Hmmm: A Storybook as Appreciative Inquiry in 5-D

You can take the girl out of the research lab

But you can’t take the research lab out of the girl

I am astonished to come to this conclusion so late but the testimonials and reviews coming in for my botanical healing arts book for children of all ages — Hmmm-M the Humdinger — tell the tale. Hmmm dovetails altogether too neatly with the five steps (5-D) of my favoured art-based and narrative research methodology of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) — the methodology I have been using and adapting for over 25 years.  The appreciative, value-laden testimonials, complete with “thick description” and critical reflection struck me viscerally that I have been instinctively integrating Appreciative Inquiry into every element of my storybook about a child who is different.

D-efine  D-iscover  D-ream  D-esign  D-estiny

Introduced in the 1970s, David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve Univerity translated the idea of the appreciative eye — finding beauty and value in every piece of art, every individual, every organization — into a full-fledged and robust method of inquiry that focuses on the positive and life-affirming. What we focus on becomes our reality.

Hmmm is my first ever children’s story. As far as I know it is now another first: a children’s story that doubles as a teaching/learning case study of gathering experiential “data” and writing up qualitative evaluation through an appreciative lens.

Hmmm is available in both hardcover and an online audio Flipbook with a narrative and humming soundtrack through HARP The People’s Press, a Nova Scotia-based publishing house dedicated to the healing arts and arts for health equity.

I retired from my most recent research lab for Appreciative Inquiry in 2007 and have conducted little formal research since then — or so I thought — but Hmmm reveals that my everyday practices are steeped in the 5 D’s.  I was on faculty of the Department of Adult Education at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where I was thesis advisor for graduate students, several of whom I introduced to AI for their research.  Critical reflection underpins transformative learning theory and practice and inspired me to adapt Appreciative Inquiry to make this the dominant dimension.  I name my hybrid Appreciative Genealogy. The testimonials/blurbs for Hmmm supply rich narrative evidence of critical reflection in play.

D-efine  D-iscover  D-ream  D-esign  D-estiny

The heroine of Hmmm named “M” is as “different” as her name: she is a Child of Nature who expresses herself entirely by humming and immerses herself in nature with her companion hummers — bees, hummingbirds, dragonflies—and the plants they frequent.  The story of M’s special gift unfolds as a mystery to be embraced rather than a problem to be solved.  Intuitively, I had been following the 5 Ds as I developed the book, collaged my botanical illustrations, and commissioned a narrative and humming soundtrack (Flipbook version only).


The unconditional positive question characterizes the DEFINE phase.

How does a child like M who is “different” grow, thrive, and transform, sustaining her connections with Nature and Humanity, when a culture and health care system focuses on what is right with her?


The unconditional positive question guides the DISCOVER phase, which begins with the researcher posing a prompt for a story that tells the best of “what is.” It happens on two levels in Hmmm:  as part of the storyline; and in the invitation to readers with my request for testimonials to include in the publication.  The implicit story prompt within Hmmm itself that I was asking as the writer: “Tell me of a time when you (M) were celebrated for your special gift of humming and made to feel proud of your gift.”  My invitation to readers was more explicit and designed to empower empathy for M:  Hum along with M whenever Hmmm appears in the story.

My request for experiential testimonials/blurbs to appear in the book was more directive.  How did the story and the humming soundtrack and the botanical illustrations make you feel? How did they contribute to developing empathy and fostering social inclusion? The story prompt took the form of: “Tell me what stood out for you in Hmmm? Did anything move you to change anything in your own life and practice when it comes to humming, or to your relationships with people who are different, or with Nature itself?  I can report that almost every reader/reviewer noticed that they had begun to observe their own humming practice, especially how often they used some variant of Hmmm every day.

