by Katie Engen, M.Ed.
This review is part of a series that examines different types of anxiety as portrayed in picture books, offering readers an opportunity for social-emotional learning.
Everyone has anxiety, and it can be a good thing for keeping one prepared in new situations -- as long as our flexible thinking opens us to new possibilities, instead of overwhelming us.
Johnny is different. He is never exactly on time, he can't seem to stick to a routine, and he often speaks in cryptic idioms. Johnny is neurotypical, but that's OK.
A picture book with a difference, Why Johnny Doesn't Flap turns the tables on common depictions of neurological difference by drolly revealing how people who are not on the autistic spectrum are perceived by those who are. The autistic narrator's bafflement at his neurotypical friend's quirks shows that 'normal' is simply a matter of perspective.
Yes, it’s slightly didactic. And it clearly bypasses the modern penchant to not make disability the main point of a picture book. Yet, the learn-by-contrasts approach of each spread is so valuable. The yin and yang of the two boys reveals what’s possible when divergent and typical thinkers develop real relationships.
Younger readers may need walking through how and why the contrasts occur. But be careful! Do not label too much. Instead, let the young reader find the commonalities that matter.
Preteens and up may notice that the narrator misses some subtleties, or that Johnny isn’t fully relaxed in every interaction. Discuss how this occurs in most any relationship. Challenge them to compare and contrast famous pairs of friends who are different. For example: Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street, or Anna and Elsa from Frozen, or Dory and Marlin in Finding Nemo.
Bottom line? The humor, heart, and art of this title celebrates how a neurodivergent child's flexible thinking helps him re-frame any anxiety about personal differences in a fun and novel way. That’s a happy ending, for sure.
Which books do you find most helpful for managing anxiety? Why? Do you share them with others? Who and how?
Katie O’Brien Engen, M.Ed, currently works in private practice to mentor students with executive functioning and language processing challenges. She also writes stories and cross-curricular lessons to engage young minds with big ideas, does writing work for hire, and reviews books for various kidlit outlets. Katie is fueled by faith and laughter, and rarely is she too busy for family, sports, or ice cream. She lives in Maryland where one of her favorite runs is the ~10 miles to the Washington Monument in D.C. Learn more about Katie here.