Sometimes we need to be the change that we want to see in the world. Philip Patson – Creative and social entrepreneur, writer, comedian, human rights promoter, and award-winning diversity consultant – is the very definition of a changemaker. He is the Managing Director of Diversity New Zealand, an organisation which offers facilitated discussions, consultations, keynotes and workshops about embracing and working with diversity.
Philip, alongside psychologist Barbara Pike, and artist/illustrator Sam Orchard, have created a free children’s book, My Friend is a Superhero!. The story is about Jack, a boy who uses a wheelchair, and the story is told through his friend’s eyes.
Here at Social Work Helper, we’ve had the privilege of an exclusive interview with Philip, Barbara and Sam about their book My Friend is a Superhero!
Firstly, thank you very much for taking part in our interview! To start, could you please tell us about the origins of My Friends is a Superhero? How did the idea come about?
Barbara: The book came about as a result of casual conversations between myself and Philip while I was working as Philip’s EA for Diversity NZ. I remember we were discussing children’s reactions to seeing a person with a disability compared to that of their parents. For example, a child might see a person in a wheelchair and rush up to them to ask questions, or be shy and unsure what to say, or ask their parents rather loudly why that person can’t walk!!
Parents mostly seem to be quite embarrassed or not sure how to respond. However Philip’s perspective, as a person who uses a wheelchair himself, was that he would welcome and encourage children’s curiosity and learning. He mentioned even finding it refreshing, since kids will typically jump right into a conversation about disability with no prior assumptions!
These conversations evolved into the idea for writing a children’s book to explore how their natural curiosity and openness might view the experience of disability. I’m very nerdy and into superhero movies, comics and related media – and there is also an element in many superhero stories of the ‘hero’ having some kind of disability along with their superpower (Professor X from the X-men being the most well-known example). So I had the idea of the child in the book viewing his friend, who uses a wheelchair, as being a secret superhero in his spare time – as a way of explaining his ‘special’ (or different) abilities.
Philip: I remember sitting at the lights driving home, talking with Barbara and the idea for the book was formed. I remember thinking how much easier it would be to write a book for kids, rather than adults, because, as Barbara said, there’s no need to “undo” assumptions in order to create a positive lens around function. Barbara’s perspective was so clear as well, given our working relationship, which made her perfect to lead the writing of the book.
The book centres on the idea of diversity. What is “functional diversity”, and why do you think it is important?
Philip: Functional diversity presents a more dynamic and constructive paradigm than the current dominant ones (for example medical or social models), to describe and change the impact of impairment and disability. It proposes different thought patterns, new language and constructive behaviour, reframing the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” function as “common” and “unique”.
The ideology was inspired by my personal and professional frustration with the existing polarized ideology of human function, which fails to adequately describe the diversity of physiological and psychosocial function amongst people. It aims to provoke and inspire dialogue about our current paradigm of human function in relation to value and capacity.
Can you tell us about the process of creating this book together – what was is like, what were the rewards and challenges?
Barbara: The process of creating the book was remarkably simple and organic (but then, most projects at Diversity NZ are!) I pitched the general idea to Philip, then we had a ‘planning and writing’ meeting ie: went to a local cafe for coffee and lunch! We pretty much wrote the entire book at that meeting. I remember there was a lot of ‘back and forth’ regarding the phrasing of different lines, but in the end we banged out something that we were both happy with.
The next step was illustrating – I’ll leave Sam to talk about the process of that.
Sam: The illustrations is where I came in! Barbara and Philip sent me the words, and I came up with some basic characters. I’d never drawn a wheelchair before, and there was lots of discussion between Philip and I about what type of chair Jack would have – and to make sure it didn’t look clunky or antiquated.
After we had the characters set out we all met up for about half a day, with a big whiteboard, and went through making thumbnails of how we wanted each page to look. That’s where the little pukeko idea came from – we wanted to include some fun moments that went beyond the text, and have a New Zealand flavour to it, so the pukeko was perfect.
Barbara: And the final step was finding the funding to publish. We used PledgeMe – a NZ version of Kickstarter – and thankfully were able to meet our funding goals. Philip, do you want to talk a bit about Duffy as well?
Philip: During 2012 I did the Leadership New Zealand programme. I met the Manager of Duffy Books in Homes, who provide free books to over 100,000 New Zealand children, three times a year. Linda loved “My Friend is a Superhero”, so we donated copies and I went to several schools to talk to kids about the book, disability and diversity.
Barbara: In terms of challenges there really weren’t too many. We initially had another person volunteer to illustrate but it didn’t quite work out as we had different ideas about what we trying to achieve with the book. Then we discovered Sam, who works professionally as a comic illustrator and whose drawings are incredible and really brought the story to life. Figuring out how to raise the money to publish was probably the other big challenge. We initially went down the route of applying for funding grants, but eventually stumbled upon crowdfunding – which was still a relatively new thing at that time, and luckily had great success with it.
Overall, I found writing and publishing this book to be a hugely rewarding process. It was great that a little idea I had got turned into a reality, and that it was well-liked enough for people to crowdfund the publishing of it. It also amazing to know that physical copies went to so many homes and schools. Again, working with both Philip and Sam is always wonderful and organic and easy. Philip is someone who would take this idea and say “yep, let’s do it!” which is a great quality to have in a boss.
What factors did you have to consider when designing the character of Jack?
