On opening this book, we are introduced to the central character Sam who, similar to many children with communication difficulties, tends to take language literally. The key issue is that Sam has trouble understanding idioms, which are expressions that people don’t take literally, such as ‘feeling on top of the world’ or ‘raining cats and dogs’.
Sam’s parents explain to him the meaning of the idioms which he comes across in his early years. The setting then changes to reflect the idioms which Sam encounters while he is in school with his classmates and Miss Smiley his teacher. In his struggle to understand the many ‘silly sayings’ of adults which he encounters throughout the storyline, the book aims to support the understanding of idioms in a fun and accessible way that may prove beneficial to this target audience. It does this by providing a useful four-step framework that children can use whenever they read new or unfamiliar idioms.
Step one is to: listen to the words i.e. it is raining cats and dogs. Step two involves making a picture in your mind about what the words sound like they are saying, i.e. cats and dogs are coming down from the sky and landing on the grass and on people and into puddles. Step three is to think if this makes sense—would it ever happen? If not, what would it be like if this did happen? (I.e. it would be very unusual if cats and dogs fell out of the sky; but if they did, you wouldn’t be able to see anything but them, and they would feel very heavy when they fell on you.) Step four involves looking for the things that are the same between what words sound like and what is really happening, i.e. if it is raining really heavily, you can hardly see anything and the rain drops are big and heavy, So raining cats and dogs means it is raining very heavily.
This is a helpful strategy through which children can learn to decode the underlying meaning of these abstract phrases. Special emphasis is also placed on the ‘feeling aspect’ of each idiom, encouraging children to think about the implied emotions of the words. In this way readers are given the insight that idioms are not just figures of speech that come out of nowhere, but that they have emotional and historical roots.
Illustrations by Bob Spencer are used to explain both the literal interpretation of each idiom (i.e. actual pictures of a storm where it is raining cats and dogs) and a counter.illustration showing the actual meaning of each idiom is also provided. These pictures encourage students to explore what a variety of idioms such as ‘full of beans’, ‘hold your horses’, and ‘a fish out of water’, sound like, and what they might really mean.
No serious evaluation of a children’s book would be complete without feedback from the ‘target market’ and so I approached a teacher within St Paul’s Special School, currently working on idioms, to give the book a go with the objective of receiving feedback from both the teacher and the students. After using the book regularly over a period of a few weeks, the teacher commented that she was quite impressed by the structured step-by-step framework which teaches the children how to decode the idiom. She commented that this story-telling approach appealed to some of the children. However, for those children with more significant communication difficulties, the teacher thought that some of the explanations were really too long and complex. Similarly, regarding the illustrations, the teacher found that when these were provided they usually helped support the student’s understanding, however some illustrations were found to contain too many distracters (the illustration explaining the idiom ‘bent over backwards’ contained a boy leaning out of a helicopter and this served to confuse certain children further). Overall, she thought that most of the children enjoyed looking through this book and with its well-organised format and extensive coverage of most frequently-used idioms, it should take its deserved place in any teacher’s reference book shelf.