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Quentin Blake puts stammering in the picture

Susie Lloyd | 23.10.2014

Susie Lloyd, a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist working in the NHS with children who stammer, interviewed acclaimed illustrator Quentin Blake, author of ‘The Five of Us’.

Book cover: The Five of UsWhen I asked a group of children on my caseload if they had read a book featuring a child who stammers they all said ‘No’.  This is no surprise - children and young people who stammer are largely invisible in the media.  Even when stammering does feature, it is typically negative and stereotypical. Think about the quivering and terrified Mr Jelly from the Mr Men series, or timid Piglet from Winnie the Pooh - who was given a stammer for the Disney films.  Stammering has also long been a target for mocking humour, from Porky Pig in the 1930s through to Lenny Henry’s 2011 sketch on the King’s Speech for Comic Relief.

This is not without impact. These portrayals can be taken to heart by children who stammer, becoming part of a set of self-limiting beliefs.  They also give tacit endorsement to ridicule and mimicking in the playground, which can predicate lifelong distress.

Quentin Blake’s new picture book for young readers, ‘The Five of Us’, provides by contrast a positive portrayal of a child who stammers.  It tells of five friends with different disabilities. When disaster strikes on a trip to the countryside, the five children work together, combining their individual powers, and save the day.  The first thing you learn about Eric, the boy in the story who stammers, is that he is ‘fantastic’ and  ‘just as amazing’ as the others, ‘but you will find out how later on.’ We learn that Eric is capable of surprising us with his confidence, assertiveness and heroism.

The idea for the book stemmed from a series of workshops by Booktrust and a project called ‘In the Picture’ by the charity Scope, both aiming to encourage publishers and writers to include children with disabilities in early picture books. Quentin later had the idea that rather than just include imagery of disability, children with disabilities could be centre stage.  “I thought ‘Why should I just include them as extras? Why don’t I do a book about them?’ ”

His inspiration was a folk story about five people with extraordinary abilities. “So I thought I’d just use that,” Quentin said, “and one of them stammers”.  The character of Eric was “the one that is closest to everybody; I felt it was easier to identify with him.”

I suppose first of all I just want them to read the book and ignore the disabilities.

The book develops messages about ability and disability. “I suppose first of all I just want them to read the book and ignore the disabilities. Each child in the story has some disability, but I don’t mention it because it’s not about that. In one sense it doesn’t matter. It’s about what they are good at.”

Faced with disaster, Eric shouts “Help!” at a fantastic volume, alerts a helicopter rescue team and saves the day. “That final moment – the big shout – I stole it from a film I must have seen about 60 years ago, which was a film about some people that got trapped on a mountain and somebody had to shout to draw attention to them, and he was an opera singer and he did this big shout,” Quentin explained. “What was heroic about him was he took the chance of losing his voice to do it, whereas Eric finds his”.

His choice of title for this book is not five ‘of them’ but ‘five of us’.  “I wanted it to be ‘The Five of Us’ because the children are a group together and also they are five of us! They belong together with us.” He said: “It’s not a book for children with disabilities. It’s a book for children”.

The Five of Us is not a story about disability, but a celebration of ability and friendship. I read the story to one of my groups for children who stammer. Their review? “Fantastic!”

Susie Lloyd is a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, Fluency, at Calderdale & Huddersfield NHS Trust.