11th October 2022
A new book for children gives a contemporary look at the pressures faced at school when you stammer. Read about the author's real-life inspiration behind the book, as well as one parent's review.
How To Be More Hedgehog by Anne-Marie Conway, for reading ages 9-12, tells the story of Lily, who has a stammer and is in the last year of primary school. When classmates post a video of her stammering during a school presentation, Lily experiences teasing and cyberbullying which sees her confidence take a nosedive.
The story behind the book
We asked Anne-Marie Conway, who is also a primary school Drama teacher, to tell us why she wrote How To Be More Hedgehog.
"The inspiration for the main character was Susie (not her real name). I first encountered Susie when she was six. I had just started a new job as a Drama specialist teacher at an all-girls primary school and Susie was in Year 1. She was extremely bright, chatty and confident and she loved Drama. Susie also had a stammer. Her stammer didn't stop her talking. On the contrary, she never stopped talking. As the Drama teacher, I got to teach Susie each year as she progressed through the school. I never thought of her as someone who had difficulty expressing herself. I only ever thought of her as someone who loved Drama and was very good at it.
'But then in Year 6 everything changed. The other girls in Susie's class changed, Susie changed, and her stammer changed. I'm convinced the changes happened in this order. The other year 6 girls became more aware of themselves and of what was considered 'cool'. They began to find Susie's stammer embarrassing. They would become visibly uncomfortable when Susie struggled to get a word out. Susie, of course, picked up on this, and she began to feel stressed about speaking. As a result, she started to stammer more. And as a result of that, she began to withdraw, to spend more time on her own, to keep her (brilliant) ideas to herself.
'In my book, Lily, the main character, has a stammer, and when her trusted teacher Mrs Hansen leaves unexpectedly, and new teacher Mr Daley takes over, everything begins to change. Mr Daley does everything fast. He throws out a question and expects an answer quick, quick, quick. Like a boomerang. The other children find him fun and exciting, but for Lily this new pace is overwhelming. She yearns for Mrs Hansen — a teacher who 'asked a question and didn't mind how long it took to get the answer'.
Through teaching Susie, I learned that children can be confident without being fluent. That they must be given the space to express themselves however long it takes.
'As a Drama teacher, I have been guilty of placing too much value on fluency. Children can stand on a stage and speak clearly with confidence. Children can express themselves and get their point across. Susie taught me a lesson I've never forgotten. It's not how you say something that matters.
'In How To Be More Hedgehog, Lily runs away. She runs away from her friends who laugh at her, from the online bullies who poke fun at the way she speaks and from the class project that is giving her nightmares. But of course she soon realises that she can't run away from herself.
'Over the course of the book, Lily learns some vital lessons about friends and family and speaking out. She learns how to grow some metaphorical 'spines' which give the courage to face her fears head.
'I learned a vital lesson too. Through teaching Susie, I learned that children can be confident without being fluent. That they must be given the space to express themselves however long it takes. And not just children who stammer. That it was my responsibility to facilitate this in my classroom. I learned to be the sort of teacher who asks a question and doesn't mind how long it takes to get the answer."
Katherine Brown, a parent from our volunteer book review team tells us what she thought of Anne-Marie's book:
"How To Be More Hedgehog is a book written from the perspective of Lily, a girl in year 6 of primary school, who returns to a busy term after the Christmas break. Lily has a lot to juggle — schoolwork, friend dynamics, a new teacher, a blended family, a busy mother and an angry brother. But by far her biggest challenge, and the one that disrupts her life the most, is her stammer.
The charming hedgehog metaphor is woven carefully into the story, encouraging readers to find their inner strength and outer armour.
'Through the story, the book provides a detailed account of what life is like for Lily; it explains how her stammer manifests and how it impacts her everyday life and schooling on many different levels. The book also explores how Lily's family and friends react to her stammer, and how she feels about this. Some serious topics are touched upon, including bullying, peer pressure, social media trolling, feelings of isolation, anxiety and other mental health issues. But, despite the hardship, the book also gives a little humour, as well as a steadfast hope throughout in the form of Lily's strength of heart. She has a strong attachment to her favourite teddy, and as the story unfolds, we learn how she finds courage from her true friends and her dedication to nature. The special bond she has with her father, and her love for his (and her) new family also boost her morale until she is finally able to stand up for herself and accept her stammer.
'How To Be More Hedgehog is a story of self-belief and finding the strength to live with difficulties. The charming hedgehog metaphor is woven carefully into the story, encouraging readers to find their inner strength and outer armour. It is a very readable book with some important information to share, and would be suitable for children in years 5 and 6 of primary school, up to secondary school age. But this book has a wider audience too — the explicit and honest descriptions of Lily's stammer and what she is thinking, e.g. "my face tenses with concentration and my eyelids flicker like a trapped butterfly. Now I get why… people mimic me, interrupt me, finish my sentences and laugh behind my back", give the book an authenticity that means it could lend itself to being a supportive text for a child with a stammer, a resource for adults looking to gain an insight into how it may feel to stammer and why life can be challenging, or even a reference for anyone wanting to learn how to be a little more hedgehog.
'As a final note, it should be mentioned that Lily's experiences lean the story more towards the medical model of disability; however, there is a shift towards the social model of disability as the book progresses. (Ed: read more about the medical and social models.)
How To Be More Hedgehog by Anne-Marie Conway is published by UCLan Publishing and is available to buy now. Images courtesy of UCLan.