A Friend for Henry

Henry is a little boy who wants a friend. He is trying to work out why some of the children in his class don’t do friendship the way he does, or stick to his rules. He is bewildered by how they behave. When he tries to connect, it seems to go wrong, for reasons he can’t quite understand. In time, he finds Katie & they play together, each in their own way. This story gently explores how a child with autistic traits might navigate the challenges they face in school, & how this makes them feel.

Play provides opportunities for children to develop friendships & social skills but this is easier for some children than for others. For those who are neuro-divergent in ways that lead to them struggling with unstructured time, sensory processing & with reading social cues, the classroom & playground can be a lonely, frustrating & even frightening place. This most certainly includes many children with attachment difficulties because of childhood trauma, a significant number of whom will have a dual diagnosis of autism.

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The Black Book of Colours

By Menena Cottin

Thomas sees differently – he can hear colours, smell them, touch them, and taste them. We learn how he understands colours without using his eyes. ‘Red is sour like unripe strawberries and as sweet as watermelon. It hurst when he finds it on his scraped knee’. This is a story written by a sighted author & there is no pretension that it gives us full knowledge of what it is like to be partially sighted or blind. What it does do is invite visually focused readers to become more curious about difference & more accepting of different ways of experiencing the world.

The beautiful narrative is set out in white font, with a braille version on each page & alphabet at the back of the book. Print costs prevented the braille being as deep as needed to make this a fully accessible book, although I did find a couple of adult reviewers, identifying as blind, for whom the braille, although light, was raised enough to read.  Sighted readers are certainly given a lovely introduction to braille & invitation to explore the book through a range of senses. Run your fingers over the raised line drawings, to see the delicate pictures of natural objects with your fingertips. Or close your eyes & listen to the colours come alive in your mind, through the simple but poetic text. Seldom will you find a picture story that so cleverly explores how our personal contexts shape how we define the world.

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The Colour Monster

This is a clever book that shows us monsters aren’t always scary & neither are feelings, if you have someone to help you understand them. A kind, little girl takes her colourful but confused monster friend by the hand. She says that his feelings are all stirred up & so he is, too. She lets him know that she can help. Through a bright collage of illustrations, all the different coloured feelings are separated out & put into glass jars to look at – a lovely way of conveying that feelings can be managed & are containable. This is a charming portrayal of ‘what’s shareable is bearable’ & that we need never be alone with experiencing emotions.

There is a simplicity to the words in the story, which offer connections between colours & emotions & what they might lead us to do, but without being prescriptive.

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Riley the Brave

By Jessica Sinarski

Riley is a little bear who has lived through bad, sad & scary times. This lovely story helps us see how Riley has done more than survive, he has found lots of resourceful ways to look after himself. Now he lives with ‘safe critters’ & he is finding that he doesn’t need his old strategies anymore. Riley is learning that the bravest thing of all for a hurt cub, is to be able to trust again, to ask for help, & to let loving carers into his heart. This is a well constructed & wonderfully accessible picture book. It describes the impact of trauma & loss on little brains & bodies & manages to do all this within an engaging tale that will warm the hearts of children & adults alike.

A big challenge for parents, carers & professionals who love & care for a child with developmental trauma, is to find the right words to help the child understand themselves & the world around them. To find a clear but captivating narrative to make sense of how their thoughts, feelings & behaviour are being shaped by their past experiences. Children living with unresolved trauma often struggle with overwhelming feelings & are confused as to why they get so jumbly & behave the way they do. They worry that there is something wrong with them & that they are unlovable.  For a child with a short attention span, a quick fuse & a propensity for easily feeling shame, communicating that we know they are a hurt child & not a bad child   – & that they can heal – is no small task!

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In My Heart

By Jo Witek

In My Heart, oozes colour & tactile appeal. It is an exploration of all sorts of emotions, each of which is celebrated with big, playful pictures. The die-cut heart design is delightful & it is hard to resist turning the pages to follow how the heart changes, as it runs through the book. There is a lyrical use of similes & sensory words that cleverly connect emotions with physical feelings in the body, in a beautiful yet simple way. We hear how some feelings make us as light as a balloon & others as heavy as an elephant. Importantly, we are reminded that feelings come & go & that like springtime after winter, the sun comes out again. It ends with an invitation to consider our own emotions.

The Moffles love the connection of colours with emotions. Also, the honouring of all emotions, thoughts & feelings as being important & of equal value. I often explore with parents & carers in therapy, how we can support their child to learn that all thoughts & feelings are fine, even if we have to set limits to behaviour.

