‘When I see No Ordinary Joe landing in bookshops across the country, I picture my brother haring across the fields, free as a bird. It’s a wonderful feeling.’
—Siobhán Daffy on how her children’s novel is inspired by growing up with a brother with special needs.
No Ordinary Joe is fiction—but the character of Joe is based on my brother and many of the anecdotes are based on real events.
My brother fell ill as a baby and his subsequent needs formed an intrinsic part of the rest of our lives. We grew up learning about his differences and coming to terms with his behaviour. It was not an overnight change but a gradual unfolding as we discovered his limitations and came to appreciate his idiosyncrasies. This was a time before google searches, online support groups and disability awareness campaigns.
We were figuring it out as we went along. We knew nothing of how others managed except through encounters with other families as my brother grew older and began to attend support facilities.
For the most part we were groping around in the dark, searching for information and struggling to deal with the physical and emotional challenges that came our way on a daily basis.
Many of the issues explored in the book were true for our family; the constant vigilance required, the adaptive parenting skills and the nutritional challenges. As a teenager I recall my mother reading E is for Additives and scouring the shops for alternative milks. These things are common now but back then it was all new and presented many challenges. Not least because, true to the fictional story, my brother loved nothing more than slurping a 99 ice cream or having his fingers stuck deep in the sugar bowl, both of which were supposed to be kept strictly out of reach.
Giving Joe a voice
From my earliest writing days, I had the intention to write something inspired by my brother’s journey but it wasn’t clear exactly what that would look like. It was only with the passing of time, after my brother died in 2003, that I could adequately process and understand the full impact of his life. I was seven when he was born and as the eldest, I loved to look out for him and to imagine that I could help him to achieve things. At one stage, I determined that I would help him to speak.
With the publication of the book, I realised that I had been true to my word, giving him a voice and a new lease of life through this fictional-personal story.
Although my story happened many years ago, I decided to set it in the present day. I know from the media and working in care facilities as a community musician, that these issues are still very relevant and many people would relate to the unpredictable nature of life with a family member with additional needs.
The idea to write a children’s novel came one sleepless night, when a young boy’s voice came running through my mind, narrating a scene where he chased his brother through the fields. I got up and began to write, wanting to harness that voice before it vanished into the night!
Honesty and humour
In my experience, a good character can be a relatable window into any world. I believe novels that creatively tackle difficult issues shine a dispassionate light on sensitive topics bringing deeper insight and understanding to the readers. I was happy to go with the novel form and to write from an older child’s perspective.
Children call things as they are, without embellishment or pity.
I wanted to strike a balance between fearlessly describing our struggle as a family without getting bogged down by sorrow or despair; how heart-breaking it can be trying to connect with someone ‘lost’ in their own world.
I wanted to write honestly and with humour. I realised with hindsight, that our life was often chaotic and turned upside down by my brother’s antics; I wished to highlight these struggles with good heart and with empathy for other families in similar situations. And to have fun, in honour of my brother who had a mischievous sense of humour.
I also intended to bring awareness to the difficulties faced by siblings. They become exposed very early to the harsh reality of an unjust world and often feel a heavy burden of responsibility which is not theirs to carry. Growing up with a brother with special needs made me very aware of social justice, diversity and difference, so these were themes I wanted to develop in this novel.
The rest of the characters are fictional but inspired by my own children’s lives and by my love of our diverse, multi-cultural Ireland. I enjoyed writing the supporting characters, especially Nadia who is a fountain of environmental knowledge and concern. It seemed natural to me that Dan would feel comfortable with other children who were different in some way or who had their own emotional challenges.
In my experience, growing up with a sibling with special needs gives you a lasting bond with others who have been touched by these issues and also opens your heart to oppose exclusion in any form, whether through race, gender, disability or other criteria.
Creativity is another theme I was interested in. Having worked in Community Arts for over 20 years, I’m passionate about the role of the arts in developing emotional literacy and I see rhythm as a universal language.
I worked for many years with children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, so it was natural to include this thread.
Also, true to the book, my brother, although unable to speak clearly, was a great music lover and did indeed strum incoherently on his own battered guitar.
Our entire family would listen to his favourite songs ad infinitum so I knew this was something I would weave into the book. It naturally extended to Dan (the narrator) writing his own lyrics and I later collaborated with a musician friend who wrote the music for the songs.
It’s been great to go through the publication process and see the book come to life. Because of the true elements, I shared the book with my mother and siblings once I had completed a first draft. It was important to me that they were on board and comfortable with the material.
When I see No Ordinary Joe landing in bookshops across the country, I picture my brother haring across the fields, free as a bird. It’s a wonderful feeling.