Posted in picture books

“If only humans were as easy to understand!”: Leo and the Octopus

Leo and the Octopus, by Isabelle Marinov/Illustrated by Chris Nixon, (Sept. 2021, Kane Miller), $12.99, ISBN: 9781684642779

Ages 4-8

“The world was too bright for Leo. And too loud.” Leo is a boy who feels like he’s on the wrong planet. Other kids don’t understand him; he doesn’t understand them. Stressed and lonely, everything changes the day he meets Maya, an octopus who looks like an alien! And Leo feels like an alien, so this should be great! Once he reads up on octopuses, he discovers how interesting they are, and decides that maybe Maya could be his first friend. The octopus and the boy form a friendly bond, which helps him understand a day when Maya is overwhelmed by all the attention she’s getting at her aquarium tank.

Author Isabelle Marinov was inspired to write Leo and the Octopus by her own son and turns in a sensitive and accurate portrayal of a child on the autism spectrum. The storytelling is gentle, respectful to both Leo and Maya and their growing friendship. The two characters develop a very sweet relationship that helps Leo grow: he recognizes when Maya is distressed and takes action to relieve her stress, and he learns to reach out and discover another friend in the course of the story. Soothing colors make this an easy read that all kids will love. Endpapers spotlight Maya and Leo interacting across the spread. A must-read, must-have to teach empathy and understanding to others as well as to provide kids on the spectrum with a child they recognize on the page.

Leo and the Octopus has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in picture books

Two siblings support each other in Benji, the Bad Day, and Me

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me, by Sally J. Pla/Illustrated by Ken Min, (Oct. 2018, Lee & Low Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781620143452

Ages 5-8

Sammy is having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. He’s been in trouble at school, the cafeteria ran out of pizza for lunch, and he had to walk home in the rain. When he gets home, he discovers that Benji, his little brother who has autism, is having a bad day, too: but a bad day for Benji is totally different. Benji has a special hiding place and a block city set up, and Mom even wraps Benji up “like a burrito” in a special blanket when he’s having a bad day. When Sammy has a bad day, no one seems to notice – or so he thinks. Because Benji does notice, and in a touching moment of sibling affection, gets out his blanket and leads Sammy to it. Because Sammy his his little burrito.

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me will resonate with anyone who loves Judith Viorst’s classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; Sammy’s frustrated narrative is so close to Alexander’s, readers may wonder if Sammy’s about to pack it all in and head for Australia. Sally J. Pla is wonderful at using this narrative device to introduce readers to a story about siblings and the challenges of being a sibling to a child with autism. Sometimes, it may feel like one’s feelings get lost, or no one’s paying attention, but Sally Pla and illustrator Ken Min show readers that family will always be there for you. The story is inspired by the author’s experiences of “sibling rivalry and neurodiversity, all wrapped in a big blue blanket”. Ken Min‘s acrylic and colored pencil artwork uses digital enhancements to give us a warm household; Benji’s isolation shows in the cool blue color depicted inside his box fort; a color repeated in Sammy’s recollection of Benji’s appointments with his occupational therapist, who Sammy refers to as “Super-Happy Lady”. As Benji gazes out at Sammy, reduced to tears when he hits his final straw, the shadow falls across Benji’s face, warming up his eyes and nose as he gazes out at his brother. Sammy and his family appear tan-skinned, with dark brown hair.

Benji, the Bad Day, and Me has a starred review from Shelf Awareness and is a solid add to your collections. It is a strong book to suggest when explaining neurodiversity, autism acceptance, and exploring sibling relationships. As author Sally J Pla notes on her website, “I once heard someone describe autism as “not a spectrum, so much as a constellation.” I love that. We are all stars shining with different lights.”