Get by with a little help from forest friends
Read our review of The Little Squirrel Who Worried by Katie O'Donoghue (Gill Books) and our interview with its talented debut author-illustrator. We loved learning about the background to this beautiful story, especially the serendipitous mistake that led to it being published!
"Little Squirrel, I get scared and worried all the time. It is something that lots of animals experience. Sometimes we feel it in our bodies and it can feel different for everyone..."
What's this book about? It's time for Little Squirrel to start collecting acorns for winter, but he hasn't left his tree since last autumn. He is nervous about going outside again after such a long time tucked up in his nest. The more Little Squirrel thinks about venturing down to the forest floor, the more he worries about the unknown and what might be waiting for him.
Luckily, a host of woodland characters help Little Squirrel by empathising with him, demonstrating that he's not alone, and teaching him a variety of coping mechanisms. Each chapter features a different creature with its own wisdom to impart. From the tiny wren who notices Little Squirrel peeking uneasily out of his tree, to the mighty stag, every animal provides valuable insight and encouragement.
What can we learn?
We discover that worrying is natural and that everyone can experience anxiety, no matter who they are or how confident or capable they might seem. We learn how our minds and bodies are connected and the physiological reasons behind certain feelings are explained. We are taught several techniques to help us manage overwhelming emotions and navigate stressful situations. We also see the importance of having friends and the difference a strong network of support can make.
What makes this stand out? It's full of valuable strategies to equip children with skills that will benefit them their whole lives. Often when children's books are concerned with a particular issue, the story can suffer, but that's not the case here. Katie O'Donoghue writes beautifully, creating convincing characters and a compelling plot. This is an incredibly comforting book. The eloquent text reads like a lullaby and has an instantly calming effect. Stunning illustrations throughout the book allow even more solace to be derived from the story.
About those illustrations...
They're a delightful celebration of nature. If you loved the Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter books when you were younger, Katie O’Donoghue’s illustrations will recall all their cosiness and charm. Attractive watercolours in autumnal shades, the images are enriched with endearing details like miniature pawprints, delicate flowers and pinpoints of starlight. My children love looking at the cute animals and how they interact, and I love how much personality each creature has. Even the wren has body language that brings her character to life and Little Squirrel's expressions are brilliant. We're never in any doubt of characters' emotions at any time.
Why we love it...
It's a special book for so many reasons. I love how it approaches complex issues in a gentle, child-friendly way. It's brilliant how this story makes anxiety easier for young people to understand and manage, and its methods can have a positive impact on grown-ups too. As well as teaching how to manage unwelcome thoughts, it also encourages us to question them. One of my favourite lines is, 'You can never know what someone else is feeling.' We're never too young to learn this and it's something we should all bear in mind, no matter what age we are.
This book is structured so can be read in different ways and at an individual pace. Sometimes we enjoy just one chapter, and on other occasions, we get through it all in one sitting. It can be difficult for my eldest to switch off at bedtime and this book definitely helps. And in addition to being so useful, it's also absolutely gorgeous.
Why you need it...
It's a remarkably timely story with a message that's suitable for adults as well as children. As well as teaching coping strategies, it's ideal for helping young people to relax and wind down in the evening. It's a fantastic classroom resource too. The Little Squirrel Who Worried would make a wonderful gift that's certain to be treasured for years by anyone lucky enough to receive it.
Katie O’Donoghue is a child and young people’s therapist with a background in fine art and design. She has a master’s degree in Art Psychotherapy and is currently completing a PhD in wellbeing and heritage. The Little Squirrel Who Worried is Katie's first book and we were delighted to speak to Katie about it and the background to its creation. With everything that’s happened since early 2020, this book seems more relevant than ever. Were you working on this pre-pandemic or was it inspired by recent events?
Hi Ciara, thank you for the question, I actually was inspired to create the book while working for CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service) in the NHS last year. At the time, I was facilitating a group to help parents support children who had been referred to the service for difficulties with anxiety. Interwoven through the story are the coping skills and strategies I was sharing with their parents. It was October 2020, I was missing family and friends at home in Ireland, and I actually began the story with the illustration of the Little Squirrel. I found creating the art, which featured native woodland animals, a way to connect with home. As I painted, I began to feel the characters almost come into their own and decided I would write a story alongside the illustrations. It became an activity for my own wellbeing and the story inspired the next illustration and so on, and so on. It really was such an enjoyable process and it brought me much comfort.
How did you choose the different animals? Was this always planned as an allegory or did you have human characters in earlier drafts?
The story started with an illustration/painting of Little Squirrel. I’ve always felt an affinity with animals, particularly over the past few years much of my artwork would have been animal-based or inspired.
Had you always wanted to write and illustrate books for children? You write very gently and eloquently and seem to be a natural storyteller – did you have a lot of practice before beginning this project?
This question made me smile; I think from a young age I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer and enjoyed getting lost in a story. I still find it very hard to put down a good book once I start… I had never really planned or hoped to become an author or illustrator, though I’ve always been very determined to follow a creative path. Throughout my fine art degree, my work was described as illustrative, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to illustrate a book. I wouldn’t say I’m a natural storyteller at all but I think working on my PhD in heritage and wellbeing has helped me to express myself better.
Your illustrations are so cosy and calming – do you derive comfort from nature yourself? Thank you, Ciara. Absolutely — I’ve been very lucky in that my husband’s line of work is ecological and conservation-based. During Covid, we would walk and hike in nature for hours. Having this outlet along with my creative practice most definitely supported me so that I could continue providing support for others. I think many of us realised the importance of our green spaces and natural heritage during lockdowns and I definitely find comfort in being out in nature.
How has your experience as an art psychotherapist shaped the way you write for children? As I mentioned earlier the book was definitely inspired by the course I was facilitating in CAMHS and my practice as an Art Psychotherapist. I think though, most importantly for me, the process of art psychotherapy definitely helped me reengage, welcome and care for my own inner child. I think our inner child is often overlooked, but really the way we enjoy life, play, and create, always serves as a great waymarker for where we are in terms of our own emotional and mental wellbeing. I most definitely recommend that we grown-ups take the time to re-read the loved stories of our childhood.
What has the response to the book been like – what kind of feedback have you received from families and children? How have young people been reacting to the story and the coping mechanisms outlined in it? I have received really wonderful feedback from families, parents and very interestingly, teachers. I have had parents message me to tell me that their child has taken on the little Squirrel’s coping skills and since doing so are doing much better, in terms of their worries. I've had parents of neurodiverse children share with me that their child has become very connected to the animal characters and that they witnessed a lowering in anxiety, particularly in say, the return to school. I’ve had children who were fearful of staying in bed alone, or even having their bedroom door closed, say to their parents, 'Close the door, Little Squirrel was brave, I will be too.’ I found that very moving.
I’ve been facilitating creative therapeutic workshops for national schools in Kerry, via the county Library and it has been a joy. The library has shared that the interest has been huge, which is in a way, unfortunately, a reflection of the time we are in and the anxiety present for children. But on a positive note, I am so impressed by the children. Children as young as five are engaging with the story and the therapeutic exercises. When given the tools, they are more than capable of expressing why they worry and how they experience it.
How many hand-painted illustrations did you create for this book and did they all make it into the final draft?
I created 22 large illustrations in total. 19 large illustrations made it into the book and then the 6 smaller ones also were included. I still hope to somehow utilise those other illustrations for supporting children, possibly in workshops.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to getting published?
A really good question, well I do have a story about the publication process, apologies to anyone who may have heard it before. So, I had written and illustrated the story to a draft within two and a half weeks. In fairness, it was the height of Covid and with not much to do, my weekends were taken over with the creative process. When I had it together, I decided to send it via email to my dad. After sending it off, I checked my inbox. To my horror, I realised I had missed some digits and I had sent it off to an unknown address. Initially, I was worried about who might receive the story. But at that time, I had no real plans for the book so decided to try and forget about it and just go to sleep. The next morning, there in my inbox was this reply:
Think you sent this to the wrong e-mail address. However, I couldn’t resist reading the attachment to my 6-year-old son. He suffers from anxiety, and we have read all the books, and work with a therapist to address it. I have to say, it was just a beautiful piece and a nice way of refreshing him on all the skill sets he’s learned to address his worry. He reenacted the badger’s instructions to get cozy and breathe. His final words as he was falling asleep tonight were "That's a really good bedtime story" - I've never heard him say that ever. When you get it published, please reach out to me so I can buy a dozen copies. All my best and thanks for making the world better (because the book really does), Brian O'Donoghue (in Chicago)
After receiving that email, the serendipitous nature of it all, I felt I had to push myself to at least submit it to publishers. It helped me move past my own worries of not being ‘good enough’. It was the most important wonderful feedback and validation that the story could help children. Two months later, Nicki Howard, the director of Gill books called me. She loved the story and from talking with her, I knew the Little Squirrel would be in safe, caring hands.
Who are your own favourite children’s books and authors and are there any authors and/or illustrators who have inspired you?
I was brought up with books and the ritual of being read to at bedtime. My parents were really wonderful for reading to my brother and me, and definitely instilled in us a love of books. I’ve always enjoyed reading from a young age, especially the classics, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and a particular bedtime favourite in my house, Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem. I’ve also always loved the illustrations of Quentin Blake; he most definitely gave me the illustrations of my childhood.
Are you working on anything else at the moment and if so, can you tell us about it?
I actually am…it is something along a slightly different vein and I’m currently completing a draft of it, illustrations included. There is nothing written in stone yet but I feel it would be for ages 7 and up, so maybe my readers will grow along with the stories, we shall see, but I do hope it will also be a story that children and adults will enjoy.
Have you any upcoming appearances at schools, bookshops or festivals planned? I have been approached by quite a few national schools after my workshops for the children’s book festival with the county library. I have more scheduled for December but I am also available for Zoom storytelling and creative, therapeutic workshops. One last thing, I just want to say thank you Ciara for reviewing The Little Squirrel Who Worried. Thank you for being so kind and supportive. This is a completely new world for me as I have spent the past few years in the caring and health field. I really appreciate you being so welcoming, understanding and warm.
We have loved getting to know Little Squirrel and his friends and it has been fascinating to learn more about how the story came about. Thanks so much to Katie for sharing the book with us and for taking the time to answer our questions. The Little Squirrel Who Worried was published by Gill Books in July 2021 and is available everywhere books are sold. We received a gift of this book from its author and all opinions expressed are our own.