Alora’s Dreams: A Kids’ Tale of Imagination and Life Lessons
Most kids’ books have two chief aims — to entertain while delivering a sticky moral — but they’re tough to get right.
Roald Dahl once said: “I don’t think there’s any question that to write a children’s book of comparable quality to a fine adult novel or story, is much more difficult. When you’re old and experienced enough to be a competent writer, and you’re ready to write a book for children — because a young person can’t do it — by then you’ve become pompous and ‘grown-up’, and you’ve lost all your jokiness. And so unless you are a kind-of “undeveloped” adult, and you still have an enormous amount of childishness in you, I don’t think you can do it.”
Dahl also pointed out that kids can be severe critics. “I think they take the books far more seriously than adults; if you read a good-ish novel, you read it, you enjoy it, you put it down, and that’s it, you go look for the next one. If a child likes a book, that’s not the end of it; it’s read at least four, five, sometimes 15 times — and it’s got to stand up to that.”
Alora’s Dreams, an illustration book aimed at kids aged three to seven and the brainchild of Melbourne-based dads Jamie Shelly and Sam Surka, does a pretty good job of this. Upon receiving a copy in the mail, I read it to two of my daughters, aged seven and six, and had them instantly engaged. “Nice pictures… Interesting story… I like how she learns not to be scared…”
In the words of the Jamie and Sam — whose respective “day jobs” are in the fields of child psychiatry and emergency medicine — “Alora’s Dreams is little book about big dreams and even bigger lessons.” It tells the story of a little girl who is forced to face her demons upon experiencing a nightmare about a dark and terrifying monster. Her attempts to either fight the beast or flee its presence repeatedly thwarted, she learns to face and accept her fear in order to move on in life.
We wanted it to feel a little dreamy and fun, but also a little unnerving during the nightmare part; getting the balance right was probably my favourite part of the process…– Sam Surka, Illustrator of Alora’s Dreams
While Jamie writes and produces songs on the side (“I’m always writing down little rhymes and lines during moments of inspiration) and Sam modestly declares “I’ve always been a bit of a doodler”, it was the pair’s first foray into kids’ books.
“I don’t really remember where exactly the idea itself came from,” Jamie says. “I’ve long had an idea in my head to write a book of sorts and my kids had been telling me about some of their dreams, so I guess those few streams met. It pretty much all came out in one sitting.”
He sent a draft to Sam, who suggested trying to publish it. Jamie returned fire with an even better idea. “I thought it’d be a fun project to develop together, and I knew Sam had mad drawing skills, so I asked him to illustrate it and it grew from there.”
“It was fun coming up with ideas for the characters and scenes,” adds Sam. “We wanted the book to feel a little dreamy and fun; but at the same time also a little unnerving during the nightmare part without making it too scary; and getting the balance right was probably my favourite part of the process.”
With his life in child psychiatry and as a dad of three, he spends a lot of time reading and thinking about literature written for and about children, “as well as thinking about effective ways to engage children in learning about their emotions and developing a sense of themselves”. This helped give him a kick-start in terms of the book’s overriding message.
“At the simplest, most concrete level, the lesson is to learn to face your fears,” Jamie says. “But at a deeper, more mature level, it’s something along the lines of the idea that negative emotions and the shameful, fearful, anxious and other darkest parts of yourself, uncomfortable as they may be, are important to recognise, acknowledge, integrate and learn to tolerate, and if you ignore them, they’ll eat you alive.”
The book’s sharp rhyme and phrasing, paired with exquisite cartoon-style drawings, will appeal to younger readers, while the darkness representing Alora’s turmoil is unsettling enough for them to feel some fear, but not so much that they won’t be compelled to persist in spite of it.
As for their own kids’ reactions? Sam says his daughters, Ella, 8 and Fae, 6, “kept asking about what happens next — so I suppose this means they enjoyed it”.
And Jamie’s trio of kids — Lola, 9, Otis, 7 and Sadie, 4 — gave thumbs up to both the illustrations and message. “But most of all I think they just like the idea that their dad wrote a children’s book,” he says.