Dandylion – Lizzie Finlay – Children’s Book Review
Dandylion was the first picture book to be written by UK children’s illustrator Lizzie Finlay. It’s been tagged with few different age ranges, I would say three to seven is probably somewhere in the right area. The back cover calls it; “An empowering story about friendship, diversity, and finding your place.”
Miss Gardener has a class full of children with flowery names. However her classroom is all a bit prim and proper until a strange little character called Dandylion comes along to brighten things up. All the other children want to be friends with Dandylion, but he keeps getting them into trouble. Dandylion, it seems, has no sense of propriety. He wears fancy dress costumes to class, has chocolate spread, jelly worms and candyfloss sandwiches, and generally creates fun/mayhem wherever he goes.
The final straw is when all the other children get into trouble because Dandylion gives them felt-tip moustaches. Basil tells Dandylion he’s not like the rest of them – probably because he’s a weed. This upsets Dandylion and he goes home and tries to tame his wild hair and make himself more like the others, but, as wise ol’ Grandpa Clock tells him; “A weed is only a name given to a wild flower growing in the wrong place.” While he’s off school he’s missed by the other children and Miss Gardiner comes up with a plan to help Dandylion feel accepted in the classroom.
Dandylion is primarily a picture book, but it’s quite long and there are about five or six sentences on each page. The text is quite illustrative and dances over the pages with lots of swirly bits and sunshine effect letters, because of this it’s probably best read to a younger child or given to a child who is already a confident reader.
The story is quite well told, although I perceived some layers of meaning that I thought might not always be understood by the children it’s intended for. For example on one page we are told that “Miss Gardener was so disappointed she could hardly look at them,” which relates to the fact that all the children have felt-tip moustaches on their faces and the teacher has her back turned to hide her laughter, (my daughter has also copied this behaviour at school). I felt that this was a sophisticated idea for little children to take in, but maybe that’s because I’ve read it with someone at the younger end of the intended age range.
The illustrations are cartoonish with the odd touch of collage, but what’s different about them is that wherever Dandylion goes, colour follows. Dandylion himself is bright yellow with a wild mane, rosy cheeks and a bright red bag, but most of the artwork is in black and white with just the odd splash of colour. I’m surprised that these have escaped untouched by my daughter’s colouring pencils – I quite often get a childish urge to colour them in when I read it to her. It certainly emphasises Dandylion’s sunny character.
I wasn’t quite sure who Dandylion was meant to represent. At first I thought he was simply a non-conformist and that the book was carrying an anti-bullying message. I also wondered whether it might encourage unruly behaviour in children who identify with Dandylion instead of with the other, rather boring, children. The idea of treasuring your individuality is great, but realistically, in a classroom scenario if everyone was ‘different,’ nothing would get done. It’s all a bit too neat for my liking. Let’s face it, if it was really a garden there would almost certainly be some weedkiller squirted on the little yellow guy.
I’m not a hundred per cent sure about books with ‘messages’. I think all stories carry a message of some sort anyway and when it’s made overt, it can seem a bit preachy. This one just about hovers on the line between fun and preachiness to me. It does gets a series of five star reviews on Amazon however, and other family members think it’s great, particularly the mini critic, so it’s not really an issue.
My daughter has had this book for a couple of years now. She has reacted emotionally to it in different ways, she’s empathised with Dandylion after he has been called a weed, and got upset about it. She has also acted out some of her own negative emotions and smacked the poor little character in the book while he was down! Not quite sure what that says about it, but perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that it is an engaging book. It has encouraged some discussion between us about bullying. Dandylion’s personality shines, thanks to the illustrative and narrative methods that have been employed. The rest of the characters are grey in comparison.
Dandylion was shortlisted for the UK’s national ‘inclusive children’s book award,’ (given out by NASEN – the National Association of Special Educational Needs), who felt that the book, “represents a wonderful celebration of differentness. The nature of Dandylion’s ‘disability’ is non-specific, and the panel felt that by using the book in early years settings, a powerful message about celebrating diversity could be shared.” I hadn’t thought of it as being about disability ‘until I read this, but I realise it could be applied, it could also work with the idea that Dandylion has ADHD or is on the autistic spectrum.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s a quirky original story with some fun illustrations which carries a message about celebrating diversity. Dandylion may help some children feel proud of the ways they differ from others.
- The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur by Richard Byrne – review (guardian.co.uk)
- 2012 Australian Children’s Book Awards (chickenspaghetti.typepad.com)