To mark World Book Day, Baroness Professor Sheila Hollins explains how helping her son understand his world through pictures led to a 57-strong book series designed to help people with learning and communication difficulties.

Baroness Sheila Hollins

calendar-icon 1 March 2018

Baroness Hollins, Emeritus Professor of the Psychiatry of Disability, came up with the idea for her first book while working at St George’s in the 1980s. She established Beyond Words as a spin out, not-for-profit company in 2011. It now has 57 books in the series and helps people of all ages deal with a wide range of feelings, including those associated with ordinary activities and experiences such as going to the dentist, falling in love, and the emotional fall out from major life events such as a bereavement.

“People who can’t read or don’t like written words are often more comfortable reading pictures as these enable the reader to interpret the story in a meaningful way to them personally.

“At Books Beyond Words, we centre our stories on a difficult issue so that people can talk through their interpretation of the story, helping them to explore and better understand their own emotions and relationships. Each person’s interpretation can give us a rich insight into their understanding of situations.

“I discovered this through personal experience with my son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. When he was growing up, I noticed how much pleasure he got from silent movies and children's picture books. I also found that by drawing pictures we could help him to understand and prepare for what was happening in his day and that this reduced his anxiety. I looked around for books that could help guide Nigel through his activities and emotions, but none were available, so I started to make them up myself, from drawings or cutting pictures out of books and it worked.

“At the time I was working full time at St George’s as Professor of Psychiatry of Disability. I began to apply the storytelling techniques I had used with my son with my patients and their families, by co-creating health related picture stories, thus bringing together my personal and professional lives. This also meant I was in a great position to trial, revise and evaluate the books and publish them so that others could benefit in the same way Nigel and my patients had.

“I worked with my son, children’s author and illustrator Beth Webb and fellow psychiatrist Dr Lester Sireling to develop our first two books, When Mum Died and When Dad Died. This was in 1989 and these books are still going strong today.”

“The most challenging part of establishing Books Beyond Words has been to have the books recognised as a valid academic output. Most of the books are the result of extensive research with a non-reading population and have had a huge impact on these people’s health and wellbeing.

“On the flip side, it has been hugely rewarding to see the books adopted in so many different sectors. They can now be found in bookclubs in schools and libraries, as part of inpatient care plans, in individual therapy, to assist adults with learning disabilities having their annual health checks, within the criminal justice sector- the uses are endless.

“We will shortly launch four new books about getting into the world of work and are working with different faith communities to help them become more inclusive - with our books proving a helpful resource to bring people together.”

Read more on the Books Beyond Words website.