Amnesty’s poll for International Children’s Book Day revealed that half of parents surveyed think reading a book is the best way to develop empathy. (YouGov 53% of 964 parents, March 2016). But to evoke empathy a character has to be fully-fledged, fully-rounded – believable.
The book doesn’t have to be ‘issue-based’ to achieve this. Amber Lee Dodd’s debut children’s book is about a girl whose mother has dwarfism. So it fits into the ‘issue’ and ‘diversity’ mould. But, actually, the book transcends this compartmentalisation, because the author has written her protagonist in quite an exceptional way.
Nine-year-old Sydney is concerned and upset that she has to move away from her home and her school and friends when her mother loses her furniture shop. They uproot to be nearer Sydney’s grandmother, and Sydney has to make new friends and fit in at her new school. She also has an older sister entering her teens – Jade, who is sparky and fractious, adding conflict and a great dynamic to the family:
“Let’s just say she no longer needs to stuff cotton wool down her bra. I catch Mum looking at her sometimes with a sad look on her face.”
Throughout the book there is the underlying message of learning to accept others, in all guises, reflected in Sydney’s mother’s dwarfism – she is particularly resilient – a favourite moment is her moment of self-control in the face of prejudice with the landlord:
“I knew I shouldn’t have let people like you have this place.” He says to her.
But essentially the book isn’t about dwarfism – partly because Sydney deals with her mum’s difference in such a matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t intrude the narrative. It’s about Sydney – a child coming to terms with change in her life.
And Amber Lee Dodd handles this so well that the reader feels they are right inside Sydney’s head. That’s why the novel flies past at such pace – it’s so easy to read and quite gripping, because it’s like reading an email from a friend about her new struggles and experiences.
Sydney has also suffered the death of her father at a young age, and so some of the book deals with her grief – as she retells stories she remembers that he told her, as well as thinking about what would have made him proud.
There are some particularly great psychological touches in that Sydney wants to stay small – to be like her parents – but also I think a universal childhood desire, which is the wish to remain the ‘baby’ and small, but also that conflict of wanting independence – and this goes to the heart of the novel – the thrust behind it. Sydney, as with most children, wants both – and Dodd manages to convey this so well with the theme of dwarfism behind it:
“I tried to do a shrinking exercise to calm myself down…imagining myself disappearing for a few seconds and coming back smaller, disappearing for a few more seconds and getting even tinier.”
Sydney also talks about her ‘wild thing’ inside – that hard to control emotion of anger, which can jump to the surface with no warning. It’s executed well:
“It wasn’t me speaking any more, it was the Wild Thing. And the Wild Thing was angry.”
Of course, the plot sings along too – there are some dramatic scenes with Sydney’s sister as she too tries to come to terms with their new circumstances, the mother’s frustration with her job, and lastly the grandmother – a wonderful character, who means well but doesn’t always fit to the primary family group!
“The thing I’ve learned about grandmas is this. They can’t resist if you ask them for help.”
There is lots to talk about within the book and lots to like about it too. It doesn’t set out to be too complex, but tells a story by wholeheartedly bringing its characters to life. The story has giant heart – although of course, size doesn’t matter. You can buy it here.