Author Showcase: Avril Webster, Creator of the Off We Go! Series
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 1, 2011
Author Avril Webster created the Off We Go! series to help her son with an intellectual disability practice and visualize typical everyday and once-in-awhile outings to alleviate anxiety about what’s going to happen during these activities. Brightly illustrated in an uncluttered cartoon style, and featuring simple text vetted by a speech language pathologist, these stories tell and show kids what to expect.
Avril Webster: Books have had a big impact on our lives, right from the get go. I remember when [my son], Stephen, was a small baby and we had endless days and nights in hospital, I read to him. Book after book, I think hearing my voice soothed him and it helped us create that special intimate time, despite being in a hospital environment. And reading those books helped me cope too – helped to pass the time, distracted me and helped me feel like a ‘normal’ Mom. Stephen still loves many of those books!
TCBR: Inspired by your Stephen’s rare chromosomal disorder, the goal of your series, Off We Go!, is to improve the quality of life of all children, particularly those with special needs, and their families and to promote inclusion of everyone in day-to-day activities. How do the books help Stephen and kids like him manage with everyday events?
Many children find everyday activities overwhelming. This is often because they feel, see, hear, taste and touch in a different way, their senses don’t ‘come together’ like ours do. They hear some noises much more loudly than we do. Stephen (who has an intellectual disability) can get very upset when he goes to a place with a lot of noise, colors and smells, e.g. going to the grocery store or going to get his haircut. I found that by using a picture storybook, it helped prepare him for what was going to happen and he could manage more easily. Stephen is the inspiration behind the Off We Go! series. The books have helped Stephen manage experiences that he previously found difficult. I feel it is really important that I try to give Stephen the same experiences and opportunities, as my other children.
While the books are extremely beneficial to children with intellectual disabilities—such as autism—they also speak to pre-school children and children learning to read. Could they also be helpful to children who have English as there second language?
The books work well with all children and particularly for children with intellectual disabilities/autism because:
1) The story follows a clear sequence – many children with special needs find it hard to remember sequences so the Off We Go! books guide them through. E.g. Stephen often takes the Off We Go to the Dentist book with him on a dental visit to remind him what stage he is at.
2) The story break down a task into steps – children like routine and predictability and the step-by-step approach makes it easier to prepare them.
3) The pictures are clear and not too cluttered – as explained above some children cannot see busy colorful pictures, so it is important that the pictures are kept simple.
4) The subject is something concrete that the children can relate too – many children with autism find it hard to use their imagination and they prefer stories that they can connect with.
Regarding pre-school children, the Off We Go! series is ideal for them, as they learn about the environment and experiences around them. I did a reading at our local pre-school to celebrate World Book Day in March and the children had great fun learning about going to the grocery store. We followed Off We Go to the Grocery Store starting the idea of making a list, pushing a cart, helping Mom and finishing up at the cash register!
The words used in the Off We Go! series are very much focused on everyday language and work really well with children who have English as their second language and are ideal as a starting place for learning to read.
When I started writing the Off We Go! series Stephen was age 8, Michael age 5 just beginning to read and Rachel was age 3 in pre-school as the photo shows!
I really like that, through the illustrations, your characters create awareness about children with disabilities and show that, although we are all different, we are all part of society. I imagine that your books enable conversations about such topics. Do you have any tips on how to talk to children about the character differences when questions arise?
The most important thing is to have the conversation. I remember when Stephen was not walking and was in a special stroller (kind of like a small wheelchair) and we were in a doctor’s waiting room. A pre-schooler that was waiting with her Mom came over and asked why Stephen had this stroller? Her Mom was embarrassed that she was pointing and asking questions. But this is what we need, lots of questions and conversations, that it is okay to talk about the fact that not everyone can walk and talk – that we are all different. I also think it is an opportunity to talk about helping others and showing understanding.
While we are on the topic of awareness, April is National Autism Awareness Month. How can we, as a global community and within our neighborhood communities, help raise awareness?
Awareness is really important I am so proud to be working with Woodbine House and to be part of the work they are doing in this area.
I would like to raise awareness about one particular aspect of autism that I mentioned earlier, that everyone’s senses work differently. People can be scared of individuals with autism because of their behavior, but it is often because of something called sensory integration disorder.
When you and I go to the grocery store and the automatic doors open, we feel the whoosh of air, hear all the noises, the smells and there are lots of colors in front of us. After a minute or two, it all ‘settles’ down and we go on with our shopping. This is not the case for people with autism – all those noises, smells and colors keep whirling around in their heads. My son Stephen may shout or bring his hands up to cover his ears. He can’t talk very well so he uses his behavior to tell me that he is finding it hard to cope. So I would ask to everyone in their neighborhoods to help understand that individuals with autism are ‘not weird’, they are different and just as important as everyone else. Please show understanding and compassion to those with autism and their families.
Kudos to you and your publishing house, www.woodbinehouse.com, for offering 25% off the Off We Go! Series and 35 other autism-related products during April!
Back to the books: There are currently twelve books in the series: Going to the Supermarket, Going to the Dentist, Going to the Doctor, Going to the Hairdresser, Going to the Restaurant, Going Swimming, Going to a Birthday Party, Going to Buy Clothes, Going to Buy Shoes, Going to the Cinema, Going to the Optician and Going on a Plane. How do you decide which topics to write about?
Off We Go to the Grocery Store, Off We Go for a Haircut and Off We Go to the Dentist are published by Woodbine House and are currently available in the United States. There are additional books available in Ireland and Europe and I hope to publish more of these in the future with Woodbine House.
Stephen and what I need to help him so far have really inspired the topics. I love to get e-mails and cards from families and teachers – I think I have a list of 30+ possible future titles!
Should we expect to see more titles in the series?
Yes, it is just a question of choosing which ones are the priorities!
The books are also available as iPad applications (apps). Do the apps differ from the books? Do they offer additional learning tools?
I have two books available as iPad applications. They are the same format as the hardcopy books. The great thing with the iPad versions is the addition of sounds and animation. So as well as preparing using pictures, your child can also hear the sounds of a particular environment and also learn through interaction. (E.g. they can color the pages in themselves to make their own book)
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I have learnt lots and continue to learn everyday. You might think you can’t do something, but you can! It gives me great joy that a little book that started at my kitchen table can reach all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and help lots of other children and their families.
What does your family think of your writing—in particular, Stephen?
I think they enjoy it! The Off We Go! books are part of our everyday life, in a very practical way.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I hope my readers find the books fun and useful and I would love to hear any feedback.
Books are important for all children and I have found the format of a book a great way of helping my son access everyday experiences.
I keep the words of John Wooden close to my heart:
‘Success is never final, failure is never fatal, it is courage that counts’
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