A special diversity and inclusion book series, created by a mother of a child with disability and local Adelaide artists, aims to educate students, teachers and parents about the importance of friendship and acceptance through storytelling and art.
The Let’s Be Friends project has been produced by a South Australian team of creatives, compromising of both neurodiverse and neurotypical people, who wanted to create a book around a real story of children’s friendship.
The first book of the series will be called Hello To Me, and includes an accompanying documentary, classroom resources and a giant Jenga set that children can play with and decorate.
Artist, Jung Yoon, created the Let’s Be Friends project to explore social and cultural diversity through art.
She was also inspired by her daughter, Joanne, who has hearing loss and autism, and developed a lovely friendship with a child who has vision and mobility impairments.
This story of companionship and acceptance encouraged Ms Yoon to share the story on a bigger level.
She wants to create a space for children, parents and educators to talk more openly about diverse friendships.
Hello To Me is about Joanne, who is nonverbal and living with multiple disabilities including autism and hearing impairments, and her friendships with children who also live with disability.
Ms Yoon says, “We all need friends. I believe that no one can fully independently live a life without friends. However, for some people like Joanne, it’s not easy to make friends or even connect to people because of their differences in cultural, social and physical conditions.
“But if we open our hearts to getting to know them individually, we can find the very best friends. It starts by saying, ‘Hello’.
“We need more opportunities to learn about others and human diversity by sharing our stories, and that’s what this book is for.”
The story follows Joanne and how she gets along with her friends and others who support her and care for her, despite the communication and behavioural challenges.
Ms Yoon says, “All the characters in the book represent real kids who live with multiple disabilities, as well as severe medical conditions. My daughter Joanne is nonverbal, humming and flapping; and neurotypical children or even adults often stare at her different behaviours.
“I can’t stop them staring at her, but, I appreciate if a child comes to ask me why she makes noises and isn’t talking, then I can have a chance to explain.
“I have also met many great people and kids who are genuinely interested in getting to know Joanne and enjoy being with her. Joanne also tries to initiate friendships with her classmates by holding their hands and sitting with them.
“Children who are physically and cognitively different can be seen in the same category as children with disabilities, but, if we get to know them individually, we will find they all have different personalities, likes, dislikes, strengths and challenges, and that they’re cheeky and funny just like any other neurotypical children.”
The team for the book series includes award-winning children’s author, Janeen Brian, who wrote the story; edited by Penny Matthews, and collaboratively illustrated by neurodiverse artist, Kurt Bosecke, and character designer, Jake Holmes.
Ms Brian says, “Friendships are vital to us all as social beings, and yet, without the basic understanding of these children’s need for friendship, formed in their own special way, the general public, including children, parents and educators, may react negatively, perhaps through ignorance, fear or embarrassment.
“I accepted to undertake this project because Jung also explained the very real and perhaps under-acknowledged aspect of children with disabilities to form and maintain friendships and how that occurs, based on her own daughter, Joanne.
“I want people to have a bright, informative and positive piece of work, to help them see the commonalities in us all; the need and joy of having valuable friendships of all kinds.”
Following the first book will be a documentary, directed by Jack Turner, and the study guide for teachers and students.
Art Director, Dave Court, says the project is a wonderful meeting of minds between local creatives who are committed to telling a story of inclusion and diversity through art.
“I was keen to come on board this collaboration because it’s an important story to tell and really celebrates diversity and friendship,” says Mr Court.
“Jung is super driven and committed to telling these stories well, and the team is really dynamic. It’s going to be a really great outcome.”
The project is currently crowdfunding to get the books printed, and anyone who donates can nominate a school to receive the book and teaching resources as a reward for contributing to the cause.
To find out more about the project, head to the Let's Be Friends website.