The Society of Distinguished Lemmings is a humour-filled, quirky picturebook by first-time author and illustrator, Julie Colombet.
From the opening page, the reader is at once greeted by the society’s charter set below the title; in it, a set of rules that govern its eccentric and likeable members. From the outset, each lemming is imbued with a unique personality. With upwards of twenty lemmings on each double-page spread, children and adults alike will have fun spotting various archetypal characteristics – including serious creative types reciting Shakespearean monologues; piano-playing virtuosos; and, Michelin-star-serving chefs. Some pages can be pored over for several moments, and I can imagine children in class revelling in the adult lemming observations, and identifying with the various social pursuits of the society.
It is here that we meet Bertie, a lemming who does not conform to the strict standards that his society has placed on him. Bertie decides to go outside and explore, beginning to look beyond his self-imposed borders. He swiftly befriends a bear, who introduces Bertie to new joys of rolling in flowers, climbing trees and jumping in muddy puddles. Even though it breaks several of society’s rules, Bertie enjoys having a friend who is a little bit different. Through endearing characterisation, the narrative encourages readers to empathise with both society’s outsiders and those who do not conform to its rules.
Readers follow this blossoming friendship as both Bear and Bertie make a “terrible discovery”, one that will have an impact on the society’s impromptu holiday to the seaside. With a seemingly obvious plot, the joy here is in the journey – the anticipation from the reader and the amusing way that Colombet portrays the inevitable danger and subsequent rescue. As we reach the book’s close, the reader can note the society’s changed perceptions of outsiders, resulting in a more welcoming society which has a relaxed set of rules:
“The society is still distinguished in practically every way – except now they’re all distinguished a little bit… differently.”
A text that celebrates diversity and difference, I can see this being a book that has a wide-ranging appeal to audiences in both Key Stage 1 and 2. With illustrations that recall the pugs in Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre’s Pugs of the Frozen North, there is plenty of scope to move children beyond the book – perhaps creating their own distinguished lemming and participating in rich discussion surrounding society and the rules that it imposes on its members. My only gripe is that the outsider to this society has to save its inhabitants to finally be accepted. While this is unlikely to be pondered as deeply by all young readers, I can’t help feeling that the message is somewhat tainted.
Gloriously illustrated, with a wry sense of humour, The Society of Distinguished Lemmings is a text that can be used across the primary age range. Solely as a read for pleasure, but also as a picturebook that has the potential to develop children’s empathy skills – supporting children in acknowledging those in society that may be perceived as ‘different’ or ‘other’ and showing how to overcome such differences to create a kinder, welcoming society for all.
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