‘The Five of Us‘ by Quentin Blake (published by Tate Publishing).
We are big fans of Tate Publishing and the stylish, and often unusual, books on their list. I was therefore very excited to be contacted about reviewing a new book that they were publishing by the legend that is Sir Quentin Blake, especially when I delved a little deeper into the subject matter…
This book is about five friends and how their seemingly run-of-the-mill trip turns into a big adventure that calls on their superpowers to save the day. So far, so normal for a children’s book. However, there’s something a little bit special about the superpowers possessed by each character and it’s not immediately obviously who’s going to end up saving the day. Will it be Angie, with her ability to see for miles, or Ollie with his incredibly sensitive hearing? Could it be Simona or Mario, with their extraordinary strength? Just how will Big Eddie (the bus driver who has transported them to their picnic location) be rescued safely and given the medical attention he requires?
*Spoiler Alert* Big Eddie is eventually flown off in a helicopter, thanks to Eric, who shouts for help so loudly that help quickly comes. This is particularly wonderful as Eric has a speech impediment. All the other characters have disabilities as well, some of which are obvious from their appearance and some of which are not. What is totally brilliant is that none of these disabilities are mentioned in the text of the story, but are simply there in the understated illustrations. Blake’s illustrations are, as always, utterly excellent and he expertly demonstrates the children’s feelings as they move through worry, determination and jubilation. All this is achieved while maintaining the sense that they are still just children – he captures their expressions perfectly – and to them this is just another day filled with another adventure.
This is not a book about how people *cope* with these conditions, it is a book about how five children go for a picnic and have to save their bus driver when he falls ill, and they use their superpowers to help them. Thus, the fact that Eric stutters when he speaks, and ends up shouting the word he was trying to say (HELP!), is a good thing. The fact that Angie has impaired hearing means her sight is fantastic (the other senses making up for the area where she experiences issues) and similarly the fact that Ollie has impaired vision means that his hearing is exceptional. Mario is in a wheelchair and Simona looks as though she may have Down’s Syndrome, but they are both incredibly physically strong as a result. All these things play a part as the ‘Fantastic Five’ work together to save Big Eddie.
Reading this book with C and H was very interesting. C has experienced periods of stuttering in the past and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, H wears glasses all the time and has had patching over one eye as well (both of which are reasons why I was so keen to review this book). We’ve always tried make these things as ‘normal’ as possible for them by talking about them, reading books featuring characters who are experiencing the same things and by answering any questions they may have. ‘The Five of Us’ was a perfect book to share with them, showing them that these differences which are traditionally perceived as weaknesses can actually be strengths.
C and H were genuinely impressed by the superpowers of the children in this book. Yes, they had questions, but that’s great – I’d rather they asked than held their thoughts inside to form potentially misinformed opinions about people. Both of them are still at the age where they don’t feel inhibited about asking when they are not sure and indeed, we often used to get questions from their friends about why H ‘had a plaster on his eye’. We were always open and honest and said that his eyes worked differently and one needed a bit more exercise to get as strong as the other one and this seemed to satisfy the enquirer who then moved on to something else. I think H actually really liked that people were interested and he loved showing off the range of ‘super cool’ designs on his patches!
Yet, as we grow up, we get more sensitive about social niceties and worry about how asking questions might impact on the person with the ‘disability’. Writing this post, I am nervous about the language I’ve used to describe the characters – is it politically correct? I experience the same thing with skin colour – I am often unsure of acceptable ways to describe people as I am so keen not to offend anyone. While obviously it’s lovely to be considerate, I sometimes can’t help but feel that if all these things were talked about more openly, everything would be a lot more comfortable for everyone involved. C and H were never upset or angry if anyone asked about stuttering or patching and I really think it helped them that it didn’t turn into a shushed conversation with everyone sounding slightly apologetic but an open, happy chat about how everyone was different and had different strengths and weaknesses, but these didn’t make them any better or worse than anyone else.
What I love about this book is that it allows these conversations to be opened up for children and brought out into the light, without anyone feeling worried about saying the wrong thing. What I hope we are all aiming towards is a point where differences can be acknowledged and celebrated rather than apologised for or hidden away, and where people are not defined by only one of the many things that make up the whole person that they are. While I know this may sound a little like I’m about to burst into song and audition for the X-Factor (I’m aware of my very healthy sentimental streak), I do feel as though this book has helped us take an important step towards that goal.
Disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher. I was not asked to write this post, nor was I given any money for doing so, and the review represents my own honest opinion.