Samantha Cotterill is a talented artist and illustrator whose work has graced many picture books over the years. But in 2019, she turned to something new -- authoring her very own "Little Senses" picture book series. Her choice of subject is personal and special: the sensory issues that affect autistic kids. Since Samantha is on the spectrum herself (Aspergers), she knows exactly how to portray these realities of ‘sensory-overwhelm' in her stories, and she does so with insight, humor and wit.
The first two books, THIS BEACH IS LOUD, and NOPE, NEVER, NOT FOR ME, launched in 2019. The third story, CAN I PLAY TOO?, will be in bookstores in March, and a fourth is in the works. (NOTE: Check at the end of this story for details about a book giveaway!)
I have loved getting to know Sam a bit through this interview. We have discovered that we have a ton in common. We’ve even lived a mere few streets apart, in the same small town in upstate New York! (Autistic destiny at work!)
With no further ado, here’s our exchange...
SJP: Tell us a bit about why you decided to write these particular tales. Why did you want to focus on sensory issues?
SC: For kids on the autism spectrum, processing everyday sensory information can have a profound effect on how they get through each day. And even for kids who are not on the spectrum, integrating and processing sensory stimuli can sometimes be just as overwhelming.
Being on the spectrum myself with Asperger's, sensory issues are a huge part of my daily life...from the time I get up and switch off the glaring ceiling light left on by my husband, to the plastic utensils everyone gets served at dinner to avoid cringe-worthy scratching sounds, I am constantly dealing with how stimuli affects my mood and ability to be present.
There are so many nuances within the eight senses ( visual, tactile, taste, smell, auditory, vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoception), that writing only one story would prove impossible if I wanted to properly address each one. Each story of the Little Senses series offers a window into what a child might experience when faced with an overload of sensory stimulation. I hope this helps to enlighten those who may not realize just how hard it can be for certain kids to organize and respond to so much stimuli.
The stories also offer tools for successfully navigating these moments -- to devote proper attention and time to each sense, this needed to be handled on a story by story basis.
SJP: I love that you have listed the “extra” senses: vestibular (sense of balance/posture), proprioception (the awareness/sense/control of how one’s body moves through the world), and interoception (one’s inner, internal body sensations). These are things many autistic kids (including my own) have worked on in occupational therapy. There are many ways that kids - autistic or not - feel “sensory overwhelm.”
Can you tell us a bit about the next book that’s coming out in March? What aspect of “overwhelm” does the new story treat?
SC: While CAN I PLAY TOO? touches on impulsivity and aspects of proprioception (personal space /body awareness issues), the focus is more on the sense of sight -- on recognizing visual, nonverbal cues from peers in play situations. The “overwhelm” moment culminates in a flight response from our main character, after his playmate voices frustration at feeling ignored, as the two build a train track together.
Tools are given by the teacher in a fun and relatable way to encourage flexible thinking, while simultaneously teaching important visual social cues of happiness, frustration, or anger, to help achieve successful collaborative play.
SJP: I’ve read CAN I PLAY TOO, and what is nice about it -- and all these stories -- are the gentle suggestions toward solutions. Let’s be clear, they are stories, not instruction manuals, but they do model how to potentially handle certain sensory situations, both for kid readers and the adults in their lives.
SC: Thank you! And YES! That was exactly my intention going into this series. It was important that the adults in the books spoke in short phrases, as too much verbal information can cause a child with sensory issues to shut down and potentially go into meltdown mode. The adults remain calm and patient and respect the child’s physical and emotional needs during these stressful moments.
SJP: How are you deciding upon which situations/scenarios to portray in your books? The beach; schoolroom play; the dinner table… Do any of these settings come from your own personal or family experience?
SC: Each story has definitely come from either personal experience or the experiences of those close to me. The idea for THE BEACH IS LOUD! actually came from a family visit to our local Apple Orchard, here in Upstate New York. I was standing with my family, ready to run away from yet another bee, when an apple cannon went off in the background. In that moment I realized I was entering flight mode, and wanted nothing more than to pack the family into the car and high-tail it home....FAST. The combination of all the smells, sounds, crowds, bees and sudden pops from the apple cannon was just too much to handle.