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The Blue Songbird

In this story, a tiny, blue bird feels different to her yellow sisters. Her singing is not the same as theirs. She wonders what her special song might be & her mother encourages her to set out to find it. She travels far, seeking advice from a crane, an owl, a mean-looking crow, and other birds. It is only when she comes home again & her mother is there, ready to hear of all her adventures, that the little songbird finally discovers her true voice. Here is a tale both of self-discovery, & of how a caring parent can help us to feel truly seen & heard.

Issues of identity & belonging can be confusing for fostered & adopted children.  Many who come to family therapy are trying hard to make better sense of their life history, who they are & where they fit in. They can carry a sense of being bad, or ‘other’. These challenges can be heightened in adolescence, when the developmental task of separating from family & moving more towards friendship groups kicks in. If a child has experienced trauma & loss in the past & struggled to make secure attachments, then venturing out on a journey of self-discovery can be fraught with difficulties.

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Imagine Eating Lemons

By Jason Rhodes

This cute story follows Chester Chestnut through his miniature woodland world, as he faces everyday challenges & learns how to calm his worries. Chester deals with being the new boy at school, with stage fright & fear of the unknown & he does so by making use of some simple mindfulness techniques.  The rhythmic, repeating actions introduce children in a catchy way to some basic tools that can help them to settle their minds & bodies.  The invitation to take a deep breath & concentrate on what they can feel & hear is weaved into an entertaining & relatable adventure.

Many children with developmental trauma find self-awareness & self-control difficult. Because of this they are more likely to experience difficulties in building and maintaining meaningful & sociable relationships with other children and the caring adults in their lives. Research has shown that if practised regularly, mindfulness helps children to learn how to control the focus of their attention and also how to relax themselves in their body. When we focus our minds, we begin to understand ourselves more. Then we are more open to being in relationship with others.  In family therapy, we can try to find lots of fun, playful ways to encourage practising mindfulness. Children can experience that self-awareness doesn’t have to be hard work – we can find it with an attitude of playfulness and acceptance.

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Layla’s Happiness

This short story explodes with joy. The vibrant illustrations & the curly, childlike script invite us into little Layla’s world & the simple pleasures that she finds amongst family, friends & community.  It inspires us to notice the small wonders that surround us in our own lives. Layla talks to us about the things she loves – from the night sky, to eating spaghetti & climbing trees. A familiar message right now, to find happiness in our ordinary, everyday experience, is given a charming, childlike twist that warms you like a summer afternoon.

As parents we all wish for our children to be happy & we work hard to fill their lives with positive experiences & happy memories. Many adoptive parents & foster carers have expressed to me their puzzlement at how difficult their child seems to find it to hold on to happy memories, or to remember the lovely things they do together as a family. I remember hearing one parent talk enthusiastically about a day trip to the seaside, full of sparkling moments, & all their child had to say about the day was that she had dropped her ice-cream in the sand.

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The Shadow Elephant

By Nadine Robert

This picture book feels like a wonderful hug. It provides a moving exploration of the power of acceptance & empathy. The illustrations are full of full of shadows & light, contrasting the grief & sadness of a big, blue elephant & his caring, colourful friends. We discover how none of them is able to distract elephant from his mood with fun & games, because distraction isn’t what he needs. Then a tiny mouse, with the simplest gesture of sitting & talking, quietly connects with him & helps to lift the weight of the burden he is carrying.

Many children who come into attachment focused family therapy carry a great burden of sorrow, related to their past experiences of abuse, neglect & loss. Their sadness can sit heavy upon them & make them feel very lonely. It gets in the way of connection with the people who love them & is a great silencer. Adoptive parents & carers often feel worried that if they talk to their child about their grief & the difficult things that have happened in their lives, they will make the situation worse. Children can worry that if they share their grief, they will upset others & push them away.

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Beautiful Oops!

By Barney Saltzberg

This is such a fun & interactive book, full of beautiful illustrations, pull out pages & pop-ups. Some of the pop-ups might be a challenge for children who haven’t yet learned how to treat books gently, so hold this in mind! It focuses on that important life lesson – it’s ok to make mistakes. A tear in a page is turned into a crocodile’s mouth. Drips, smudges & smears on paper are opportunities to get creative & turn them into something else.

Everyone can worry about making mistakes, but for some children who have experienced trauma in their lives, the fear of making mistakes can be huge. It can be paralysing, or it can lead to huge outbursts of anger or distress. Adoptive parents & carers describe to me how their child will refuse to even try something they might find tricky. Or how they have refused to recognise their accomplishments – ripping up or throwing aside what seems to be a perfectly good drawing or piece of schoolwork.

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