Fred stays with me

Nancy Coffelt (author) and Tricia Tusa (illustrator)
Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2011 (originally published 2007)
ISBN: 9780316077910
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

A young girl narrator explains how she sometimes stays with mum and sometimes with dad, but how her dog Fred always stays with her. In fact, the girl says this very emphatically to both parents when Fred’s playful behaviour starts to get on their nerves.

Fred stays with me is a warm, funny and matter-of-fact story about a child managing divorce confidently with the help of a constant canine companion. It touches on what is different and what is similar about her two homes. While Fred is the key source of comfort (when the girl is happy or sad) both parents respond compassionately to the problem Fred’s behaviour presents giving the overall impression of a loving family willing to work out problems. The rich ochre brown colours used to portray the girl’s world and Fred’s antics match the warmth of the story. They also provide plenty of laughs and poignant snapshots of life with a dog sure to make readers smile—young and old alike. 

Living with Mum and Living with Dad

Melanie Walsh
Walker Books: 2013
ISBN: 9781406341768
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

A child describes her two homes in the first person. She focuses first on a physical description of the homes (e.g. the walls in her bedrooms), aspects of her routine (e.g. school pick up), different activities with mum and dad (e.g. camping with dad). The description of living with mum and dad ends with an affirmation of the love her parents and extended family feel for her accompanied by a photo album-like spread.

This is a sober, thoughtful book that takes a neutral and factual approach to a child’s experience of separation or divorce. The text is respectful of both parent’s roles and also keeps them quite separate. Mum and Dad, for example, both attend the school play but sit separately. The flaps, which momentarily obscure what is in one home while the other is being viewed, form an actual physical barrier underscoring the key theme of two separate dwellings. Apart from the difference between ‘home’ with mum and ‘home’ with dad, the child also mentions some changes (mum used to pick her up from school but now both parents alternate) and in a matter-of-fact tone. No emotions are mentioned until the end when the child explains that if she misses one parent while with the other, she telephones the absent parent. This reserve leaves ample room for parent-child teams to discuss emotions independently, prompted by the illustrations.

No Matter Who We’re With

Robert Vescio (author) and Cheri Scholten (illustrator)
IP Kidz: 2013
ISBN: 9781922120212
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Two children (a girl and boy in the illustrations) speak about their love for their parents who live in different houses. They discuss the different things they do at mum’s house and dad’s house and the different places they go with mum and Dad (e.g. ‘Dad plays dress ups with us…Mum has a splendiferous garden…we dig..’). Periodically, the children remember the absent parent either in the narrative text or in thought bubbles (e.g. ‘Mum used to laugh at our dress ups too’). In some scenes one child asks a question which then prompts the parent to mention staying with the other parent (e.g. ‘oops that book must be at your mum’s’). In the concluding section the children acknowledge feelings of sadness, restate their love for both parents, and emphasise their sense of being loved by both parents.

Marketed as a book about separation rather than divorce, No Matter Who We’re With speaks primarily to the issue of physical separation of parents and children. It does this thoughtfully and sensitively, balancing an emphasis on different experiences and activities with mum and dad with an emphasis on connection in the past and ongoing interaction. Potentially difficult issues arise (e.g. a favourite book left at mum’s) and these are mentioned in a matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations enhance the text at every turn—drawing on Japanese anime traditions, the artwork draws in the children’s make-believe play. Moreover, Cheri Scholten has, with great subtlety, pointed to connections between the places and activities the children share with each parent through the illustrations (e.g. the cupcakes the kids make with mum resemble the spaghetti they make with dad). This approach lends support to the text’s emphasis on connection and separation. The tone of the book is upbeat with only a few explicit references to sadness, nevertheless the references to what “used to be” and the thought bubbles, showing the children thinking about the absent parent, could be used as open-ended cues for engaging young readers in discussion about their own situation.

Sam’s Sunday Dad

Margaret wild (author) and Lorraine Hannay (illustrator)
Margaret Hamilton Books: 1992, 1999
ISBN: 9780947241292
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Please note Sam’s Sunday Dad is out of print but second-hand copies do come up for sale and it is readily available in Australian public libraries.

Sam lives with his mum and little sister Penny. His dad lives on the other side of the city and Sam is looking forward to dad’s visits on Sunday. Indeed, Sam is counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds. As Sam’s week progresses, he indicates the daily events that he will tell his dad about on Sunday. There are Penny’s antics with her nappies and new potty, the ‘fathers and sons night’ at school, moments of crisis with friends and more.

With characteristic subtlety and insight Margaret Wild portrays the interests, concerns, and resilience of children. The central character Sam is missing his Dad terribly and that comes through loud and clear, most notably in the precise way he counts down the time until the Sunday visit.  Yet Sam also has his own life to lead and that life, with all its perfectly normal ups and downs, is very much at the forefront of this story.

Both parents are referred to positively in the text; the father is portrayed initially looking sad while holding a photo, presumably of his kids. Photos of a kind, or perhaps more broadly moments and memories, are recurring motifs in the illustrations, which often feature a framed still shot linked to the text with scattered mementos around the framed area. These images provide points of interest for curious minds and special opportunities for discussion of emotions as well.

Sam’s Sunday Dad was recognised as a Notable Australian Children’s book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Two Homes

Claire Masurel (author) and Kady MacDonald (illustrator)
Walker Books 2002
ISBN: 9780744589252
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

‘Here I am. I am Alex,’ the child narrator begins. He proceeds to tell the reader and show the reader his two different homes—one with mummy and one with daddy. Alex describes physical features of the two homes at first (e.g. two front doors, two rooms, two favourite chairs). Gradually, more poignant features of his two homes come into play (e.g. his friends visit at both houses, he rings Mummy when at Daddy’s house and Daddy when at Mummy’s house). The concluding pages look at the way love transcends the need for physical proximity.

Two Homes explores divorce from a child’s perspective and fittingly focuses on one of the key places a child inhabits—home. There is a subtle feeling of positivity with the emphasis on two of everything (e.g. two favourite chairs, two phone numbers). The illustrations, which present a contented child, happy, attentive parents, and warm physical surroundings, further the impression of positivity but never in a pushy way.

When my parents forgot how to be friends

Jennifer Moore-Mallinos (author) Marta Fàbrega (illustrator)
The Salariya Book Company: Brighton, 2004
ISBN: 9781908973238
Age: 5+

Reviewed by Viv Young

A young girl narrator remembers life before, during and after her parents’ relationship breakdown; she remembers family nights filled with laughter, a period of fighting between her parents, then the return of joyful times after her parents have separated.

When my parents forgot how to be friends provides a child’s perspective on separation and divorce. After a brief description of the happy times the girl remembers when her parents were still friends, the focus shifts and concentrates on the confusion and worries the girl experiences during her parents’ relationship breakdown—it touches especially on the concern that her parents’ difficulties are her fault. The final section acknowledges the girl’s feelings of sadness when her father leaves but also presents the parents’ efforts to assure the girl of their love and the renewed sense of happiness they all experience as a different kind of family.

The perception of parents ‘forgetting how to be friends’ has an authentic child-like ring to it and the book’s creator/s seem to voice their own personal experience of divorce in a note to parents at the end of the book. The illustrations utilise the same colour palette and style throughout —pastel water colours with a mauve background. The background changes subtly in depth and tone; it also blends in with darker tones or highlights lighter ones reflecting the changing mood as the story progresses. The illustrator makes consistent use of symbols, such as the different coloured paper doll cut-outs, body language and facial expressions to portray and extend the emotions raised in the story. When my parents forgot how to be friends is a sincere exploration of the feelings kids may experience around their parents’ divorce.