“A child’s first few years at school can be fun and exciting, as well as educational in more than an academic sense. But for some, these first few years of school can also be somewhat daunting, confusing and perhaps even scary. Issues such as bullying and the importance of learning to deal with personality traits that a child may not have come across before, can throw up all manner of questions and concerns. It’s for these reasons that author Emma Tofi has come up with her ABC Animals series of children’s books, aimed at children new to school or nursery. This A-Z collection of stories tackle some of the moral and social dilemmas (such as playing fairly, self-acceptance and bullying) in a reassuring and entertaining manner, providing an excellent platform for discussion on any number of subjects which may otherwise be difficult to approach. The books are ideal for use at home or in the classroom and their friendly, gentle style are already making them popular with both children & parents/teachers alike.
As a young author who has been through bullying herself, Emma is determined to help others by speaking out about her own experiences and by producing a set of stories which are uniquely placed to talk about the issues children face at school – Emma is a Teaching Assistant and has worked in childcare for the past decade.
The first three books in the A-Z series – Alana The Angry Alligator, Bertie Bullfrog And The Bullies and Charlie The Cheating Cheetah – were launched on April 30th and are available to buy at www.thingleypress.com, where you can also find teacher resources (ideal for use at home too, as they feature simple art activities and games to run alongside the books) as well as more information about The ABC Animals and Emma Tofi herself.
We caught up with Emma to find out what inspired her to get writing and how she hopes her stories will help children…
What inspired you to write these books?
I was very badly bullied at school. It led me to lose an awful lot of self-confidence and as anyone who has been bullied will know, it’s not just your confidence that suffers; every aspect of your life is affected. I was snappy with people one minute and completely withdrawn the next. I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, I would avoid mirrors, I didn’t care about making any sort of effort with my appearance, because I thought: “What’s the point?” At an age where girls are beginning to change and develop, I was learning not to accept myself, or be proud of who I was, but to despise my looks and to wonder what on Earth was wrong with me? The older I got, the harder I had to fight to come to terms with myself. And the harder that fight became, the more passionately I believed that nobody should fight that fight alone. I was lucky; I had amazingly supportive family and friends, but not everyone is so fortunate. I wanted to make sure that every child or young person who was experiencing bullying, rejection or any number of issues, had a support network. So, by the time I was 17, I found myself volunteering for a listening service at my sixth form, counselling lower school pupils who were being bullied, having trouble at home or even just struggling with their school work. I found this incredibly rewarding and once I began working full time as a pre-school assistant, I made it my mission to ensure that I did my best to get to the roots of bullying and stamp it out, to keep an eye out for issues such as low self-esteem or an inability to play fairly and to try to explain these issues with the children I worked with, in a manner they found both entertaining and reassuring. One day, during an art activity, we made birds, using clay, shells and feathers. The children all mocked my clumsy attempt at making a bird from these materials, laughing at how funny Sidney The Shell Bird, as I named him, looked. So I wrote a story about Sidney and how isolated he felt from the other birds, due to his odd features and how he goes on a little journey of self-discovery, which finally ends with him accepting that he is special in his own way. I read the story to the children at the end of the day and they loved it. So much so, that I was asked to read it again and again, which for a story with no pictures, is pretty impressive when you’re dealing with pre-schoolers! I suddenly realised that just by writing a short story, I’d managed to touch upon a very deep and serious subject – self-esteem – in a way that the children could identify with. I started thinking about some of the other issues I wanted to be able to encourage the children to learn about and discuss, such as bullying, playing fairly, being non-judgemental etc and wondered whether I could come up with stories for those themes, too. In the end, I set myself a challenge: An A-Z series of stories, each one focusing on a jungle animal with a different moral issue at the heart of the tale. The ABC Animals were born. Twenty six books – twenty six reassuring lessons!
Tell me a bit about the first three books in the series…
The ABC Animals were launched with the first three stories in the collection – Alana The Angry Alligator, Bertie Bullfrog And The Bullies and Charlie The Cheating Cheetah. Alana’s story focuses on anger and the way people sometimes put barriers up and come across as being perhaps a bit snappier than they really are. Alana seems as though she’s just grumpy, but I think deep down she’s quite shy and doesn’t know how to handle that, so she hits out by being short-tempered and forcing people to stay at a distance. Then one day, she meets two young parakeets who refuse to take no for an answer and she begins to let her guard down and discovers that she’s capable of making friends after all. Then you have Bertie, which is obviously a story inspired by my own experiences. Bertie is being bullied to the point where he’s no longer able to stand up for himself and is incredibly low on confidence. Then a new girl arrives in his class and Bertie discovers that his friendship with her allows him to be brave enough to stand up to the bullies and he teaches them a very important lesson in the process. Finally, Charlie is a cheetah who loves winning so much that he cheats all the time. He’s banned from Sports Day because he can’t play fairly, but then something happens that makes him realise that winning is far less important than doing the right thing. All three books are pretty short – you can read them aloud in around 7 minutes – and aimed primarily at 3-7 year olds, but can be enjoyed by children a couple of years older, too. And I’m proud of the fact that they’re not preachy; the morals aren’t shoved down your throat, they are simply there, as a background to the story. You can read these books as just stories in their own right, without even thinking about the morals if you like, but if you want to, you can use them to discuss the themes with your children. I’ve had an amazing reaction to them so far – the school where I work as a Teaching Assistant is using them for PHSE lessons at the moment, as is another local school.
What about future books?
I’m hoping that the next three books will come out before the end of the year. One focuses on daydreaming and the need to try to pay attention at times, another is about self-esteem and learning to love yourself just the way you are and another is about forgetfulness to a degree, but is actually more about the fact that true friends will accept you, warts and all, no matter what your silly little traits or perceived flaws may be. Then, after that, there’ll be 20 more stories where those came from! Some themes are bound to re-occur – the important ones, such as respecting others and learning to like yourself – but there’ll be a different story and a different character in each book. And of course there’ll be many different morals and dilemmas that’ll be discussed, from learning not to force your opinions on others, to putting other people before yourself at times, there’ll be a whole series that can be used to broach a number of potentially difficult subjects in a new, entertaining and reassuring way.
What are your plans, long term?
I’d love to get the whole series out and get them into schools, if possible. Obviously with a new author, with nothing published before, Thingley Press are taking quite a gamble on me, but they’re doing an amazing job of getting behind these stories and characters and seeing the potential behind them. I would love these books to be used all over the country in schools, across Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, to encourage children to discuss these issues in a safe environment. Thingley Press have even devoted their website to The ABC Animals (www.thingleypress.com) and there’s a section that’s packed with resources to download and use in the classroom or at home, such as art activities and simple games. I’d love to see children collecting the books at home, too! After the series is complete, I’d love to write a few more books and have them published, too. And I think The ABC Animals series has potential to develop – in my wildest dreams, I see computer games, a TV series, you name it, haha!
What do you hope that children will gain from reading these stories?
I think because each story is so individual, much like our own lives and experiences are entirely individual to us, there are a number of things a child – and indeed his or her parent/carer/teacher – can take from them. I hope that they learn to accept and more importantly like themselves as they are. I hope that they see how their actions can affect others, both positively and negatively and make a decision to try to be supportive and caring towards those around them. I hope they see that they’re not alone and that some of the problems they may be facing have been experienced by others before them and that they can rise above them and achieve anything they set out to do. Every child is special, unique and capable of great things; they all deserve to be treated with love and respect and I hope that in some small way, my stories will help them to realise just how special they are and just how important every one else they share the world with is, too.
The books are available to buy from www.thingleypress.com.