Interview: The Lonely Little Cactus – A Storybook for Children

‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ is a storybook that introduces children to an array of coping strategies for managing difficult situations. To celebrate the launch of this wonderful children’s book, Satellite chatted to author Dr Kelly-Ann Allen and illustrator Madeleine Griffith (Satellite’s very own Creative Director!) to find out more about the process of creating this book, and how adults can best utilise ‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ and its accompanying resource to help children and young people to manage difficult feelings.

Make sure to enter our giveaway at the end of this interview for the chance to WIN a copy of the book and resource!

‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ is aimed at children aged 4–8 years old and spreads the message that loneliness is a common emotion that is manageable and can be overcome. Through the character of a little cactus that feels lonely living in the desert, and a series of colourful and beautifully illustrated interactions with other desert dwellers, children can learn how to identify different feelings and positive emotions. They can learn how to cope with difficult situations in various ways, how to build friendships, and strategies for relaxing and belonging.

Accompanying the storybook is an activity book, ‘Conceptual PlayWorlds for Wellbeing: A Resource Book for The Lonely Little Cactus’. Together, the set acts as a conversation point for educators, mental health practitioners and parents/carers to open discussions with young children about managing their emotions and coping with different challenges. The resource book provides highly engaging group-based activities driven by Fleer’s framework and three decades of research.

Kelly – what first inspired you to set about writing this storybook and its accompanying resource?

I wrote the first draft of ‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ in a rental car in the Mojave Desert, with my 12-month-old baby next to me. The desert itself was inspiring, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many musicians have composed work in much the same way—maybe not with a baby beside them. But my daughter was a major driver in creating a resource that would give her the skills to cope with life’s inevitable challenges. This inspiration was amplified by my ongoing research on belonging at the time and by mentors like Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg, who researches coping, and Professor Lea Waters on positive psychology. Both are trailblazers, in upstream psychology the emphasis on prevention and proactive approaches towards wellbeing. Erica’s work on coping reminds us that most people, regardless of the adversity they face, do manage to cope. Only a small percentage don’t, and while those cases may receive the most attention, the majority do cope. We can assist our children by instilling coping skills early on and by building the social networks that facilitate coping.

Now, for the activity book — here we have taken the decades-long work of Distinguished Laureate Professor Marilyn Fleer and created a series of immersive PlayWorlds for children to examine well-being concepts. Marilyn’s work is infectiously inspiring, engaging, and creative. Collaborating with Marilyn and Lara McKinley to translate the Lonely Little Cactus into PlayWorlds was such a privilege.

Kelly – ‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ centres on the feelings of loneliness and feeling like you don’t belong. What does it mean to feel like you DO belong, particularly where children and young people are concerned?

When you feel like you belong, the terms most described by children and young people are feeling comfortable and like they fit in somewhere. They feel safe and included. Students feel socially valued and accepted. And many children talk about feeling noticed, for instance their teaching noticing when they are not doing so well. Belonging is not necessarily about how many people you have around you. Like loneliness, it is not dependent on the number of people. People can also derive a sense of belonging from much more than other people, such as the land and the environmental surrounds. Much of this understanding has come from learnings from Indigenous culture. This probably leads to an important point about what belonging feels like: it can vary from person to person and it can be contextual. We must never assume one person does not belong because of their background. When it comes to belonging, we have a lot to learn from each other and a lot to learn from the people, children and young people who are experiencing and living within the spaces we are wanting to increase a feeling of belonging in.

The-Lonely-Little-Cactus Illustration

Kelly – Your professional work focuses on the science and power of belonging, particularly where schools are concerned. You are an Associate Professor and Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Monash University and Honorary Principal Fellow of the University of Melbourne. With more than ten years’ experience as a school psychologist, what are some of the top ways that schools can help to nurture a sense of belonging for children and young people?

From my research with colleagues as well as knowledge of the literature, there are several ways to nurture belonging for children and young people.

Build student-teacher relationships: This means allowing the time and space to do this, not under appreciating how valuable strong connections between students and teachers can be.

Appreciate needs: The need to belong may vary from person to person. Some children and young people may derive a sense of belonging from elsewhere. This can help their sense of belonging to school, but it also means school may not be their primary source of belonging. Needs and priorities vary. Rather, it is about creating the right conditions.

Listen to students: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Listening to what students say about their own experiences is crucial for understanding how to foster belonging. Children of all ages are able to elicit really sensible ideas – even as young as three! We had a three year old complete a belonging activity with her Mum the other day. After the activity was finished, she turned to her Mum and said, “what helps you to belong at work, do you know the names of the people you work with?”

Build personal capacity to cope with problems: Developing coping skills not only helps in life generally but can also be a way to foster a sense of belonging. For example, children and young people can question their belonging if they face a challenge or difficulty. Equipping them with alternative skills gives them more resources in their tool box to draw from.

Context matters: While systemic influences are important, individual-level factors and relationship interactions often have a more powerful impact on a person’s sense of belonging. So while we need to ensure and advocate that the system is supporting belonging for everyone, investing energy in building social and emotional competencies, inclusive practices, and relationship building is a good use of resources.

Maddy – how long did it take you to come up with the design of the Little Cactus? Were there many iterations?

The illustrations evolved over several years. Kelly and I met and created a storyboard and the first version of the Cactus. By the time we began the final illustrations, I had further developed the main character’s design. I wanted it to be able to express itself strongly through body language and facial expressions as it was connected to the ground and couldn’t move around. The overall design developed for the storyboard stayed pretty much the same.

Maddy – tell us about the process of illustrating the whole storybook? What are the steps that you follow?

I used pen and watercolour to make the illustrations. I love working like this. I kept all the components of the images separate and scanned and assembled them in Photoshop. Working this way allows me to move and change minor aspects without redrawing the whole image. For example, the expression on the Cactus was separate from the body and could be added and adjusted. All aspects of the foreground, mid and background were also separated from one another.

Lonely Tittle Cactus storyboard image

Lonely Tittle Cactus storyboard image
Storyboard for The Lonely Little Cactus. Images supplied: Madeleine Griffith.

Maddy – a large body of your creative practice focuses on three-dimensional design – particularly prop, model and miniature making. How easy or hard is it to transition between three dimensional to two-dimensional work?

I love doing both things. I used to be very self-conscious of my drawing style, but over the years and through lots of practice, I have developed a style I like. I had a daily drawing practice for several years, which was a great way to work through some of these things. I now love drawing. It is as much a part of my creative process as building props and miniatures. I find its immediacy so rewarding. You can have an idea in your mind, and someone else can see it on a piece of paper in a few minutes.

What do you both hope that readers take away from ‘The Lonely Little Cactus’?

Kelly – For me, I want children to take away the message that all people face challenges and all people can feel lonely from time to time. These things are part of the spectrum that makes us human. I then want them to understand that there is a range of things they can do to cope when things go wrong, and these strategies can vary depending on the experience or even the moment. Lastly, persistence is important. If one approach does not work, try something else.

Maddy – I hope that readers can connect and engage with the themes in this book and that it may support children to think of creative ways to problem-solve their feelings and find a way through tricky moments in life. Kelly brings such a wealth of academic rigor to this project, and I hope the illustrations and how Kelly has crafted her words make it accessible for everyone.

‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ Giveaway!

To celebrate Children’s Week, Satellite is *giving away one copy of ‘The Lonely Little Cactus’ together with the activity book, ‘Conceptual PlayWorlds for Wellbeing: A Resource Book for The Lonely Little Cactus!’
Enter today – the winner will be drawn at the end of Children’s Week on 29 October 2023.

*Raffle ended.
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