Lucy Unwin on The Octopus, Dadu and Me and the best books with real life themes for young readers

The Octopus, Dadu and Me by Lucy Unwin. Book cover and author photo.


The book we've sent our Cockatoo subscribers this month is a moving family drama with an exciting twist. The Octopus, Dadu and Me tells the story of Sashi, who is struggling to come to terms with her grandfather's dementia. She finds solace at the local aquarium where she makes a surprising new friend, who in turn inspires her to plan a dramatic adventure. It's a book packed with empathy, relatable characters and uplifting friendships. We asked author Lucy Unwin to tell us what surprising things she learned while researching the book and which other books with real-life themes she recommends you read next.

What inspired you to writeThe Octopus, Dadu and Me?

A real life octopus inspired the book! My daughters love visiting our local aquarium, and on one trip we settled down to spend some time watching the octopus there. I was literally sat on a tiny chair at a tiny colouring in table just like the one I describe in Chapter 1. My daughter — who was 4 at the time  — drew the octopus and automatically added little octopus babies to her picture. (If you read the book, you’ll see the idea of babies is important.) I’m always so impressed by the deep powers of empathy children seem to have and I think a good way to work those empathy muscles is thinking about animals. I started to imagine this character, Sashi, who saw a beautiful creature in a tank and instinctively wanted it to be free.

And the other part of the book is about how Sashi deals with her dadu’s dementia — a lot of her feelings for Ian the octopus are projections of her feelings for Dadu. When I wrote the first draft of the book, Sashi’s dadu was definitely suffering from dementia leaving Sashi heartbroken, but I didn’t have any backstory to show the depths of their relationship. Just before I started editing that draft we went into the first Covid lockdown and I saw so many children either worried for their grandparents, tragically losing them too soon, or, even in the best case, being forced to move that relationship online. I really wanted to use the book to celebrate how precious and unique that relationship between a child and their grandparent can be.

Are any of the characters or themes inspired by real people or events?

Everything I write is full of real people, but tiny snatches all jigsawed together; the way someone stands… a funny thing they say…the way my kids’ friends talk to each other — so there are definitely BITS of real people in there, just not whole ones! And I think so much filters in subconsciously too. My Nan, who I was very devoted to as a child, developed Alzheimers — a kind of dementia —when I was in my teens. I didn’t actually make the connection with her until after the book was finished, but her husband, Hank, was actually from Calcutta, just like Dadu — so I think my lovely childhood summers spent with those guys must have had more of an influence than I realised.

What research did you do for the book and did you learn anything that surprised you?

I learnt so much that surprised me! Octopuses are endlessly surprising and I spent a LOT of time finding out more about them — from non-fiction books, documentaries and the internet, as well as watching the octopus in my local aquarium… I mean, the fact they have beaks took me totally by surprise (!), and just how CLEVER they are. The book is jam packed with octopus facts, because as I discovered all these cool new things I just had to share them! I think there is a lot more scientists may learn about octopuses in the future, and I can’t wait to find out.

I also watched a lot of amazing profiles about kids and teens dealing with dementia in their families; often they were fundraising, or just sharing their experiences so other children didn’t feel so alone. The bravery and love in their stories was really humbling.

Are you more like Sashi, Darcie or Hassan?

I would love to be like Hassan! Just so chill and kind and comfortable in his own skin, he was a total joy to write. I’m probably more like Darcie, though. She means well but she’s quite uptight and can swoop in trying to fix things a little too quickly sometimes. I think I probably do that quite a lot. And also her tendency not to realise how harsh her brutal humour can be sometimes (!). She’s a very good friend though, so I hope I get that side of her too. There is a lot about Sashi I can relate to as well, but I can’t draw for toffee so I can only be jealous of her skills!

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Sashi, her friends and family?

I think Sashi, Darcie and Hassan are such a good team and they complement each other really well…now they’ve found each other I’m sure they’ll have a lot more wonderful adventures together as a trio. I’m afraid there are hard times ahead for Sashi’s family, as anyone who’s supported a family member through dementia knows. But now Sashi and her mum and dad are all talking openly about how they feel, and engaging with new ways to show their love to Sashi’s Dadu, I think they’ll be okay. Sashi’s relationship with her Dadu will never go back to how it was, but I think they can still make each other happy and comfort each other in the future.

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I always love the idea of writing outside and sometimes I hopefully take my laptop down to the beach (I’m incredibly lucky to live by the sea). BUT,  I can never make out the words on my screen in the sunshine, so I tend to end up giving up and coming home again! (after a quick paddle, of course.) Instead I mainly write at the dinner table huddled under a blanket.

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

I love books for this age group and I read them all the time myself! Me and my girls swap books a lot and they’re always recommending new ones to me! So I’m a fan — there is something so free about children’s books! There’re not expected to stick to one genre or another: children are so open minded about what they read, so long as there’s a good story and good characters, anything goes! And from a writing perspective, they’re an interesting challenge. You need to make them accessible and pacey and not too long, while still introducing new ideas and building characters that feel real. They feel like a puzzle that’s really fun to try and crack.

Which other books with real-life themes would you recommend our subscribers read next?

One of my favourite types of books to read are those that have an adventure element or a really driving story, but contend with trickier real-life themes underneath — which is what I tried to do with The Octopus, Dadu and Me. I really, really loved Lisa Thompson’s The Light Jar which is a magical adventure, but also about a child and his mother escaping an abusive relationship. Ella on The Outside by Cath Howe is another brilliant book, about friendships and starting anew but also about a girl trying to keep the secret that her dad is in prison.  And finally, a book I’m really excited to read myself is Wider Than The Sea by Serena Molloy which I understand is about a girl’s relationship with a dolphin, but also about a character with dyslexia.

Copies of our The Octopus, Dadu and Me pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

This post includes affiliate links to our page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!


Children's book news straight to your inbox

Sign-up now