THIS BEACH IS LOUD by Samantha Cotterill (June 2019, Penguin Random House)
Reviewed by Katie O. Engen, M.Ed.
A fun day at the beach also can be overwhelming – especially for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition where one’s brain has trouble processing sensory stimuli (SPD is often linked to autism, but can be a standalone disorder).
This title in the Little Senses series features a young boy exploring the oceanside setting, experiencing sensory issues, and experimenting with practical ways to squelch the ‘input onslaught’ and restore the fun. Written to engage ‘wonderfully sensitive kids’ on the autism spectrum or with heightened neuro-sensitivity, it is equally and delightfully well-suited for ‘any kid who sometimes feels anxious or overwhelmed.’ In other words, everyone.
A clever balance of practicality and whimsy begins on the title page. It features a cheery chart of four tasks to prepare for the beach trip: read about beaches; play in sandbox; try swimsuits; pack. Each completed step earns a gold star. This effective story-launching graphic serves as a brilliant tool for families to try (and preempts any story-stalling lesson). Sketches of the boy trying and re-trying on his swimsuits introduce the narrative’s organic humor.
With all four stars earned, it’s time to go! After ‘packing,’ then waking dad at 4 a.m., the boy gushes pure excitement. His super-focused and repetitive questions during the car trip fill a two-page wave of colorful word-art. Instead of conveying frenzy, these visuals underscore how constant curiosity gives energy and purpose to any outing.
As soon as father and son arrive at the beach, however, variations in font, perspective, and layout mark the boy’s transition from expectation to reality. Sensory irritations pile up. Bold fonts burst with the boy’s fears, phrased as complaints about noisy people, ouchy temperatures, scritchy sand, crashing waves, and flippity-flap gulls. These elements serve as plot points, and dad uses each as an opportunity to reset and problem solve.
Awareness, acceptance, patience, and step-by-step management are the strategies at hand. The boy’s preferred coping process includes generally familiar steps like breathing deep, squeezing beloved Sharkie, taking a moment, and sipping a drink. Additionally, the boy likes to ‘stim’ by making a finger tapping pattern that most folks may not think to try, but the dad cues with the steady, upbeat attention he uses for the other soothing options.
As any good parent would, the dad constantly surveys the day’s changing tides to keep his son afloat. And while his no-drama approach is a lovingly practical element in their routines and relationship, readers adhering strictly to modern kidlit ideals may wish for less of the ‘adult saves the day’ trope. All audiences, however, will appreciate that this plot has no soggy preaching or sappy, false lionizing – there’s no moralizing that ‘even though it’s so hard, the boy defeats great odds.’
In fact, nobody’s drowning in a need to hide quirks or demand perfection. And if anyone’s laughing, it’s because of the digging, splashing, and ice cream eating antics this father and son share so joyfully. As the boy adjusts and replaces his discomfort with quiet delight, the colors harmonize, and the fonts relax. Finally, the duo’s choreographed finger-tap-counting breezes into the gentle tap of ice cream cones, as dad and son toast the sunset.
In sum, this tale is a delightful reminder that everyone must face and manage challenges and foibles, in the pursuit of fun.
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The “Little Senses” series is available from Penguin Random House, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers.
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. Learn more about Katie here.