Squirm’s Book Reviews: A Left Handed Edition

Each week we review some of the books we’ve read together with Squirm

This week I’m taking a slightly different approach. I’m looking at one illustrator, Bruce Whatley, but in particular, I’m looking at his approach to art using his left hand.

Bruce Whatley (actually, Dr Whatley) is a well known illustrator, working on books with his wife Rosie Smith and, notably, with Jackie French on the very well loved Diary of a Wombat books. However, after discovering he could draw with his left hand – his non dominant hand – he began a PhD into how people could draw differently with different hands. He discovered that people drew differently, in his own case he found that using his left hand allowed him to create what he termed as art – but which included sculpture and painting which he hadn’t done a lot of before. (I think his other illustrations are art too, but I’m not a critic). You can see some of his art here and read more about his PhD, including some examples here.

I’ve read two of his books which I know he created using his left hand. I’ll review those today 🙂

Flood by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

This is a book about the Brisbane floods, a copy of which was donated to every school in Queensland after it was published. I actually bought my copy as soon as it came out, and found myself in tears when I read it. Most of the book is fairly general, it could apply to any flood. But then there’s the story of the tug boat, and it’s drivers, who went out to guide the walk way away from the Gateway Bridges. And the volunteers  all getting in and cleaning – a page where I always stop to see if I can see my husband and myself. And the author’s and illustrator’s notes always make me cry – especially the reference to the boy who insisted his brother be saved before him.

The illustrations are spectacular in this book. They were sketched with Bruce Whatley’s left hand, before applying an acrylic wash which runs down the page and evokes the wetness that pervaded everywhere during the floods. There’s a spectacular use of the exact muddy brown of the Brisbane River through most of the book, before the colours clear up and become bright again as the city returns to normal and the river returns to its banks.

We actually used this book with Year 7s in English this year, talking about personification and as an introduction to biographical texts. There’s a lot you can do with the book. It’s a brilliant resource for talking about floods and would easily match with the videos and pictures you’d be able to find of the time. You could also compare the floods of 2011 to other notable floods. (If you’re in Brisbane, the City Botanic Gardens have markers to show the extent of the different floods.) This book also lends itself to water play, looking at how water moves over different surfaces and what a surge of water can do to the environment. With older children you could interview people about their experiences of the floods and make your own book about it. (They might also have their own flood story to tell). As I mentioned earlier, there’s personification (giving an inanimate thing human movements/motivations/actions) in the book, and you could write your own personification. You could also find stories about other heroes and turn them into picture books.

There’s also art activities. Children could try drawing with their non dominant hand. They could also paint with water colours or watered acrylic paints and see how holding the paper in different ways, or using different types of surfaces makes a difference to the painting.

A Boy Like Me by Libby Hawthorn and Bruce Whatley

This is less of a story and more of a blank verse poem about peace and what it means to people. Through the book, we see different representations of peace, again illustrated by Whatley with his left hand. There’s a real Shaun Tan feel to this book, but it’s simpler, almost gentler, and easier for a younger audience to discuss and understand.

Some of the images used to represent peace include a heart, a soft figure, wings and birds. There’s also a use of clouds – both white and fluffy, and dark and full of rain to represent peace and the lack of it. The colours are soft throughout the book – a mix of yellows, blues and pinks.

This might not be the book for everyone, though. It is blank verse, a form of writing which some people find difficult, and might be tricky for young children. Then again, it might be a great way of introducing children to different types of poetry. You could connect this book with Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree and look at other kinds of poems and rhymes. You could also discuss why Bruce Whatley chose to use figures without a lot of detail and play around with drawing your own. One of the images has a love heart in the chest of the figure, so you could talk about what other qualities could be inside us and how they could be represented with other images. You could also make lists of things that are peaceful or make your own peaceful place in your house or garden.

Have you read a picture book about a real life event or person? Or one about a concept? Share it in the comments



  1. Such an interesting post. I loved Flood, too, and the drippy effect of letting the paint run. A book we love that is based on a real event is Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck by Michelle Gillespie and illustrated by Sonia Martinez. It’s a picture book about Grace Bussell and Sam Isaacs rescuing people from the shipwreck of the Georgette off the south west coast of Australia.

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