by M G Leonard
In 2010 I read an article about how the ocean as we imagine it doesn’t exist any longer because of the amount of rubbish we’ve thrown into it. It upset me, and I have been noodling with story ideas on the subject for years. In that time the problem has grown worse and David Attenborough has made everyone aware of it. But the topic is so vast and so sad I couldn’t find a way to write about it that wasn’t deeply upsetting, and I am not interested in writing that kind of a story for children. I believe in happy endings.
In 2018 I started working with Lauren St John to form the movement Authors4Oceans, and I became determined to publish a story for children about the problem with plastic and took a look at all my noodled notes. The Tale of the Toothbrush began as a conversation I imagined taking place between an albatross – one of the birds worst affected by ocean pollution – and a friendly toothbrush. I imagined the toothbrush telling the albatross the story of his life, how he was made by humans in a factory to be used for three months and then thrown away, but he would exist for four hundred years because he was made of plastic and so was living a life of adventure. From this sprang the idea for the picture book.
Inspired by The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg, where a personified pencil draws a world that comes to life, I chose a toothbrush as my hero. My six-year-old son loves his toothbrush, and I wanted a plastic item that children could relate to, that could be a cheerful bright colour that I could personify relatively easily, and so Sammy the yellow toothbrush was imagined into being.
This is my debut picture book, and so when I first saw Daniel Reiley’s illustrations, I was astonished. It was the first time I’ve seen a story of mine brought to life with colour and texture. It was wonderful and surprisingly moving to be able to see Sammy, and the other plastic items when before I had only imagined them. It immediately made me return to the text and cut words, to give space for the images to tell the story.
Of course, the story is about more than Sammy’s adventure. Beneath what I hope is a charming and delightful story there is a serious theme. We cannot keep making and throwing away our toothbrushes, or any of the other many plastic items that end up in the oceans. The book suggests that a toothbrush can have many other uses once it has finished cleaning your teeth, and it suggests that you seek out bamboo toothbrushes to use instead. I end the book with a spread about the problem with plastics because I hope children will enjoy the story and then badger their parents for a bamboo toothbrush, instead of a buying a plastic one. I know that a toothbrush is only one plastic item, but on average we use three to four every year and across our life-time that equates to roughly 300 toothbrushes per person! A small change might make a significant difference, especially if we all do it.
Tales of a Toothbrush is published by Walker Books and available to purchase now.
Any views expressed may not reflect those of the FCBG.