Title: What Snail Knows

Author: Kathryn Apel

Illustrations by: Mandy Foot

Publisher: University of Queensland Press – UQP

Publication date: 1 February 2022

Themes: Belonging, acceptance, community, friendship, loneliness, introduced species, action and poverty.

Additional notable information: Teachers’ Notes can be downloaded from the UQP website here.

What Snail Knows by Kathryn Apel with charming soft pencil drawings by Mandy Foot is a stunning verse novel that explores Lucy’s story and experiences living in a caravan park with her Dad. Lucy and her Dad share a close bond and they are constantly moving, starting over in new communities and schools. This nomadic lifestyle is challenging especially for Lucy who is shy, but since her Mum passed away, her Dad feels the overwhelming need to not settle in one place for too long and believes that they don’t need anybody else. Lucy wonders why “her family is just a seed, when everyone else has branches over their tree”.

From very early on in the book it is easy to empathise with Lucy and her story as Kathryn Apel constructs verses over the first few pages that show (not tell) Lucy’s situation. The reader quickly learns that Lucy doesn’t know anything about any of her relatives including her Mum, she is living in poverty, is very guarded and constantly on the move with her Dad.  Readers will find themselves invested in Lucy, cheering her on and at times shedding tears for her, but ultimately this is a beautiful, hopeful story about vulnerability, having the courage to be open to possibilities and friendships, connecting to community and being yourself.

In a new caravan park, Lucy explores her surroundings and looks for treasure on the ground. She finds it in the form of a perfect pet, a snail that has its own protective shell. This fascinating creature appeals to Lucy, an animal that is able to retreat and guard itself from any threats. Snail becomes a confidante for Lucy, a pet she can share her thoughts and feelings with.

Lucy is rarely given a fair go in her new schools as she is judged by her appearance, her stained hand me down uniforms and her unruly, knotty hair. Lucy pretends not to “notice the whispers, sniffs and laughs when kids turn their backs…that wearing someone else’s faded old uniform and shoes with their stains and smells makes [her] want to crawl inside a shell…and hide”. However a friendship does form with another girl in Lucy’s Year 2 class, Tahnee (a character from one of Kathryn Apel’s other titles, Too Many Friends). Tahnee is accepting and keen to learn in an unobtrusive caring and friendly way more about Lucy. So begins Lucy’s willingness to let her defensive walls down a little. Lucy is still acutely aware of not wanting to get hurt again and becoming too close with anyone as she will have to say goodbye because they never live in one place for too long.

This most recent move is different. Lucy really enjoys her new school and caring teacher, Miss Darling (such a fitting name for her). Lucy also appreciates the company of Mei-hui, the caravan park owner who she enjoys helping with some of the jobs and maintenance at the caravan park. At school, Miss Darling introduces a new inquiry unit of work, “How Can I Help” and each week the class is given a different focus (they start locally with helping at school, then home and finally in the community). Miss Darling is inclusive and flexible in her approach as she sensitively creates a student led classroom, where students are engaged in learning experiences that are meaningful and exciting. This results in innovative opportunities as students initiate wonderful ideas for the class to experience, for example, Tahnee’s Mum teaches the class how to make beeswax wraps and supplies all of the materials for each student to be able to do this. This idea came about after the class learnt about waste and plastic in the ocean.

As Lucy’s confidence grows in this new place she feels comfortable calling home, so does the gnawing and unsettling feeling that her Dad will feel the need to move again. Her Dad is resolute in his desire to not have to rely on anyone else, until this choice is taken from him. A situation out of his control results in the community supporting him and Lucy, causing Lucy’s Dad to pause and reconsider moving on. Can Lucy convince her Dad that this place could be a safe and welcoming home for them to put down roots?

The varied layout of the verses and poetic devices elevate the story and will pique readers’ interest. Shape poetry is employed in wonderful creative ways throughout the book, for example within some verses the text forms shapes such as a snail and one of my favourite was the number 2 on page 3 representing just the two of them – Lucy and her Dad. There is dialogue included from some of the class in several verses allowing the reader to gain a deeper insight into these characters (interestingly dialogue for Lucy is not present in the conversations at the beginning of the book, but it is beautiful to see her contributions at the end of the story as she finds her voice). Lists are used throughout the book in different ways, for example, to show the ways Lucy helped at home, a perceptive numbered list is included to highlight the different things Lucy believes the children in her class are unaware of about her situation (page 27). There are also the tender illustrations that bring Lucy and her story to life.

This tender story is for readers 8+. Some readers will recognise themselves within the pages, vulnerable and feeling the need to build a fortress wall around themselves, struggling to let anyone in because of their lived experiences. Other readers may relate to being the new student and some will relate to being brave and kind by taking the first step to reach out to someone new in the class and know the power and beauty that can come from this.  

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