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‘Jack’s different way of thinking is his superpower’ – an interview with Gabrielle Bassett

Gabrielle Bassett’s adventurous new book Jack’s Best Day Ever! is about friendship between two children, each with their own unique disability and neurodiversity. Jack is based on Gabrielle’s son.

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I had always dreamed of writing a children’s book and lockdown was the catalyst to kick-start that dream. At the time I was finishing a large project at work around disability inclusion, yet at home my neurodivergent son was facing challenges around reading, remote learning, and social interactions. So, I wanted to create a book that could help understand some of our differences, but first and foremost I wanted it to be a fun story for everyone to enjoy.

I also realised during lockdown that there was no diversity on our own bookshelf at home, so this aspect of my story was very important to me.

What makes the dynamic between Jack and his friend, who are the lead characters in Jack’s Best Day, so meaningful?

The main character, Jack is a bit of a walking encyclopedia in this story. Jack is a kind, unique, brave and loyal friend. He is neurodivergent so he doesn’t like loud noises and loves eating the same foods all the time, typically peanut butter sandwiches. He is extremely passionate about certain things, like vehicles – when a sports car goes by it really grabs his attention.

Jack’s best friend, pictured in a wheelchair, has been best friends with Jack for a long time. There is no judgement with each other, they just love each other’s company for who they are. They eat lunch together and play together at school. Sometimes Jack prefers to play on his own and his friend is ok with that. In this story they zoom around the Zoo together on the back of her wheelchair trying all the delicious foods that the animals eat.

Also, in this story are Jack’s two sisters, Milly and Lila. They love Jack just the way he is and when something happens in the story where Jack needs to be brave, they are proud as punch of him.

The story and illustrations are inclusive of many nationalities, situations and abilities. What do you most hope children will feel about and glean from this inclusivity?

When children see versions of themselves in books and on television, they feel loved and accepted to be themselves. The illustrator has done a wonderful job representing people from different nationalities and abilities. I just love it.

I wanted to show the main character, Jack, as the loving, friendly and helpful boy that he is. Yes, he thinks about the world differently but that is also his superpower. He regularly notices things that the rest of us in the family don’t. He is extremely creative, passionate and knowledgeable (just ask him about cranes)!

Jack is based on your own son. Did this book and your work in disability, diversity and inclusion advocacy with staff and students arise from Jack’s situation or did Jack’s situation galvanise a passion you already had for writing about inclusivity and your advocacy work in this important area?

This book has been written in a way that doesn’t say that this main character is neurodiverse. Instead, it joyfully shows the type of things that they love doing and why (i.e., flapping their hands when they are excited or covering their ears when things are too noisy). That way readers can just enjoy it as a fun story, or they can choose to ask why Jack is doing certain things.

You’re also a scientist. How does that feed into, or couple with, your creative life?

It has been a long while since I had a white lab coat on but yes, I started my career as a microbiologist. Later, I started working in recruitment and discovered I got great joy in finding other scientists their dream jobs.

Currently I work in an Australian University, leading programs of work around disability inclusion, Indigenous employment and female leadership within STEM. In my role I am fortunate to be surrounded by creative, passionate and inspiring people. These students, researchers, teachers and leaders constantly inspire me to put my creative hat on too.

I also think it is so important to have interests outside of work and parental duties. For me, it is Pilates, taking some time to read, to write, or going for the odd slow jog to have some “me” time.

The book sounds like it broaches significant issues but is also a fun and entertaining story. Why is making children’s books fun and entertaining so important?

Children don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to think they are at school when they pick up a book at home. They are so clever, and they have wonderful imaginations. If they connect and love something they will remember it forever and want to try it for themselves.

I can still remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was young because it was fun and they licked the fruit-tasting wallpaper! Or the way I felt sad in parts, yet I adored reading Charlotte’s Web.

One in five people in Australia have a disability according to the Australian Network of Disability but there are still parents who struggle to get support for their children with autism (for one example), children who struggle with their feelings of being different and excluded and critics who say neurodivergence is over-diagnosed. What would you most like to say (in turn) to these parents, children and critics?

Our son has Autism and ADHD so he falls into the category that you mention. We have been fortunate enough to have NDIS support for over four years now which has allowed him to receive much needed support with things like physio, speech therapy and occupational therapy, especially in his formative years.

When Jack was two, he was unable to walk and it was because he received weekly physiotherapy sessions, that taught him how to engage certain muscles groups, that he learned to walk. Same goes for speech sessions and OT. Even today, both of those sessions are extremely difficult for him however are essential to progress with his development.

In our situation, Jack’s needs have not ended just because he has reached a certain age. He still requires help with essential things like reading, flexible thinking, gross motor skills and speech, just to name a few.

Everyone in society belongs and are entitled to get the support that they need, on an individual basis, to be the best versions of their selves.

What would you like to say to teachers who go the extra mile and look out for the kids who are doing it tough?

When educators model behaviours that are inclusive and caring it gets noticed by everyone, especially children. Those behaviours are then replicated. When Jack came home one day and told us that his librarian and teacher loved his book so much that they were ordering ten copies, and that they love his creations, he was so proud of himself!

Jack has many wonderful educators who work with him on an individual basis. That way they know how he works, what areas he needs to work on, and how to get the best out of him on any day.

St Paul’s College principal, Timothy Hemphill, describes the book as “A beautiful tribute to Jack.

“Jack is one of the real characters at St Paul’s; a born conversationalist. Interacting with Jack is always a joy for me and for everyone around him. St Paul’s is fully committed to celebrating diversity and differences with respect, kindness and fun and Gabrielle’s book joyfully does the same. I have no doubt that many children and families will fall in love with this story.” 

What was it like working with illustrator Annabelle Hale on the book and what’s one marvellous or unexpected thing her work bestowed on the finished product?

The publisher, Woodslane Press, engaged the illustrator, Annabelle Hale, directly as they were already working with her on another book project. I reached out to her to introduce myself, however, we didn’t collaborate with each other until after the book was finished. I think it is important to trust in the process and give an illustrator space to do what they do best – to interpret the words and create.

Annabelle did such a wonderful job bringing Jack’s story to life in a fun, colourful and inclusive way. The lion page is my favourite, but many kids have told me they love many of the other pages too. The giraffes, the meerkats, the birthday party – all winning pages in their feedback.

It turns out that Annabelle and I live only a few blocks from each other in Melbourne, so we have since been able to visit kindergartens and schools, go to conferences, have a book launch, have coffee, which have all been very special. She is an extremely talented illustrator.

Will there be a sequel for Jack and his friend? If not, what’s next?

I received a review recently from Forevability where they said that they would like to see stories about the other characters in the book. I love this idea and think this book lends itself to lots of potential.

I have also completed a few courses with the Australian Writers Centre, so I’m currently looking to write some other types of books, including junior fiction and middle grade. I am still drawn to children’s books at present, but I never know in the future where my pen will take me.

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