Finding diverse books for children can be a struggle at the best of times, but finding books that cater to and depict children with additional needs are even rarer.
Writer and mother of three, Pam Aculey experienced first hand how difficult it was to find books with diverse representation, so decided to change that with the publication of the Just Like Me picture book series. In our interview, she explains more about why representation is just as important for children with additional needs.
Tell us about yourself?
I’m Pam, 36, Black British of Ghanaian descent; a mother of three boys of dual heritage, Walter 6, Stanley 3 and Hugo 1, and we live with my husband Alex in Leicestershire. Before I had my children and after leaving university I worked as an Investment Banker. After experiencing first hand the effects of stress, anxiety and depression through ‘burn out’ from my job as an FX trader, I fell in love with exercise and consequently left my banking job and trained as a Fitness Trainer. I have been a fitness instructor for over 10 years and a huge mental health campaigner.
When did you start writing picture books for children?
In 2017 my eldest son Walter was diagnosed with autism and as parents, we struggled to find books where children like him could see themselves. They say “create the things you wish existed” so I created Just Like Me – a picture book series where at the heart of each story we explore and promote diversity, inclusiveness, acceptance and kindness. Raising three boys and parenting a child with additional needs has completely opened up my eyes to the work that still needs to be done to ensure better representation in children’s books. If all children could see people who looked like them doing amazing things, could you imagine what that spark could do in their mind for their future? There are more children’s books being sold in the UK than ever before – but how accurately do they represent the society we all live in? How many of your favourite picture books feature a disabled protagonist? And when I say the word disabled I don’t just refer to wheelchair-bound. I also include those with motor disabilities, visual disabilities, learning/cognitive disabilities, neuro-diverse disabilities to name a few.
Tell us about Buster Finds His Beat, what or who was the inspiration for this book?
Buster is a six-year-old autistic boy of dual heritage. Buster struggles with certain everyday noises such as cars, motorbikes and crowds which leaves him feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Music is Buster’s love. He feels safe and happy when he listens to his favourite songs. His comfort and protection are his ear defenders. He uses these when he needs to ‘turn down the volume‘ of the world. They allow him to escape and they give him the power to cope. The story is heavily based on my son Walter who is autistic and has sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD is a condition where the brain and nervous system has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. It’s a heartwarming story that encourages children to be inclusive, empathetic, understanding and welcoming when they meet other children who are different to them. The story brings awareness of diversity, captures the magic of imagination and promotes the importance of kindness.
What has been the response to the series? How have your own children responded?
The response has been fantastic! I have done a lot of book tours where I have gone into nurseries and schools read Buster Finds His Beat and then talked about the importance of kindness. I often use Makaton – a language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate, when reading. I love teaching the children some of simple Makaton signs – it always keeps them really engaged.
I have been sent pictures of children who look like Buster with ear defenders on and it’s so beautiful as they finally get to see themselves in the pages of books. The response has been so incredible especially as it has given me the platform to talk and write certain topics which never get any air time. I recently wrote an article called “The Double Discrimination Black Children With Autism Face“. On the back of this article I was then invited to talk about this topic on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Some really exciting news for you: there is a new children’s online storytelling program called Tàta Storytime where some of the best Black British actors read beautiful picture books. With authors from African, Caribbean and African American heritage. Buster Finds His Beat features on one of the episodes.
Are there other characters that we can look forward to in the Just Like Me series?
There are plenty of characters you can look forward to meeting. My second book ( which will be out Autumn 2020) is all about a little black girl called Afia. I won’t give too much away but just know that she is an amazing artist who just happens to be an amputee. And when it comes to painting, nothing holds this little girl back.
What advice would you give to other parents with children with additional needs who would like to engage them in literature and creative arts?
The beauty of the world that we live in is that we have social media – which means we can connect with like-minded people through a click of a button. I feel it’s really important that those families who have children with additional needs reach out to organisations, creators, authors and people in their community to express their needs. Parenting children with additional needs can be incredibly isolating at times but there is strength in camaraderie and there are people like you going through the same hardships and feeling the same frustrations.
There is always a lot of talk about what children with additional needs can’t do when we should be focusing on all the amazing things they can do. For example, Walter really struggles in social situations and certain aspects of communicating. But he has a passion for books, pictures and music. So we encourage him to read as many books as possible, draw and sing his little heart out. When he’s happy he’s thriving and it’s such a joy to watch.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I love to read books that are motivating, inspiring and books which really make you stop, pause and think how you can live a more purposeful, healthy and happy life.
Other than your own books are there others that you would recommend?
I have read and would recommend the following books: Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke. Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi. How To Build a Healthy Brain by Kimberley Wilson. Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat. The Discomfort Zone by Farrah Storr
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I have very little “spare time” but when I do, I love to listen to podcasts. You find some right gems of advice in there and it’s great because I have such a selection of favourites that I can pick and choose what I want to listen based on how I’m feeling that day. I will either go for a walk and listen to a podcast or hide in my bedroom, away from kids and listen with a glass of wine and some Haribo!
You’re stranded on a desert island, what are your three luxury items?
Snacks, quietness and my comfy chair.
Just Like Me is available at www.justlikemebooks.co.uk