'Picture books are a really magical way to help us stay positive when we feel unsure' - Cerrie Burnell

Published on: 18 February 2020 Author: Cerrie Burnell

BookTrust Writer in Residence Cerrie Burnell shares her favourite books about kindness and empathy and how the power of stories can remind us that the world is a beautiful place. Watch the video below or read the transcript.

I’m Cerrie Burnell and I’m BookTrust’s Writer in Residence, and I’m here today to talk to you about some of my favourite books to read in times of uncertainty.

If everything feels a bit dark or you feel a little bit sad, a book can often mean so much more than a story. They can be a great comfort, they can really cheer us up, they can amuse us; they can remind us of the amazing power of kindness and compassion and they can be the light in the dark.

I think that picture books are a really magical way to help us stay positive when we feel unsure. These are some of my favourites.


First on the list we have this absolutely gorgeous book, and it’s called Sulwe which means ‘star’. It’s written by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. What I really adore about this book is that it’s a story about a child who feels that she really doesn’t fit in, which is something that I’m sure all of us have felt at some time. It’s about bullying, it’s about feeling like you need to change yourself in order to be the same as everyone else, and it’s also about the magic of self love and self acceptance.
In this story, the star of our story, Sulwe, is a little girl who is born with very dark and beautiful skin that is the colour of midnight - but all of her friends at school have slightly lighter skin than her, and the same with everyone in her family. Sulwe feels terribly sad about this, she’s teased about it at school and she does things like trying to eat bananas to make her skin lighter – things that, reading as a parent, I just found absolutely heartbreaking – and then one day, magically, a star comes to her bedroom and takes her on this extraordinary journey where she gets to meet Day and Night and she realises that they’re both equally important. You need the day, you need the brightness, and you need the wonderful deep, dark night. And so by the end of the book, she loves the way that she looks, and she’s very happy and she knows that the dark is strong and powerful.

What’s even more moving about this story is that it was based on the author, Lupita Nyong’o – who’s a fabulous actress – and some of her own experiences growing up. 

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My second book that I’ve chosen is Mermaid, which is actually by me and fabulously illustrated by the lovely Laura Ellen Anderson. It’s all about a little boy called Luca who dreams of learning to swim, but none of his family are keen swimmers – and then one day he meets the amazing Sylvia who is brilliant at swimming in the sea and she just so happens to be in a wheelchair, but Luca hardly notices the wheels of her chair. All he wants her to do is teach him to swim, and of course she does. And then one night Luca has this amazing dream, and he dreams that he’s actually swimming underwater, and here he is, in his pyjamas, swimming down deep – all of a sudden he sees this light glimmering and glittering and lo and behold it’s his lovely friend Sylvia! And she is truly a mermaid. And from that moment on, Luca is never really sure whether Sylvia is just an ordinary girl who’s very good at swimming, or whether in fact she really is a mermaid.

So this story really is about accepting everyone, about being friends with as many different kinds of people as you can be, and always seeing ability before disability.

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Waiting for Wolf

Illustration from Waiting for Wolf by Sandra Dieckmann

The next book I’ve chosen is the absolutely beautiful Waiting for Wolf. It’s written and illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, and it’s a truly gorgeous story but it is rather sad – just a word of warning if you are reading it with little ones.

It’s about talking openly about loss and overcoming grief, and remembering the lasting love of friendship and the wonder of the world. In our story we have this absolutely adorable fox who is very good friends with a lovely wolf, and there they are together having lots and lots of fun. The illustrations are just so heartwarming and dazzling. And then one day, Fox goes to call for Wolf and can’t find Wolf anywhere, and Fox is very sad. She looks everywhere for Wolf and in the end she even looks in the night sky, calling out “Wolf! Wolf! Where are you?” and she ends up snuggled up in the night sky like it’s a blanket, and I just think that’s such a beautiful, tender picture. It’s really sad, but it’s also really comforting at the same time. And then Fox has a big cry and begins to remember all the amazing things about her beautiful friend, and she decides that she’s going to enjoy her life, and here she is looking very happy and remembering all of the lovely things that she did with Wolf.

I think this is just a brilliant book for having those conversations that sometimes aren’t that easy to have and remembering that life moves on and the world is wonderful.

The Storm Whale

The next book I want to talk about is this lovely book, The Storm Whale, which many of you may already know. It’s written and illustrated by Benji Davies and it’s about this little boy called Noi who lives on a deserted beach with his dad, and his dad has to go to work every day, he has to go fishing. Noi has lots of fun with the cats but actually Noi is secretly very lonely and he just hasn’t told his dad, and because his dad is so busy working, he hasn’t really noticed. Then one day, there’s a big storm, and Noi sets off down the beach to see what he can find. Lo and behold, he finds a baby whale! And he makes friends with the whale and he brings it home, and of course whales need water so Noi very cleverly and kindly puts the whale in the bathtub – and when his dad comes back from work, Noi is suddenly worried and he thinks “have I done the right thing? Will dad be cross that there’s a whale in the bathtub?” and he manages to sneak some fish up to the whale, and he keeps the secret safe all evening, but then of course his dad goes into the bathroom and finds out. And Noi feels a little bit frightened, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but of course his dad isn’t angry – his dad is just sad that he didn’t realise how lonely Noi was.

I think the really beautiful message in this book is that it’s always better to talk about how you’re feeling. It’s always better to tell a grown up if you’re feeling lonely or if you’re feeling a little bit lost. And this book is a brilliant way of encouraging those conversations. 

Everything turns out really well for the whale in the end – Noi and his dad take it back to sea and they continue to be friends with the whale, watching out for it every day to see what sort of adventures it’s having.

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It's a No-Money Day

The last lovely book on my list for thinking about compassion and kindness is the brilliant It’s A No Money Day written and illustrated by the talented Kate Milner.
What I love about this book is that it deals with a situation that you often don’t see represented in children’s literature, but it’s something that so many families right across the UK are facing every day.

It’s a No Money Day is about a lovely mother and daughter who wake up to discover that all of the pennies have run out. So as parents we know what that must mean for the mum – but from the little girl’s point of view, she’s just delighted that her mum lets her have the last piece of toast. And luckily, mummy isn’t hungry. Then they go to the foodbank, and on the way to the foodbank they play lots of lovely, super-imaginative games – all the things that you can do that don’t require money, chasing the pigeons, going to a charity shop and dressing up in fabulous sunglasses, dreaming about all the lovely adventures they would one day like to have. And when they get to the foodbank, of course the lady there is very lovely and she gives the little girl some biscuits. The whole story has a really optimistic slant to it because the world is experienced through the child’s eyes – and I really love this illustration. I think it’s very moving, and it celebrates the amazing mum.

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Those are my recommendations for taking joy and strength from picture books in uncertain times.

Meet our latest Writer in Residence

Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books. Our current Writer in Residence is Rashmi Sirdeshpande.

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