The experience planted the seed for this particular book, although realistically the story needed to be placed somewhere more readily accessible to readers. I often forget that we live in an area of apple orchards on every block ;), and sought out a crowded location not as predictable -- something like a mall or airport. Even with this Beach, I visually made sure to portray this destination as one that’s not necessarily “busy” to the neurotypical viewer. It isn’t jam-packed with people inches apart, and at first glance looks quite manageable. It was important to illustrate that for the young boy, however, this WAS crowded, packed and loud.
SJP: Are you planning more books to come?
SC: YES! There was initially a signed deal for four books, so fingers crossed these do well and allow more to be written :). The fourth book is in the works right now, and will be released in 2021. This one addresses how to cope with changing plans, within a birthday party setting. The main character is female, and it’s through this story that I hope to show some subtle differences between how Aspergers presents itself in girls vs boys.
And on a broader scale, ideas will be woven throughout the book that readers can use in hopes of creating a birthday party experience that’s positive and less stressful for the sensitive kids in their lives.
One thing that was so incredible about my partnership with Penguin Random House was the absolute trust they had in every little detail I found incredibly important to include in this series. Normally, when creating a book, a lot of time is spent within the publishing house going over every page with a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything is consistent. So how relieved and thankful I was when they completely let me break from this practice when writing CAN I PLAY TOO?
SJP: What do you mean? Are there details that are inconsistent, then?
SC: It’s my goal to have these books in as many homes, libraries, school, and doctor’s offices as possible. And in regards to the latter, I thought these books could be a helpful tool within the diagnosis process itself. For example, a heightened awareness of detail changes is often present in a child with Asperger’s. I intentionally changed up the stripes on our protagonist’s sweater on a couple of spreads with the idea that a child picking up the book may say “ Hey! Wait a second! There’s an extra stripe on his sweater on this page.”
It is also in this story that you will notice the protagonist only giving direct eye contact on a couple of occasions. The remainder is illustrated with subtle directional shifts that don’t exactly meet eye to eye. These are just a couple of examples of details I felt important to include that may not even be noticed by most who pick up the book. But I know they are there, and even if just one reader notices as well, then I’ll feel my intentions were well worth the effort :)
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Samantha Cotterill has written and illustrated many popular books for children. The Wall Street Journal praised her "fabulously fun artwork" in Jinx and the Doom Fight Crime! by Lisa Mantchev and called it an "exuberant picture book." She also illustrated Just Add Glitter by Angela Diterlizzi, which the New York Times called "a sparkle of genius." The Little Sense collection marks her exciting debut as an author/illustrator of a series...a series Samantha feels is much needed and one that she wishes had been part of her own childhood. Being on the spectrum herself, Samantha wanted to make books that would allow kids to recognize themselves in a playful, fun, yet therapeutic way. Every story in the series is presented without labels, allowing parents to step into their kids/ worlds and see their point of view.
You can connect with Sam on Instagram at @littlesensesbooks and @mummysamart, on Twitter at @mummysamart, and on her website, samanthacotterill.com.
Sally J. Pla is the co-founder of A Novel Mind, and an award-winning children’s author who believes in the beauty of different brains and the potential in all kids. Her middle grade novel The Someday Birds received many accolades including the 2018 Dolly Gray Award for its depiction of autism/disability. Her picture book Benji, The Bad Day, and Me was a 2019 San Diego Book Award winner and CCBC Best Choices book for 2019. Middle grade novel Stanley WIll Probably Be Fine is a New York Public LIbrary, Bank Street, and Kirkus Best Book of the Year. Her books are Junior Library Guild Selections that have appeared on many state reading lists and “best books” roundups. Visit her at www.sallyjpla.com or @sallyjpla on Twitter/Insta.