In My World. I've been waiting so long to talk about this project and I have so much to say about it! It started off as a custom project that grew into an official book :D Below are links to the full original spreads, followed by the backstory and my illustration thoughts/process. I hope you like it :)
You can also watch the video on Instagram here.
Jillian Ma. This story is written by Jillian Ma, a wonderful person I did not know before starting this book but I now consider a good friend. Jillian is a special needs teacher and works with kids with autism. She brings the credibility to the table :) In fact, the main character of this book is inspired by a lovable child she works with.
The Motivation. Jillian told me it'd always been her dream to write a story about this. There aren't many children's books with a focus on autism. She really wanted to give that to the kids she worked with, and hopefully the wider autism community. I was really touched by her motivation and was excited to work on it for the same reason. Few things gut me more than the thought of people feeling misunderstood and alone.
"I am so glad you are here. It helps me realize how beautiful my world is." - Rainer Rilke. Companionship & compassion, two stars in a dark night.
Seemingly Simple. The story is simple and straightforward in a sense that it goes through the seemingly normal hopes and dreams of a child: to have adventure, to share with friends, to laugh and show affection. Things we all take for granted as being easy and natural.
Affection and embrace. One of the many simple interactions we take for granted.
On Autism. Beneath its simple surface is a much deeper emotion though, once you realize the main character is a child with autism. For many people with autism, they long to be able to do these things, but their own bodies betray them.
It is a heartbreaking irony when you realize they share many of the same feelings on the inside as those of us who are not "special needs," but we on the outside misinterpret their actions such that we believe they do not. And, because they don't really have control over their bodies, they typically can't explain this misunderstanding to us. Instead, they see us grow frustrated, angry, and dismissive with them because we don't understand them... a vicious cycle... god... many tears were shed while I was researching for this book.
:: sound of heart dropping ::
(I have way too many thoughts on this to fit in this blog post so I wrote more about it on my personal blog here.)
Empathy Without Pity. As I became more aware of the autistic condition, I felt a deep empathy to their struggles. But instead of victimizing them or feeling sorry for them, I wanted to show their strength (and of course, Jillian had written such a positive story). I wanted these illustrations to be powerful, positive and passionate. To bring all the whimsy and magic I imbue into all my other work with no apologies or caveats.
Come at me bro.
Freedom of Flexibility. As the illustrator I received the text in a word document with minimal direction on how the story should be paced and what imagery goes with the text. I walked through the text with Jillian to understand the sentiments she wanted to convey, but overall it was open to me on how to visually communicate her words.
Jillian was fantastic about letting me bring my vision to life. It is my understanding that in the publishing world, it's actually rare that the illustrator and author get to work directly with each other. So I feel very grateful for how smoothly this process went.
Galaxy's the limit.
Unconventional Routes. I got to use a deep color palette that I believed in, even though I know some people think kids books must use bright elementary colors. I moved fluidly between make-believe scenes and realistic settings without much concern that kids might not be able to follow along. They can. I think we give kids too little credit sometimes.
I especially loved being able to depict the meditation scene in all its dark calmness, toeing the line of make believe and reality.
Storyboard of the meditation spread :) I spend a lot of time on my storyboards and probably get into more detail than needed. On the plus side, they tend to stay pretty true to the end result. I think it's critical to get everyone on the same page at this step before moving on to color.
Another spread from the storyboard review. Although these are very rough, I refer to them all the time while coloring because I don't want to lose that dynamic sketch feeling.
Make Believe vs. Reality. I wanted this story to be magical but grounded in day to day life. That the child's hopes and dreams are not all out of this world, but many are simple day to day interactions that we can actually help make come true.
I brought in my "star flowers" as a connecting element to represent hope and light. They grow in all the scenes except the second to last page, the stark reality. But at the end, his mom places them at his bedside. This is the final connection between this dream world and reality, a sign of understanding and support.
We also see his bedroom shelves lined with the dinosaurs, ships, and other characters from the dream spreads.
There's a lot of symbolism throughout the book, from the color transitions to the recurring turtle. But it's probably things only the illustrator notices/delights over :)
Tougher Subjects. I thought a lot about the end, when it's revealed to the reader that the child has autism. Again I didn't want to sugarcoat this too much, but also didn't want it to feel pitiful. I did want to communicate the stark contrast between the typical assumptions we make about autistic kids and what they're really experiencing though, and that's what ultimately led the way.
Come on, friend!
I wasn't planning to make his friend look so ghostly here. It was a color left over from the sketch phase. Then I saw it worked well to transition to the stark contrast of the boy being alone on the next spread, like his friend was fading... many of us know that feeling of the high from a dream just within reach—and the crash from it slipping away.
I'm glad everyone we showed it to really resonated with the illustrations. I hope it makes readers feel more understood themselves and more compassionate towards others. That would mean the most to me.
So the big news is that this book got picked up for official publishing! It'll be available at stores such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon around August of this year. It'll be my first published storybook of illustration, and Jillian's first published story :O
That's amazing and totally took me by surprise. I mean this project started with Jillian reaching out to me directly by email asking if I'd help illustrate her book. I knew this was a passion project for her. I took it on as a custom book, kind of like a longer version of the custom couple's storybooks I'd been doing. It was just us two and I loved working with her on it.
Once I finished it, she did all the work in reaching out to publishers and getting it picked up! I think it got picked up within a month, definitely way faster than I was prepared for (hence why it took me so long to share this project)! I know getting published is not easy, so I didn't want to have any expectations about it. It's really an incredible turn out.
"I wonder what's out there?" It's so great to have someone wonder with you.
The book technically is subject to editing with the publisher, so I'm not sure how different it will turn out. The book in the photos is the one I make for all my custom orders through Blurb. But so far they really love it so fingers crossed it won't be too different! Update: Publisher confirmed there will be no changes, they want it as-is! Yay!
A Quick Note on Dreams
Working on this story with Jillian was already a great experience in and of itself, but on a personal career level it's also had a very important impact. At the end of the day, these are my drawings but it is not my story. But it has given me the needed push to see that I am ready for this world. There are so many stories I want to write and visualize, and it's definitely one of my dreams to see them come to life.
I literally remember a moment maybe three years ago (before I started illustrating seriously) where a co-worker asked me what I really wanted to do... I said it'd be a dream to make illustrated stories. But I remember thinking of it as a pipe dream, like "haha yeah that'd be great, will never happen!" And even over the past couple years, I keep telling myself I need to keep practicing and getting better before really trying. Now it feels so close within reach, I have to just go for it. It's like life shoved me forward saying, "You're ready. Stop selling yourself short."
Let's go find out what's out there!
"Follow your dreams" has become almost cliche these days but I want to start an "In Defense of Dreams." I find it so interesting that by following my dreams in story+illustration, I was in the position to be able to help Jillian make her dream of making this book come true, which in turn pushed me towards the next, higher step in my own pursuit of my dreams. I love this idea that your dreams can awaken/enable the dreams in others. And if none of you ever went for it, all these dreams would remain asleep... so following your dreams is not selfish. Also, people who live their dream are happier and nicer to others. It's a win win for everyone! So I think it's really important we all help each other get there.
If This Incredibly Long Post Wasn't Enough...
I'll share more about the publishing process when the book is available. In the meantime, as mentioned I shared extended thoughts on what I learned about autism and what this book means to me in a post on my personal blog.
Focus, Nuance, Perspective, and more — here are our themes for the year and a selection of inspirational quotes for each.