Finding myself and my family | Guest blog by Heidi Steel

Updated: Feb 15

Finding myself and my family is a guest blog series exploring how people and families are represented in children's books, whether that's due to set-up, ethnicity, neurodivergence, disability, LGBTQIA*, socio-economic status or any other facet of diversity.


Hi, my name is Heidi and I have been working in education for over 20 years.

I began as an Early Years teacher and journeyed through multiple positions in many Primary Schools.


About ten years ago I took the step to Home Educate my own children.

I had become disillusioned with the education system and subsequently none of my four children have ever been to school.


Heidi's Website: www.liveplaylearn.org


Who makes up your family?

We are a household of six. I live with my husband, four children, 2 cats, 1 dog, and three chickens. We are a neurodivergent household who home educate our children. My children are happy living and learning as they go, with no curriculums, no timetables, and no tests. I support others who are unschooling their children through coaching and mentoring groups, as well as presenting at conferences, hosting a podcast, and writing regular blog posts.


Why is inclusion in children’s books important to you on a personal level?

It would be lovely for my children to be able to relate to the characters and the story setting. It would also be good for them not be upset by the treatment of children in stories. There has been more than one book that we have had to abandon because the children were being treated poorly and disrespectfully by adults (or we have re-written endings ourselves).


Can you recall any occasions when you’ve found representations of yourself/your family in children’s books?

There are incredibly few children's books that represent aspects of our family. As a large family of neurodivergent, self-directed learners, it's a lot include in one story. However, even finding accurate representation is rare in any one of those areas. The ones that we relate to the best are the ones that incorporate an aspect and do it so well that you don't even realise. That is to say, it's not explicitly spelt out. More often than not we find ourselves misrepresented in children's books, but it's all conversation starters to us, not ideal, but a way of opening up discussion.


How did it feel to find these representations, not find any representation or to find inauthentic or negative representation?

I admit, I'm hard to please, but when we find any of our unique story broadly represented in literature, it far from hits the mark! To the point where my children don't even recognise themselves in the story. It's frustrating and a little irritating to be so poorly and inaccurately portrayed.


How could someone authentically represent you/your family in a children’s book? What nuance would make it authentic?

What a wonder it would be to find books where children and adults were happy spending time together, where children were respected and the story line didn't involve some moral or behaviour commentary on a child's life? It might be hard for some folx to understand but we enjoy our time together, and not every interaction I have with my child is aimed at encouraging them to do better or be better, correct their behaviour, or tell them what to do. Topics that are largely covered in children's books such as, school, bullying, losing a competition, arguing with parents, are non-starters in our house, as are bedtime routines and how be polite. More families where connection, mutual respect, and positive relationships are the norm would be welcome in our home.


I am a huge advocate for normalising diversity. Specifically neurodivergence. Picture books that represented my family would include children on indoor trampolines, hanging from trees, wearing shorts in winter, and ear defenders all the time, children with dyed hair, and older children carrying soft toys with them. Books would include characters who always had a dog with them (emotional support), who wore the same clothes day in and day out, who made friendships online gaming. Characters who found it hard to leave the house but with the right support in place were able to, who were experts in their field and confidently shared their knowledge and expertise, who ate the same lunch every day, from the same lunch box and sat in the same seat, who acted younger but looked older, who say what they mean, who stim and twirl and repeat phrases constantly. The neurodivergent world is broad and multifaceted but is seriously under represented and usually fairly poorly done with a stereotypical cis white male presentation.


Lastly, the best fit that we normally find for books that aren't school based are usually focused on school holiday adventures. Children's books don't tend to include home educated children, and then expecting them to represent our chosen educational path accurately and well seems impossible. In fact, I can only think of one children's books that does it, and does it well. (Ross Mountey, Look Who's Not in School) In fact, a closer fit are those stories that take place in the school holidays.


If you or your family could be in any children’s book (as yourselves) what book would it be? Why?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for two reasons: Firstly, because we all like to eat! And we all eat whatever we want to, whenever we want to in this house (I know, if that's a new concept for you, it's a hard one) and under the right conditions our beauty will unfold. Secondly, I learned fairly recently that the page about the caterpillar having a stomach ache was not submitted in the original manuscript but was added by the publishers/editors. It was never meant to be a moral story and that makes me love it even more.


What is your favourite children’s book? Why?

I studied children's literature whilst at university, worked with children in primary schools for ten years and then had four of my own children, I love children's literature, asking me to pick one is not possible! I love books that I can't tire off. I have probably read We're Going on a Bear Hunt over a thousand times and I could read it a thousand more. I love books by Quentin Blake, Polly Dunbar, Phillip Pullman. Cressida Cowell... the list is long. Books that bring a tear to my eye like Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae, and Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough, probably hit the spot because they allow for the unusual to flourish under the right conditions.


If you could give one message to people in the children's book world, what would it be?

Please stop writing moral stories! We want more fun, adventure, and reality. Cats that puke on the carpet, and our pet dogs that cuddle us when we're sad. The excitement of the day to day brought by our imaginations. Cross-generational, healthy, happy, connected interaction. And the normalisation and integration of all peoples, moving away from stereotypes and including wider representation of individual groups.


 

For more information you can find Heidi on Facebook, Youtube, and listen to her podcast Unschooling Conversations



If you would like to take part in this blog series, fill out this form to submit your responses.





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