A self-published children’s picture book that was written to help the author’s son deal with being kept home from school during lockdown has been snapped up by a major publisher for a five-figure sum.
Like many parents, theatre director Anna Friend found her son Billy, then seven, was struggling during the first lockdown, with his behaviour deteriorating rapidly. She and her husband had pulled Billy out of school just before the first lockdown in March 2020, because he had a cough. Then schools shut and he couldn’t return.
“It was really traumatic for him – we were not going to school, then no one was going to school,” she said. “I was really struggling to connect with him. He couldn’t express it, he was getting extremely angry, having massive tantrums almost like a toddler. Every time I asked, ‘Is it about school?’ he would absolutely lose it. So I wrote the book to try and understand what was happening to him.”
She asked an old friend, artist Jake Biggin, to illustrate it, with the simple black and white line drawings and verses offering an insight into a child’s thoughts. “Mummy said that schools had closed, no more playing, empty roads,” Friend writes. “So Billy thought, well could it be, this new thing … did it start with me?”
The book changed the family’s experience of lockdown. “I think Billy felt heard,” said Friend. “It transformed my ability to understand him. It stopped me thinking, ‘You’re being naughty, you’re screaming, you’re throwing things.’ I understood he was traumatised, anxious and scared. It changed the way we dealt with him and that totally changed our lockdown. Prior to that point, as I’m sure it has been for so many parents, it was just hellish.”
When the third lockdown came around, Friend and Biggin decided to self-publish the picture book on Amazon to help other children. They launched When Can I Go Back to School? on 15 January. By early February, they had a five-figure deal with Scholastic for the title and two others in the “Big Little Hearts” series, one about the loss of a parent and another about the arrival of a new baby.
“It was getting fantastic reviews, and the idea it was going into children’s lives and helping them was ‘job done’. That was all the book was meant to do, to help children right now feel better because this is a horrible situation for them. So we were really pleased, it seemed to be gathering pace,” said Friend. “And then Scholastic happened.”
Friend emailed an editor at Scholastic out of the blue, asking for publishing advice. Scholastic publishing manager Leah James said that as soon as she saw the book, she knew “we absolutely had to publish”, and called Friend with an offer the next day. When Can I Go Back to School? is will be published on 11 March.
“The text and illustration conveys the sadness of the situation, yet also communicates a sense of hope,” said James. “As a parent myself, I know just how close to desperation all families are at the moment. This was the first book I’d seen that relayed the struggle so honestly. It moved me to tears.”
James praised the “honesty, simplicity and emotive nature of the text”, and the “simple uplifting beauty of the illustrations”, comparing them to Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator EH Shepard and Charlie Mackesy, author and illustrator of bestseller The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse.
“I’ve been looking for books for younger children that successfully cover tricky topics such as bereavement, family issues, anxiety, for a very long time. They are hard to find,” James said. “Anna and Jake’s books are the first ones I’ve seen that really strike to the heart of the matter at hand in a gentle, honest and timeless manner.”
When Can I Go Back to School? will also include mindfulness activities for families to combat feelings of anxiety. The next books by Friend and Biggin will be published in 2022.