheap tinsel or snowy, sentimental coca cola adverts to jump start it until December. After all, I've only just got over the trauma of the birthday marathon (three children all with birthdays and grandiose party expectations between the end of September and mid-October), if the children are lucky and I like them at the relevant present buying time, I have arguably already done my fair share of wrapping presents, making cakes and being nice to everyone for the foreseeable future. I need a break from this kind of good housekeeping behaviour before I'm expected to do it all again.
But in the spirit of caring and sharing (this is not, you understand, the same as the spirit that we all inexplicably paint on as we wearily put the Christmas decorations up, or the sort found in the drinks cabinet that, no doubt, helps to revive our sense of humour at such times), I thought that I would share a little gem of a book that would make a perfect Christmas present for your child's teacher, or as something to place under the tree for your own child. Since Dominic came along, I have wasted a considerable amount of time searching for decent (i.e. not patronising) books that feature disabled children, not because I'm pc (anyone who knows me would testify to that) but because, as Dominic gets older and more self-aware he is more conscious of the noticeable differences between himself and the main characters in the book. Yes there are a few out there that will stick a token child in a wheelchair, normally in the background somewhere as a hat tip towards inclusivity, and there are the ones that manage to be both condescendingly dull and written by people who seem to believe that if you're disabled you can only wear beige nylon trousers and spend your life wishing you were like everyone else. There had been nothing that I could pull off the bookshelf as a good story to share with all the children, but with a character that could make that delicious grin dance across Dominic's face and those hands and feet waggle in excitement as he recognises someone like him.
And then I discovered an author called Rebecca Elliott. It was instant literary love. To be honest the subject matter could have been about anything and I would have been smitten. The bright, engaging, exquisitely painted pictures are enough to push my happy button by themselves. There is something about them that makes them addictively appealing. I suspect it is the fact that there is so much love painted into each little detail of each one that makes it quite so special. I thought this long before I googled her and, much to my joy, I found that it was in fact her own children, Toby and Clementine, she was sharing with us. What sets these books apart from other beautiful-to-look-at children's books is the subject matter, however, as Clemmie, the heroine of the books, is profoundly disabled and Toby, undoubtedly, is the loveable hero. Both the pictures and the simple rhythmical story expertly capture the dichotomy of the simplicity of a child's understanding of the world around him whilst still managing to touch on some of the more challenging and complex issues that surround disability and how it affects the dynamic of sibling relationships. Anyone who has been reading this blog for a little while may remember that, in my view, siblings are the often forgotten heart of families with disabled children. Not of course that I'm accusing parents of forgetting about them: if anything it's the opposite. There is normally a constant low level of painful guilt bubbling away about all the precious moments missed, pain suffered and emotional turmoil that these children have, often quietly, accepted, with very few resources or charities who even acknowledge the enormity of what they deal with. And I am certainly not trying to imply that having a sibling who has chronic medical issues or disabilities is all pain and heartache, anything but, and I think this is why Rebecca Elliott's books appeal so much to me. The beauty is in the way that she realises that at the heart of any complex family dynamic there exist simple truths: truths that children can often see far better than the adults. This easy acceptance and simplicity of a young boy's love and devotion for his disabled older sister cannot fail to make you fall in love with her books, and the affectionate, accepting and positive way it introduces disability, in my view makes it a must for every classroom. This is why it would be so nice to see mainstream primary schools incorporating stories like this in the classroom, helped along, perhaps, by a stealth mission on the part of the parents who give it, wrapped in pretty paper, as a thank you present to your child's teacher this Christmas.
To my knowledge, at the moment, there are only two books about Clemmie and Toby, Just Because and Sometimes. I cannot recommend one over the other as they are both wonderful in their own ways, but I would say that 'Just Because' is perhaps more appealing to a wider audience. I will readily admit that, not normally being a particularly tearful person (I can watch Children in Need in its entirety with only a slight moistening of the eye), when I first read 'Sometimes', a story exploring the impact of hospital stays on both the child with the chronic illness and the sibling who is also just as affected by it, (a first, as far as I'm aware for a children's story), big, fat tears rolled down my cheeks and threatened to warp the gorgeous illustrations.
The perfect balance of humour, sensitivity and reality are gift-wrapped in a way that only someone who was familiar with the hospital as a second home, and how heartbreaking dividing a family can be, could possibly have achieved. Because of the author's insight, the book is an absolute must-have for any family who is on first name terms with the nurses on the paediatric ward, but perhaps slightly less appealing as a subject-matter for a wider audience.
So, if there is a space in your bookshelf just waiting for a book to read to your child that doesn't make you inwardly cringe, but that explores the way we see the world and each other, that shows children with disabilities in a warm and positive light, and that is brave enough to tackle subjects that are normally looked over with both sensitivity and humour, you may have just found a new favourite bedtime book. Now we just have to persuade the lovely Ms Elliott to write another one…