Barbara: We wanted to make Jack’s disability as “true to life” as possible. That is, not to show him as an amazing kid who is good at everything, or as a kid having a terrible time of it – but to show him as a real kiwi kid, facing the ups and downs of growing up (and who happens to have a disability). I also remember a lot of conversations about how his wheelchair would look! We wanted it to be as accurate as possible, as any children (or parents) using a wheelchair would know exactly what we got wrong!
Philip: And while we wanted Jack to be “real”, we also wanted him to be cool, too, We hoped that, after reading the book, kids would be curious about functional diversity and feel freer to engage with kids who live with unique function.
The book shows Jack and his friend in a range of settings and scenarios. How did you pick these scenarios, and why?
Barbara: We picked scenarios that would be typical for school-age kids in NZ and tried to show both the positive and negative aspects of what life might be like for a child who uses a wheelchair. So when walking home from school being able to power fast up the hill might be an advantage. But having to leave class for lots of therapy appointments might not be so great. We also wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Jack goes to school, is in class, and plays at lunch with his friends, who don’t use wheelchairs.
Philip: A lot of the scenarios were based on my own experiences at school. I was lucky to be outgoing and confident as a kid, so I was pretty well included. I didn’t play on skate ramps and things, but I did have good networks of friends and mostly enjoyed school, at Jack’s age anyway!
In the story, we see Jack supporting others, such as exercising patience and helping his friend to study. What is the significance of showing these aspects of Jack?
Barbara: We didn’t want everything about Jack to be about his disability, so we tried to show other positive qualities you would want to see role-modelled in a kids book, like Jack helping his friend with maths in the classroom. We wanted Jack to be seen by his friend as more than his disability (even though that was the main focus of the story) and of course for us to find out in the end that in fact Jack sees his friend the same way.
Philip: I think “disability” is portrayed so negatively generally. It was really important to show Jack in a reciprocal relationship with his friend, rather than perpetuate myths that having unique function makes kids needy and helpless.
The front cover of the book is beautiful. Could you tell us more about how this design came about, and why it was selected?
Barbara: Sam, please take it away : )
Sam: Oh thanks! In terms of style Philip and Barbara pretty much gave me free reign to do what I wanted. As I talked about earlier, getting the type of wheelchair for Jack right was a big one, but everything else just flowed quite easily.
We wanted the colours to be bold, and the style to be simple and child-like so it was easy to absorb. This was the original sketch we did on the whiteboard…
Which became this:
And then this:
As we know, parents will often choose their children’s books or read to their child. What do you think makes My Friend is a Superhero useful for parents as well as for children?
Barbara: Parents (and society as a whole) shape how their children learn about the world, as well as their attitudes and values towards others, as they grow up. We wanted to encourage more open conversations between parents and their children about disability, as well as challenge some negative stereotypes. Disability is something with both positive and negative aspects – it’s just another human experience and we will all have a range of physical (and other) function throughout our lives. We wanted to promote the idea of people in general (not just children) approaching others with curiosity and openness to difference. We hoped that if parents were reading the book to their children, that it might encourage broader conversations about diversity and perhaps change how parents think too.
Philip: We’ve had tremendously positive feedback from kids and adults alike. I think people, in particular adults/parents, find the book refreshing. There’s something about the story’s simplicity and Sam’s vibrant images that reframes an issue that we really struggle with as a society.
My Friend is a Superhero is available online for free (although a hard copy can be purchased!) – what led to this decision, and what impact are you hoping this will have?
Philip: I read the other day that selling kids’ books, especially a first one, is incredibly difficult. We’ve sold a few but mostly we’ve given them away. As it was crowdfunded so generously it felt right to pass on the generosity. Adding the free download is, hopefully, another way to get the book out there. It’s doing no good unless it’s being read, after all!
The book is intended to promote a child’s “natural curiosity”. How do you think people usually respond to a child’s curiosity, and how could we do things differently?
Philip: Kids are so naturally curious and as they grow, that curiosity is often replaced by adults’ fears of difference, getting things wrong, sense of guilt and shame etc. “My Friend is a Superhero” intentionally shows that it’s ok to be curious and that uniqueness is interesting. As adults we need to be more aware of our fears, work through them and be intentional about not passing them onto our children.
And of course, I must ask – Who are your superheroes, and why?
Barbara: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before! I work now as a Psychologist, and to be honest, my superheroes these days are the everyday people I work with. People who are facing (or have faced) overwhelming difficulties in life and work so hard to overcome them…many even going on to start groups and programmes, or volunteer, to help support others who are struggling. I find anyone who faces huge challenges in life – be it mental health difficulties, disability, abusive relationships, poverty or other unhealthy situations – and battles through to make a better life for themselves, to be an inspiration.
Sam: Oh! Gosh! Yeh, I’m on the same page of Barbara – my kind of superheroes are not necessarily the ones who you would know the names of. I’m always in awe of people who work steadily in the background, and who don’t need a lot of praise (because I love praise and I’m trying not to rely on it too much!) I think people who persevere, are resilient, and are generous are pretty phenomenal too.
Philip: I’m going to be shallow and just say my favourite superhero has always been Spiderman!
Is there anything else you think we should know about My Friend is a Superhero?
Barbara: Not that I can think of! The book was published a few years ago now, so it’s lovely to remember the creative process behind it and know that it still generates excitement and interest : )
Philip: I agree – it’s been great to reminisce. We keep saying we should do another one. We should stop saying it and do it instead!