The best of “what is” in the Hmmm story line unfolds as M’s family takes their child to several health care professions to assess how she came to be a hummer.  They all pronounce that M is the picture of health. The pediatrician takes her pulse and pronounces it perfect — 90 beats per minute.  The ENT doctor marvels that M has the most exquisite vocal cords he has ever examined in a child.  M hums different emotions for the psychologist, who is impressed that she is expressing a psychological range far beyond her years.  The naturopath takes a prick of M’s blood and admires her smooth, round cells dancing on the screen.

As every qualitative researcher knows, narrative and experiential evidence gains in authenticity and trustworthiness when it is gathered from diverse participants. The readers and reviewers who Discover the best of “what is” in Hmmm ranged from age 4 to 84 and represented groups that I have identified as: Children and Intergenerational Readers; Dorothy’s Kin (from my generation to grand-nieces and nephews); Botany Creatives (Writers and Illustrators); Art-for-Health Practitioners; Musicians and Musicologists; Evolutionary Anthropologists, and —not least—a cat called Kiisa.  I have included all of the testimonials/blurbs in the Flipbook version of Hmmm.  A few examples, including experiential, embodied and art-based evidence that is painted and performed:

The book is about why M keeps humming, because she belongs to nature, then M becomes harmony and humming to the world.

  • Ethan, age 7, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

I wanted to touch the pansies, in particular, to feel their silky softness and to see how the drying process had affected them. Pansies are the true jewels of the flower world, coming out as they do when we are most in need, in late winter and early spring.

  • Anonymous, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

The wildflowers reverberated and danced across the colorful, decorative pages, carrying me beyond the meadows and deep into the magical vibrations of M’s mysterious, intuitive gift.

  • Gail Butters Cohen, Freelance Artist & Illustrator, West Palm Beach, Florida

Hmmm is a book of sounds, not only words and beautiful pictures.  It is not only multimedia, but “multigenerational” – a story that will appeal to adults and youngsters alike, and to anyone who loves music, poetry, and the wonders of nature.

  • Ellen Dissanayake is the author of What Is Art For?, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, all published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Hmmmmmmmmm, just a savoury lovely sound —  hmmmmmmmmmmm I said it when I stroked the cover. The unique “Nature Art “ pressings of Hmmm invite you into beautiful textures and delightful thoughts. Suddenly what you thought was a butterfly, you realize are flowers uniquely pressed and mounted. The book is an experience of texture and sound, with its soft cover, gentle design and layout and lovable humming character.

  • Anne Camozzi, Artist & Author, Antigonish, Nova Scotia


M’s visit with the Wise Woman in the Valley of the Big Stone shifts Hmmm into fantasy and the Dream stage, where the characters envision “what might be” for a child who is different.

Caregiving as attention

The Wise Woman did not speak. She did not ask M any questions. She simply fixed her eyes on M’s and listened intently as M hummed. … M had never experienced such perfect attention to her humming. She felt the glow of love as if she were the most special being in the universe. (p. 27)

Engaging with Nature and the More than Human

[The Wise Woman] guided her into the middle of a honeysuckle bush in full bloom. There M was encircled by a throng of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Instantly, M began to hum in harmony with her bird companions. (p. 30)

Readers and Reviewers also entered into the Dream of “what might be”:

Imagining a World that Preserves Beauty.

This little story reminds us that we are all special and inspires us with both the beauty of nature in the artwork and the beauty of the human voice. As we preserve art, music, and especially beauty, humans will become a less destructive species.

  • Marilyn Manzer, music educator, Wolfville, Nova Scotia

Our wonder and imagination serve as an emotional connection and portal to what it means to be human––that we are of this diverse and dynamic world called Nature. … Realization of this indivisible connection is more important than ever––our future depends on it!

  • Kent A. Williams, DSocSci, Assistant Professor, Leadership Studies, Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Manifesting Wise Woman Allies for Everyone

I did love the Wise Woman.  She held the space and saw the gift! Each of us needs a Wise Woman. As I think about it, I hope (humbly) that to someone else, I might be their Wise Woman… that I hold the space for them and that I see their gifts… and that I name them.

