Book Review: When Charley Met Emma By Webb & Liddiard

Today I am excited to share a brand new book. A debut book by someone I have followed on social media for several years now. I discovered Amy Webb through a recommendation of her blog This Little Miggy where I am constantly moved and challenged by her life as a special needs mom and her many amazing spotlights about special needs individuals. I have learned so much from her and she has given me words and answers for my own questions and the more hard-to-control ones of my children. That’s where this book comes in. A charming book about a little boy encountering a girl with noticeable disability and learning that making friends is not as hard as it feels sometimes. Check out When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb, illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard, 2019.

The book opens with Charley, a typical kid with likes and interests. But we quickly learn that Charley also has unique interests that occasionally make him feel different from other kids. Charley’s mom is very supportive and affirming. She teaches him the powerful refrain of the book:

Different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange.

Different is different. And different is OK!

Then one day, Charley enters the park with his mom and encounters someone even more different than himself: a girl with no hands! And she is in a power wheelchair. He doesn’t know what to do. He is curious about what happened to her hands. And it makes him feel odd in his stomach. Before he can stop himself, he loudly blurts out an incredibly rude question to his mom.

Charley’s mom gently responds to his question. She points out to him rude words and unkind behavior. She reminds him of their “different” saying. And she encourages him to introduce himself and make a new friend.

Charley meets Emma. He learns about her sister and how Emma prefers to be asked questions. He learns about her limb differences and her wheelchair. And Charley learns that lots of people are different, some on the inside and some on the outside. And Charley learns that different really is better than OK.

The plot of this book is simple and predictable. In fact, this book breaks a lot of picture book rules. I was honestly nervous about getting this book. I hesitated to pre-order it, not sure that it would do its job well; but I wanted to support Amy, I always enjoy Merrilee’s art, and I really wanted to support this kind of book. So let’s talk about those rules that this book bends.

Broken rule #1: no dust jacket

You will immediately notice this when you get the book. Most “high-end,” mass-market books have a beautiful dust jacket and (hopefully) a hidden undercover with some beautiful bonus illustration. When Charley Met Emma is too cool for a dust jacket. I could go either way on this rule honestly. I love a good dust jacket and especially a bonus undercover design. But I also read to kids a lot and get ridiculously annoyed by the ever-flopping, ever-falling-off, easily ripped and crumpled dust jackets. I’d say in this situation, no dust jacket is bonus points for accessibility. Nothing will stand in the way of this book being held and read. That’s a good thing.

Broken rule #2: heavily didactic book

This book exists for one really big reason: teaching kids and grown-ups the kind way to approach people with different abilities and foster friendship. Normally I cringe at overly didactic books. But not this one. While the message is heavy-handed, it should be. This book is needed. This book is like illustrated role-play as a method to teach how to handle specific situations. It opens conversations. It puts things into words that kids don’t even know how to ask. As a parent and especially as a human-being, I am desperate for this kind of book that helps me do better and answer hard questions. And it does it really well. The book is not preachy. It isn’t gushy or saccharine, and it doesn’t victimize Charley or Emma. This book is factual, kind, genuine, and heartfelt. It hits all the right points, educates, entertains, and leaves you with a big sigh of relief that nothing truly terrible happened and everyone became friends!

Broken rule #3: a didactic book that is humorous

Followers of Amy on social media will not be surprised at the comic relief this book provides. It totally breaks the rules. Teaching a lesson and laughing in the process? What!? Thank goodness. This book is uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, even the protagonist has a tummy ache. Readers might squirm while reading this, knowing that Charley was rude; but also relieved that he asked the questions that were plaguing them too. The first time we read this book together and got to the page where Emma writes with her foot, my girls burst into laughter and cheered. It was much needed relief and excitement and a fantastic part of what makes Emma uniquely different too. It’s their favorite part of the book, although watching Emma play tag in her wheelchair is a high second!

Broken rule #4: illustrating the text

The best picture books are an amazing interplay between text and illustrations. It should be as close to 50/50 as possible with the text only saying as little as it needs to and the illustrations filling in the other half of the story. But that would not work for this book. The whole point of When Charley Met Emma is to put into words all the difficult things about interacting with someone with different abilities. It is not a good idea to let the illustrations fill in the blanks as we are all grappling to fill in the blanks in this situation already! I am so grateful that Amy walks through it with readers. She lets Charley make the mistakes we all have and she talks him and us through it. But she also lets Emma do the talking too. This is very special in my opinion. Charley’s mom helps Charley start to solve the problem; but she backs away and lets Emma educate Charley too. Emma has spunk and knows what she wants and how she wants to be treated. I love that the grown-ups are present, but not overbearing. It’s not their story; it’s Charley and Emma’s.

I also love that Amy has included a 4-step plan for parents and caregivers in the back of the book! It is so helpful to see a one-pager about what to do and how to do it. Excellent.

And one more…

Broken rule #5: no illustrator bio

So, I’m actually pretty annoyed about this broken rule. As an illustrator myself, it really bugs me that there is a full page author bio and picture in the back of the book; but no information about Merrilee, the illustrator. Perhaps we can blame it completely on the lack of dust jacket and the standard jacket flap of author/illustrator blurbs; but I think it is an oversight. While Merrilee’s part was slightly different in this book with the illustrations being arguably secondary to the message; her contribution is what makes this book this book. Attempting not to get too soap-boxy here, but this is an underlying issue in the picture book world that authors are most important because it was all their idea. Yet a particular illustration of that idea makes it something completely different than just the original idea itself. Another illustrator would have handled this very differently and it would be a completely different book. Merrilee should be recognized for her hand in telling this story. So go read about her and her lovely work. End soap box.

I encourage you to go get this book. Buy it for your kids. Buy it for your school classroom and/or library. Ask your public library to stock it. Request it at bookstores. Give it as a new baby gift, odd perhaps; but what better gift can you give than beautiful instructions for upcoming sticky conversations! We need more of these thoughtful, helpful books. We need more moments of recognizing that we are all different and we are all great too!

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