Diversity in picture books and the astonishing case of the stolen stories

posted in: Anca Sandu | 10

“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Last weekend Walter Dean Myers, a previous National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (the US equivalent of the UK’s children’s laureate) wrote a thought-provoking article in the New York Times about the need for books for children’ and young people to truly reflect the world around them. In his piece he was focussing on the lack of black children and young adults in books written for them. But I think much of what he writes is more widely applicable, as was explored and demonstrated at last month’s Inclusive Minds ‘What About Me?’ day at Imagine Children’s Festival. Among many other activities that day there was a discussion of the “concept of normal” in books for children and young adults, and the importance of diversity, of showing all sorts of children, from all sorts of backgrounds, so that all children could read books and see themselves somehow reflected, included and valued.

In a beautiful case of serendipity, with Myers’ words in my head, I picked up stolenstoriesThe Astonishing Case of the Stolen Stories by Anca Sandu (@anca_sandu).

Across a fairy tale kingdom, all stories have been stolen. The palace bookshelves are empty, the bookshop has no stock, and even cookery books and spell books are missing. A trio of detectives are called upon to crack the case and track down the culprit, but when they do so the explanation given for the thievery is heartbreaking:

“Well, I don’t know who I am,”
replied the thing. “I’ve found everyone
else in a book, but never me –
I thought if I kept looking
I might find a book with
my story in it.”

Children may not always be able to articulate it, but it is tremendously powerful when they find a story in which they recognise something of themselves, or something of what they could be. It’s the same for us grown ups, isn’t it?

Sandu’s gorgeous story ends positively with the detectives not only solving the case, but going further and taking steps to solve the source of the problem. Upbeat, witty, inventive, with compassion and creativity – there’s lots to love here.

The Astonishing Case of the Stolen Stories is tantalisingly ripe for use in literacy lessons, begging for teachers and children to work together to write their own stories. There are even jokes about enriched vocabulary, which will revitalise the drive for kids to use “wow” words or “power” words.


Sandu’s illustrations are shot with spring-like pastel hues and achieve a quite magical balance of clutter free, smooth spreads (enhanced by slightly glossy printing) sprinkled with humorous detail: See how many fairytale characters such as the Gingerbread man and Rapunzel you can find hidden in the illustrations.

Although I love The Astonishing Case of the Stolen Stories and would urge you to read it yourself, I also feel Sandu perhaps missed an opportunity in illustrating her story about the importance of readers seeing themselves somehow reflected in the books they read.

There are few female characters in this book; the humans that feature are all white, and the only inclusion of someone with any sort of disability is a pirate with an eye patch. Now I’m not saying that every book has to feature equal numbers of males and females, and different skin colours and people who use wheelchairs (for example), but I am observing that even in a book where your attention is drawn to the fact that readers like to find themselves in books (and thereby explicitly acknowledges the importance of reflecting society in its beautiful diversity – even in a fairy tale kingdom – in the stories we write and read) perhaps more could have been done to reach out to those kids who find it hard to find themselves in stories.

Inspired by the hunt for stories in Sandu’s book we set up our very own storybook treasure hunt. M and J were designated storybook detectives for the afternoon, after I had hidden books and clues around the house and garden.


The clues were very simple and just asked the girls to work out a location based on a book I knew they knew. So, for example, I asked “Where was Pushka trapped until Lulu rescued him?” (The oven, see Pushka), “What gave Ulysses the squirrel his name?” (A vacuum cleaner, see Flora & Ulysses) and “What are you sorting out when you go DING DONG BANG or BING BONG CLANG?” (the kitchen pans, see All Join In).


They then rushed around finding the books I’d hidden…




And when they had solved the final clue we sat and read a selection of the books they’d found whilst munching on a treat:


These are entirely edible storybooks made from no-cook fudge, coloured to match the pastels in The Astonishing Case of the Stolen Stories


The recipe is super easy and brilliant for kids – just 3 ingredients (not including colouring or sprinkles), and all you need to do is mix everything together. The resulting “fudge” is lovely to play with, a little like edible playdoh. If you put it in the fridge for a little it firms up nicely and makes perfect books!

Whilst making the no-bake-fudge story books we listened to:

  • Every Great Detective by Sharon, Lois & Bram
  • Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler. Yep. Terrible. Brilliant. Will make (some) sense when you’ve read Sandu’s book!
  • The ultimate detective music – the Pink Panther theme!

  • Alongside reading The Astonishing Case of the Stolen Stories you could enjoy:

  • The Lost Happy Endings by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Jane Ray (you can read my review here)
  • This post by Pippa Goodhard about the gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters in children’s picture books (Thanks to @letterboxlib for helping me find this article)
  • Writing your own story! If you want to give your kids some prompts to help them create their own story, why not try these mini books Clara Vulliamy and I created for you to download.

  • What sort of stories are you currently hunting for?

    Disclosure:I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

    10 Responses

    1. Emma Perry

      Oooo that looks like such a fun activity.

      Hmmm am feeling just a little bit hungry after those pictures of the fudge too!

    2. Zoe

      Oh ReaditDaddy, deary me!!! You should have seen where some other books went. At least the one which went in the over was put in a plastic bag first 🙂

      Emma – the “fudge” is really super easy to make – can’t believe I didn’t know about the recipe sooner. And then so easy to colour with just a little food colouring (paste is better than liquid), and then to mould. I see edible models of all my favourite book characters coming up!

    3. Belinda

      Zoe you are an actual marvel – those fudge books look AMAZING! The recipe may be easy but no way could I make them look that much like books! Sounds like a great book & interesting thoughts on the issue of ‘inclusive’ books. Children should definitely have access to more books about the real world around them, and I think they could handle those books. The real challenge is getting grown ups to buy them, which I guess is what puts publishers off publishing more ‘real’ books. But as you say, diversity is beautiful, it would be great to see more of it in children’s books!

    4. MAG

      Hi Zoe, I love this idea for Edible book day (april 1st). I’m “challenged” on the area of cooking deserts/sweets, and I would love to do this for a work event next week. when do you add the coloring to the fudge (for the covers)? and how much? I haven’t use food coloring so I’m clueless. After doing the white fudge do you need to wait to do the cover? how many books would you be able to do with this recipe? I would love to make ~60-70.


      • Zoe

        If you are making so many of the little books, I would make several batches of fudge in different colours, adding the food colouring at step 1 ie with the condensed milk. I do suggest you get the paste type food colouring rather than the liquid type, as the latter will make the fudge too sticky. As I only made one batch of fudge, this isn’t actually how I did it – I just kneaded in the food colouring to the fudge when it was made (imagining it to be like playdoh) – but I think you’ll need to make maybe 3 or 4 times the quantity given in the original recipe for the number of books you want to make. As to how much food colouring – that really depends on the type you are using and the intensity of colour you want to achieve. The nice thing about paste food colouring is you need very little to get a good colour, so it won’t change the consistency of the fudge. We didn’t wait between making the fudge pages and putting the covers on – you want to manipulate the fudge before it firms up too much. Hope this helps! If you want an easier (from a cooking point of view) edible book to make, try these: http://www.playingbythebook.net/2015/08/12/the-little-bookshop-and-the-origami-army/ the fig roll versions are relatively quick and easy.

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