  • Barb Heatley O’Neil, BScN, M.Ad.Ed., CPCC
    President: O’Neil Co-Active Coaching Group, Nurse Leader and Wise Woman, Sarnia, Ontario

In the language of Appreciative Inquiry, these responses stand as “provocative propositions” or “possibility statements.”


After the Dream stage, M takes charge of the Design stage, dialoguing and performing with her family and playmates “what should be” with a child who is different.

Play Unites Difference

M’s playmates were drawn to the honeysuckle and the various hummers and pollinators that were harmonizing with M. Together they invented a humming circle game. They numbered off as either honeysuckle or morning glory. …  As the humming came to an end every honeysuckle and morning glory sought the other to fold in a hug. (p. 33)

As the writer of Hmmm, I wanted to fold into the story “what should be,” and this is where my hybrid methodology of Appreciative Genealogy comes in.  The story prompt of “Tell me a time . . .”  takes a form that directly invites participants to reflect critically on their highly valued experience and to “make the familiar strange.”

Making the Familiar Strange

To accomplish this, I contrast the regulated institutional care in the built environment to the loving attention of the Wise Women in wild Nature. As a hint at the (necessary) bureaucracy of institutional care, I had each of M’s professional caregivers end their scheduled appointment with “And with that she made her notes and began a file on M.”

Barb Heatley O’Neil, who is both a nurse and a practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry, offered a critically reflective response:

I’m a nurse and I kept thinking… how we (in healthcare) always start a file. It moved M to the role of pediatric patient.  Although they [Mom and Dad] are trying to protect her, I kept hoping they would celebrate her more… instead of trying to see what was wrong and in need of fixing … to name and champion her special and magnificent gift.

Puzzlement — the “disorienting dilemma,” that rocks your assumptions — precedes critical reflection. To my surprise and delight, it was my two youngest respondents, uninhibited in expressing their “whys,” who most expressly “made the familiar strange.”

The four-year-old granddaughter of music educator Marilyn Manzer reveals that the assumption that we go to doctors to fix or cure something that is wrong sets in early.  She asks: “Why did the girl keep on humming after she saw the doctors?”   However, she clearly appreciates and resonates with the humming heroine as she imagines and performs M’s humming dance.

Then my niece reported that four-year old Harvey, who had encountered only one doctor, his GP, had similar questions.

Why doesn’t she have a real name?                                                                    Why does she keep going back to the doctor?


 It would be a spoiler to reveal how M uses her special powers of humming to manifest her destiny — “what shall be” — her ways of sustaining connection to Nature, and her human and more-than-human family. But here is a visual hint.

However, the testimonials — narrative evidence — from readers and reviewers, reveal how the experience of reading and listening to Hmmm – M the Humdinger, “shall be” in their own lives. These take the form of action plans and commitments related to the benefits of connecting to nature, the healing power of humming, of play, of storytelling, and ways of celebrating everyone who is different.

Awaken Our Connection to Nature

In an age when it can be perceived that we live in a time of decay and disconnection from our origins of Nature, Dorothy Lander reconnects us to the wonder, awe, and sublime of Nature. Hmmm M. The Humdinger is not only a story to stimulate the imagination of children, but it serves as a re-awakening for adults––to re-connect with our web of life.

  • Kent A. Williams, DSocSci Assistant Professor, Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS

Celebrate Difference

I liked the story because it is for kids. I thought the reader used good expression. I liked how the story had a good message in the end about M, that it is ok to be different.

  • Kate, age 7

Thank you for allowing me to read and listen…. yes, the wise woman spoke to me … a woman I have yearned to meet the entirety of my lifetime but have not as of yet… the woman who would “know”  and recognize the ”me” I have longed to be … just as she KNEW Your beloved M!

