Liza Stevens, author and illustrator of Not Today, Celeste, shares her experience putting together this heartwarming story of a dog and her depressed human, which reflects some of the feelings and experiences that a child whose parent or carer has depression may face.
This article was originally written for Jessica Kingsley Publishers, published in July 2016.
I have loved writing and illustrating ever since I could pick up a pencil, and have always wanted to be an author-illustrator. Although I never stopped writing or drawing (and enjoying many other creative antics), I reached the grand old age of 48 before actually getting published – this is my very first book!
Well-being is another great passion of mine, and I knew it would feature in my work. I chose to write about depression after speaking to many people who had been affected by it – including my husband. When he became unwell we realised firsthand that it wasn’t easy to explain this problem to a child – but we also felt that it was very important to be open. Children can imagine all sorts of things if they aren’t told the truth. This can be especially true of looked after children, who are sadly used to their worlds being turned upside down at any moment, so can fear the worst if they think something is being kept from them.
I looked at the books already available, and whilst there were some wonderful ones about depression itself, there were very few (in the UK at least) about parental depression. So I decided this would be the story I would tell.
I knew very early on that I wanted the characters to be a dog and a human – I wanted to keep the family set up neutral so that nobody felt excluded. Also I just adore dogs, and know that children have an affinity with animals. Our pets rely on us for everything, and they don’t have a voice to express their worries – I thought that children must sometimes feel like this.
For the illustrations I used a combination of oil paint, coloured pencil and collage. I keep a sketchbook for each project I do, and in this one I started by making tiny thumbnail sketches of what might go on each page.
At the same time, I started to develop what the characters would look like.
Celeste’s markings caused me no end of confusion – I kept getting the spots on the wrong sides, even after drawing her from every angle! In the end I had to make a little model of her.
As well as in my sketchbook, I like to work on layout paper, which I then put on a light box to transfer to thick cartridge paper for painting on.
Colour is an important aspect of the book. Rupert loses his colour when he is unwell, so that he just becomes an outline. This developed after some people with depression told me “everything felt grey” and “I felt empty”. I found a new way of working when it came to doing the colour work. I normally listen to music on the radio whilst working in my studio, but I decided to try something different. I asked some friends and family to give me a list of songs that made them feel emotional. I put them all in a playlist and played it while I worked. I don’t normally listen to that type of music really, but I thoroughly enjoyed it – it helped me immerse myself in the emotions of the characters. (A couple of songs were far too sad though, and I had to delete them!)
When I put the final touches to the last image, the song playing was called Into My Arms. I really felt as if I had come on a journey with Rupert and Celeste.
Liza Stevens has an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art, UK. She is a foster carer and has an interest in child development, including mental health and attachment disorders. She lives in East Sussex, UK.