Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 15 Apr 2024

The Boy Who Loves to Lick the Wind by Fiona Carswell, illustrated by Yu Rong

I have a long-standing academic interest in any picture book with disability related content as, in my view, good ones are still pretty rare. The danger lies in the author and illustrator either tip-toeing around the subject, being overly didactic or relying on tired stereotypes. This is particularly challenging when creating a book with an autistic character, or other relatively ‘invisible’ disability. This one does none of those things because it is a story about a tentative friendship between two boys that blossoms on a playdate at the beach. Any information about the particular needs of the autistic boy is included in the matter-of-fact text, but this never gets in the way.

The two different personalities of the children are signalled on the front cover which shows one in a state of bliss and the other who is treading a little more carefully in the gorgeous turquoise sea. Both are smiling as they splash happily together with a lighthouse shown in the distance and a seagull looking fondly down at the pair. I was interested to learn from the recent book launch interview with the author and illustrator, that many children are convinced that the wild-looking beach is in East Lothian, the region where the author lives. She explained that it certainly shares some features, but that it could be anywhere. 

It was apparently a decision to keep the boys nameless to give the story a more universal feel and to ensure that children everywhere might make connections with the characters. They look physically different and they enjoy doing different things, and their brains also work differently. The author was partly inspired by watching her own sons, one of whom is autistic, playing together in a place that they have always loved. She discussed how she decided on the beach as a neutral and democratic play space where children can be themselves, rather than be constrained by the limitations of climbing frames and slides. She also wanted the sea, sand and the wind to play a central part in the story.

The opening pages show the one boy watching from his window as the boy next door is outside in his garden, apparently licking the wind. The careful design of this book, is central to the message that he has a rather special view of the world. He is portrayed against a distinctly warm yellow background which is repeated throughout the narrative, one that eventually includes the other boy as he is drawn into his space. The illustrator explained that this was a deliberate device to show that he was generally happy and in control, almost to be envied. When his mother invites the other boy to join them at the beach, they are shown travelling in the car together as he watches his behaviour with some friendly curiosity:

‘The boy next door SQUEAKS and WHOOPS


And when he sees the sand and the sea he ROCKS and ROLLS.’

He wears ear-defenders and we realise that ‘He doesn’t always speak with words’ but that he is having a great time in his yellow-defined space. He doesn’t respond to the other boy’s invitation to collect shells but demonstrates the joy of skimming stones into the sea, so his friend joins in with the game.

I liked the way in which the mother is necessarily present on the beach but manages to stay in the background most of the time giving gentle encouragement. She deals calmly and confidently with her son’s distress at getting sand in his mouth which ‘makes his brain feel wobbly’. When it is time to leave the beach, she gives him a five- minute warning and shows him the alarm on her mobile phone, a way to help him predict what is always a difficult transition. He still cries because ‘It’s hard to leave somewhere we love, isn’t it?’ His friend nods in agreement. 

But before they leave the beach, the two boys relish the taste of the ‘salty, swirling air’ as they stick out their tongues. The next day at school, the boy tells his classmates all about the exhilarating experience and they all join in with sticking out their tongues imagining that they are licking a giant ice cream.

I am full of admiration for this picture book because the story is so simple but so profound. Apart from anything else, enjoying time at the beach is an experience that can be shared by many children who will be inspired to add their own ideas about how to have fun. The quality of the story is lifted to another level by the extraordinary illustrations. Yu Rong gave some fascinating insight into her multi- media methods and explained that she used traditional Chinese paper cutting techniques with pencil and pen for other detail. The   effective texture of the sea was achieved by experimenting with splashing water onto layers of coloured tissue paper.  I can see how this would provide some enthusiastic art work from children of all ages.

Published by Otter Barry Books, you will be able to buy this beautiful book from your local independent bookshop – who will be happy to order it for you if they don’t have it on their shelves.

Strongly recommended.

Karen Argent

April 2024