The Healing Power of Art

Hmmm is an innovative and original contribution to the fields of arts-in-healthcare and music therapy. Its gorgeous floral pictures and beautiful sounds put the findings of arts-in-healthcare into practice.                            M’s experiences make clear that most people today live in “vocal deserts.” Humming, like music and immersion in nature, are good for us. They heal.

  • Ellen Dissanayake is the author of What Is Art For?, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, all published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Humming can do magics in creating emotions, transferring emotions to others, connecting us to nature. And all this natural wisdom is presented wrapped in a delightfully engaging story. I am impressed!

  • Joseph Jordania, ethnomusicologist and evolutionary musicologist. Honorary Fellow Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, Australia

The best thing of all is the therapeutic benefit of humming along, it was both enjoyable and relaxing. This would be a great book to read alongside a younger reader, you would certainly have plenty of fun along the way.

  • Rachel Corby, Plant Whisperer, Personal Rewilding Coach, author of Rewilding & The Art Of Plant Whispering.

I began to hum, deeply and contentedly. So much so that it tickled my heart! Indeed, so much so, I reread it over and over again! A beautiful story for young and old, especially those who, like me, over the years have somewhat neglected their hummm!

  • Jane Hall, artist and author of The Art of Embroidered Butterflies (Search Press). Find Jane on Twitter @clothofnature

For Dorothy and M

As I read the Primer, I tried humming myself to see if it might be something I’ve forgotten how to do.  I found that not only can I hum… I actually make little humming sounds all the time… when I’m deeply touched by something someone says or when I read something that resonates with me.

  • Barb Heatley O’Neil, BScN, M.Ad.Ed., CPCC
    President: O’Neil Co-Active Coaching Group, Nurse Leader and Wise Woman, Sarnia, Ontario

Art and Appreciation in the Gift Economy

The theoretical framework of the gift economy resonates with Appreciative Inquiry and the focus on assets and gifts.  Lewis Hyde (The Gift, 1979) offers exemplars of artists’ creations as  transformative gifts, which he identifies as works that touch us and earn our gratitude — our appreciation  — and whose teaching “takes,” to become an agent of change.   Hyde uses a children’s story — The Elves and the Shoemaker — to exemplify the gift economy, and the role of art as the transformative gift.  A struggling shoemaker is rescued from dire poverty by the magical intervention of two elves who overnight turn his unfinished shoes into “complete masterpieces.”  This story takes up the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry but does not unfold as an inquiry that evaluates and generates evidence (data) in the way of Hmmm – M the Humdinger.

Marketing is the ostensible purpose of the testimonials from invited reviewers, which appear on the inner and outer covers of a book.  Hyde acknowledges that gift exchange and the market co-exist.  In The Elves and the Shoemaker and Hmmm – M the Humdinger, they serve as interweaving, not separate spheres.  I hold with Lewis Hyde that the primary purpose of putting art out into the public, such as these two fairytale storybooks, is as a gift exchange that moves the gift receiver with its beauty and sumptuousness and earns gratitude and appreciation.  Transformative gifts are not shaped by their relationship to the marketplace but rather by a covenant of reciprocity. Medical sociologist Arthur Frank (The Wounded Storyteller, 2004) considers the telling and receiving of stories between care giver and receiver a gift relation rather than a professional exchange regulated by the marketplace.

Maya Angelou’s poem that ends “we are the possible” shared on Facebook by Neena Verma, Appreciative Inquiry Thought Leader, Delhi, India, gives poetic shape to Hmmm as an exemplar of Appreciative Inquiry and the healing arts, highlighting possibilities for right relationships between Humanity and this Earth we live on.  As a case study in AI, Hmmm demonstrates that “We, this people, … of this earth/Have the power to fashion for this earth/… when and only when/We come to it.”

Excerpted from “A Brave and Startling Truth”

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet

Whose hands can strike with such abandon

That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living

Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness

That the haughty neck is happy to bow

And the proud back is glad to bend

Out of such chaos, of such contradiction

We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body

Created on this earth, of this earth

Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

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