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Bestselling children’s author Swapna Haddow’s latest book is about helping children to understand their feelings.
When I mention to friends and colleagues that I am interviewing Swapna Haddow they all squeal with glee. The author of Bad Panda, My Dad is a Grizzly Bear and the ever popular Dave Pigeon series is a huge favourite with the under-10s (and their parents) thanks to her fantastic storytelling and funny characters, and her fans all have anecdotes about how they read all the books in one series in a week, or how they couldn’t stop laughing while reading her stories on a bus.
Her newest release, Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings, is not a laugh-out-loud book, although there are sweetly humorous moments, but rather a collection of stories that will help children understand their feelings. Each one features a character like Bruno the Sad Dinosaur and Minka the Happy Dinosaur, and Dr Diplo helps them understand why they feel the way they do. The doctor also explains how and where the reader might feel that emotion in their body, and there are tips on how you can process each particular emotion.
It’s always been an interest of mine to understand feelings
The project came about when Rachel Williams, one of the co-founders of Magic Cat, contacted Haddow with the idea about doing something about feelings with dinosaurs, and the author was “one million per cent on board”.
“I guess she came to me because she thought I could put a humorous spin on it but I have an interest in mental health, too,” says Haddow, speaking from her home in New Zealand. Before moving into publishing the author went to medical school, where she wanted to work in mental health. “It’s always been an interest of mine to understand feelings,” she says.
Haddow put together a proposal where, as in the Dave Pigeon books, the prose was interspersed with comic strips and speech bubbles, and the form of the book began to take shape. Williams then got in touch with Yiting Lee, a Taiwanese artist based in the UK, to illustrate, and Dr Amber Owen, the clinical psychologist who provided the mindfulness exercises that feature in the book.
There are many children’s books about feelings and mental health on the market at the moment but Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings stands out for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being the descriptions of the physical symptoms that go with particular emotions. This was important to Haddow, as was the inclusion of feelings that are considered to be good or pleasurable, like contentment and happiness.
“Those emotions are just as important to recognise in ourselves and the whole book is supposed to be about being mindful of how we feel in that moment,” she says. “It’s important to also recognise the moments when we are feeling happy and that it’s OK to be still for a bit.
"A lot of the thinking behind the book came from conversations that I’ve had with my own child. He’s 13 now, but when he was younger we did take moments to say: ‘I feel good right now. Do you feel good? How do you feel?’”
I think I get quite bored staying in one place. It is quite a similar writing process, it’s just that my attention likes to bounce around
Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings is Haddow’s 29th book, and the author has published a range of non-fiction, young fiction and picture books. After deciding against becoming a doctor she spent some time working in art galleries, then wrote her first book when she was pregnant with her son. She was shortlisted for the Greenhouse Funny Prize, open to unagented, unpublished books, in 2012 and in 2014, when she entered a second time with Dave Pigeon, she won. She also got a publishing deal with Faber and Sheena Dempsey signed on as illustrator.
In the first book, Dave Pigeon and his sidekick Skipper go on a quest to defeat the most evil cat in town. It is hilarious, and hugely popular, and there are now six stories in the series, including one World Book Day title. It wasn’t, however, an instant success, says Haddow. Dave Pigeon wasn’t stocked in many shops and it was only when she sent out copies to bloggers that sales started to increase.
Since then Haddow has created the Bad Panda series, again with Dempsey (“we got tired of being the ‘pigeon ladies’”, she laughs), as well as the Ballet Bunnies young fiction titles and picture books with Dapo Adeola. There will be a Dave Pigeon Halloween book next year and a series about a detective called Reggie Rabbit with OUP, but non-fiction will always feature in her output. “I love chopping and changing,” she says. “I think I get quite bored staying in one place. It is quite a similar writing process, it’s just that my attention likes to bounce around.”
Haddow will have to manage the launch of Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings in January from New Zealand, where she has been since 2018, but living on the other side of the world hasn’t ended her career, as she once feared.
“We moved right before the pandemic, and I think there was a feeling, certainly on my end, that this could be the end, because my readership is mainly in the UK and I know how important events are for publishers. But then the pandemic happened and opened up this whole world on Zoom.”
Her fans have been brilliant, she says. Teachers are open to Zoom chats in the classroom, and she will always reply to students’ questions via email. And even though most of her fans are currently in the UK, she has recently signed a book deal in New Zealand, which she hopes will build a readership over there as well.
Haddow would also love to work with Magic Cat in the future and cannot praise Williams highly enough. Working in such a collaborative way with not only an editor, but also an illustrator and a psychologist, was an “amazing” new experience for her, and Williams is incredibly open to an author’s ideas, she says. “I love all my other books but it was such a nice experience, working on this. It was wonderful.”