Rose Robbins: Why Striving to be Normal is a Waste of Time
Published on: 04 May 2021
BookTrust consultant Alex Strick asks author-illustrator Rose Robbins about her experiences of neurodiversity and how they helped shape her new picture book, LOUD!
Rose Robbins and the cover of LOUD!
In LOUD!, we see a child who seems to struggle to behave in a way that is ‘expected’ by society?
Yes, Abigail was inspired by children I’ve met who are labelled as having “challenging behaviour”. These are the children who will have Behaviour Plans, and who are seen as being disruptive to learning, both for themselves and others. Abigail likely has a diagnosis of ADHD, a neurological condition that is often diagnosed in childhood and is characterised by a short attention span and an appearance of unlimited energy (it is of course far more complex than that, for more information on ADHD I would recommend the ADHD Foundation).
Abigail is a vibrant character, a performer, but she is also extremely sensitive and yearns for belonging with her peers.
Like your previous books, LOUD! has plenty of ‘universal’ appeal and relevance to any child, but also a powerful message about a specific (implied) aspect of neurodiversity?
Yes, I would definitely say that Abigail would meet the criteria of an ADHD diagnosis. For this book I wanted to highlight her behaviour, and how it can be interpreted and responded to by others, with very different consequences. I think that there are many more neurodiverse people in the world than just those who have a specific diagnosis, so I wanted to include the people who are on the margins of neurodiversity, who have traits but no specific diagnosis, as well as those of us who have a diagnosis and are more “noticeably neurodiverse”.
Illustration: Rose Robbins
Why did you choose to feature a child with ADHD in a picture book?
I have close friends with ADHD and ADD, and I have definitely felt at times that it is something that I can identify with (although I do not have a diagnosis). I think what I most want to say is that “Challenging Behaviour” can be handled empathetically, and that what may be construed as “naughty” is very often a communication of frustration and distress.
Can you tell us about your own experiences of neurodiversity?
I had quite a difficult time at school, I was not loud (quite the opposite) and I barely said anything. Despite this difference I deeply empathise with Abigail, it is hard to feel like your behaviour is unwanted and “bad”. I was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 27, so growing up I did not have an explanation for my difference and subsequent struggles with fitting in at school. I bunked off a lot, especially around PE lessons, it just seemed easier than going through the agony of trying to live up to the social standards of my teachers and peers. My brother is also autistic, and is the inspiration for my books Me and my Sister and Talking is Not My Thing.
Illustration: Rose Robbins
You clearly also did a lot of research and consultation?
Yes, for this book I worked closely with my friend and collaborator Dr Rebecca Butler, who advised me on how best to portray the character who was a wheelchair user. It is important to me to create authentic narrative with relatable characters, and since I was working a little outside of my comfort zone, it was vital to collaborate with someone who had first-hand knowledge of living in a visibly disabled body. I also did a lot of reading around inclusive practice in schools, in order to inform my depiction of the classrooms in the book, and I did a lot of reflection on my own observations and experiences working in schools and educational provisions. My brother exhibits some “challenging behaviours”, for which he has a care plan, so my own lived experience of what works and does not work with regards to behaviour has definitely influenced my portrayal of good practice in the book.
There are so many approaches to managing “challenging” behaviour in children, so far I have found that an empathetic and calm response is often the best bet.
Dr Rebecca Butler has also written some wonderful articles for us at BookTrust! Can you tell us more about her influence on the book?
Miss Butler is a pivotal character in LOUD! Becky Butler and I had worked together on both my previous books, so it only made sense that she became a character in my third book. Like Miss Butler, Becky is a wheelchair user, and works in schools teaching reading and literacy, she is also a committee member of IBBY UK and all-round expert when it comes to children's literature. Becky is passionate about the importance of positive disabled role models in a picture book, and of a disabled character depicted as having a positive impact, and not simply as a background character or “inspiration”. Thus Miss Butler was born! It was my decision to name her directly after Becky, it seemed to suit her so well!
The book doesn’t just tell the reader that Abigail finds her voice – it shows her doing so, with her very own song?
Yes, Abigail’s song was co-written with my marvellous editor Janice Thompson. I have always had a dream to one day create a cartoon pop-group (Like the Banana Splits or Alvin and The Chipmunks) so this was my big chance to realise that dream! My friend and Radical Bookshop owner Rosie Smith (of Shelflife Books and Zines) arranged and performed the song so that I could make an animated music video:
What would be your key take-home message about neurodiversity, for anyone reading this article?
No two people are the same and that is the most beautiful thing about being human. Many of us spend our lives striving to be “normal” and this is actually such a waste of time! We should cherish and respect our own differences and those of others.
More books by Rose Robbins