Swirly – a book review

Swirly written by Sara Saunders, illustrated by Matthew Pierce (2012)

For ages 4-8

Let me start by saying, I really wanted to like this book – the title has been circulating for the last few years and recommended to me. However, I found myself having a strong emotional reaction to certain key concepts communicated in Swirly.

What I liked about Swirly:

1. I loved how the book uses colors to talk about culture and it’s influence on us, and how that color shapes who we are.

2. I love the term “swirly” used to refer to the TCKs blending of colors (cultures). The term is not negative and makes one feel unique, almost exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be “swirly”.

3. I loved Lila’s quest for belonging – how she was excited about going back to her blue home (her passport home). She thought she would finally see the place where she belonged. Even her disappointment at finding out she didn’t fully belong there either, was well described.

4. I also loved that Lila meets another swirly person just like her and that Lila and Deji were drawn to one another because they both understood so much about each other and both shared the quest to belong.

5. I liked the fact that Deji’s mom spoke about Jesus, who was also swirly. Jesus also knew what is was like to not belong. Jesus understands the TCK because He himself has walked in our shoes! What better words of comfort for a TCK!

6. I also liked that the author mentioned that Jesus lives in the hearts of people all around the world and that “all their colors are a part of Him’. What a beautiful picture of our God – a God of all nations of the World who understands culture and culture is a part of who God is.

What I didn’t like….

1. “Being Swirly like Jesus is a special blessing.” Both the words “special” and “blessing” are over used and have lost their meaning. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I would have preferred a word like “gift”. It also just seems to me that telling a child that something about them, that is different and sometimes difficult and they struggle with is “special” and a “blessing”, can cause the child to feel they need to suppress their negative emotions and the struggles they go through as a result of being swirly.

2. I also didn’t like the mother’s answer when she was asked:

Did you ever wish you could belong somewhere?”

She responds:

“I did. But I don’t have to wish anymore, because now I know where I belong.”

It feels to me, too much of a pat answer, neatly wrapped up with a bow – like Deji’s mother has attained this spiritual level here on earth where she no longer struggles with not belonging. I would have loved her answer to be:

“Yes, I did wish for that, and I still often feel like I don’t belong. It’s hard at times, but what has helped me more than anything else is knowing that someday I will find that place where I belong.”

3. Maybe this seems trivial but I did also react to the above illustration, (although the visual impact of a picture book is often more imprinted on a child than the words) where the two children are on the floor, and the mom is sitting on a stool with a Bible in her lap and arm up in the air – My reaction is: “Oh boy, here comes the sermon part- the Mom-preaching-to-the-children part.”

I would have preferred the mom sitting on the floor at their level, with perhaps a mug in hand, in a more interactive, dialoguing style, rather than “now this is a good lead into today’s Bible lesson…” style. Does that make sense?

5. I didn’t like the ending:

Where DO you belong?

Right next to Jesus’ heart, that’s where!

Yes, I agree, as TCKs, we can find that place of belonging in our faith in God, in knowing that someday, we will belong and that God fills that longing in us with His presence at times, but again, it can cause the child to feel that when they don’t feel they belong, when the “swirly” part of them causes pain, or confusion or rejection, there is something wrong with them to feel those emotions.

My overall reaction to this picture book is that I thought it made great strides in communicating with third culture kids on their level the unique experience of being multicultural and how they are different from other children who grew up only in one culture. However, I felt it fell short in affirming the emotions the third culture kids struggles with and sends the message that Jesus takes all that away!

Yes, I firmly believe that faith in God and embracing the hope of our eternal home where we will finally belong. However, although our relationship with the living God does and can bring us incredible peace and joy in this life, it doesn’t take away all the on-going difficulties and struggles of being a TCK and I think that message is not communicated well in this picture book.

If you have read this book, please let me know your reactions… Do you agree with any of the above? Do you disagree? I would love to hear your perspective.

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