Leo and the Octopus by Isabelle Marinov

Values: Friendship, Kindness, Joy and Happiness.

Leo and the Octopus by Isabelle Marinov and illustrated by Chris Nixon is a great picture book focusing on Leo, who has Asperger's Syndrome. Written by a mother of a child with Asperger's Syndrome and accredited by Tony Attwood (author of The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome), you get a really authentic sense of Leo's experiences in the story.

In the book, Leo struggles to feel a sense of belonging at school: he likens this to feeling like he is on the wrong planet. This metaphor is an accessible way of enabling children to empathise with him. Leo has a cardboard box, where he feels safe and happy. Outside of this, he finds the world busy and noisy which he finds lonely, tiring and confusing. One day, he meets Maya the octopus. Maya loves puzzles and gets anxious with crowds and flashing cameras - a bit like Leo! The more Leo researches octopuses, the more he realises Maya and himself have much in common. Gradually, he builds a relationship with her and learns to tell how she is feeling by her ability to change colour to reflect this. When Leo has the opportunity to talk to a little boy about Maya, he tells him everything he has learnt and shows him how to stroke Maya. The boys end up walking home together... a brand new friendship has been formed.

The first Value you could easily explore with this book is friendship. The way Leo feels isolated from lots of his peers at the start of the book (and how this is visually shown) could be a really powerful discussion in itself. Then, as Leo learns to make friends with Maya could generate conversations about the power of pets and animals (and even cuddly toys or invisible friends!) in providing sources of comfort and joy. Leo's new friendship with the little boy at the end of the story is a poignant way of exploring what makes friendships and how to make/maintain friends for those who find this hard. This book could be so helpful for supporting children with Asperger's Syndrome or those wanting to understand what building friendships for those with Asperger's Syndrome might be like (siblings, family, peers etc).

Another Value I would explore is kindness. Leo is kind to Maya, as shown by the way he finds out what she likes/dislikes, and uses this information to make her more comfortable when she becomes stressed. Edgar, the octopus keeper, shows kindness to Leo when inviting him to learn more about Maya, regularly visiting her, and eventually kindly shows Leo how to touch her. There are so many ways of talking to the children about times they have shown kindness. Explicitly talking about these times can help children recognise kindness in others.

I would also use Leo and the Octopus to highlight the Value of happiness or joy. At the start of the story, the children can use the words and illustrations to understand that Leo is feeling anxious and stressed. As he forms a strong relationship with Maya, he becomes much happier and this is evident through his body language and facial expressions. When the little boy begins talking to Leo we also see that he is looking unhappy, yet this also changes as the two boys become friends. I love the link between how we behave and how we make others feel, purposefully or inadvertently. I also like the way that Leo appreciates the obvious nature of Maya's feelings as she changes colour to reflect this; how we show emotions to others can be a good discussion to have, particularly if you have Autistic children or those with Asperger's in your class.

I have outlined a couple of the ways you could use this book in an assembly, circle time or PSHE lesson. It could also be used in lots of other ways and is a really authentic, positive and accessible book to discuss what having Asperger's Syndrome means. It could be used to do this explicitly with a child or two or small group, or could just be used more subtly to celebrate difference and diversity! The colourful, beautiful pages will appeal to all children and the clever nature of the story (I love all the octopus facts that Leo finds out!) means you can return to it again and again. I would definitely recommend it for your classroom, library or home. Grab yours here!

Find other books on the blog with the same Values here: