Creative Collaboration – Published in The Victorian Writer, Issue 8, 2014.
By VW member Heather Gallagher
First a confession. The idea of writing a story about post-natal depression (PND) aimed at children was abhorrent. Plenty of people – mostly counsellors – had suggested I write about my depression. “Think of it as a form of therapy,” they said. To my mind, immersing myself in the very thing that was upsetting me seemed like an idiotic plan.
And yet, when I moved to Ocean Grove three years ago and felt myself spiralling again, a story idea occurred to me. To go out in public, to attempt to do that thing I felt I’d outgrown – make new friends – I kept telling myself to put on my happy pants. I like to think I’m a bit of a snappy dresser – my children tell me otherwise. But over the years, I’ve assembled my own sense of style from op-shops, places like Ishka and the cast-offs of friends with good taste. I certainly have owned my fair share of “out there” happy pants.
And then it came to me. When Mummy wears her happy pants everything’s hunky dory but what happens when she can’t bring herself to put them on any more? The story – which was to become the picture book ‘Happy Pants: Why is Mummy so sad?’ – poured out.
After a couple of rejections, I pitched the story to Brisbane-based publisher Wombat Books. I knew that Wombat had a Mostly Mothers imprint so I thought they might be interested in PND as a subject.
I was delighted to receive a letter from the publisher Rochelle Manners within a month or so of my submission expressing interest. She wondered whether I could get endorsement for the book from the Post and Ante Natal Depression Association (PANDA) and was interested in my ability and willingness to promote the book.
During my recovery from PND, I worked as a facilitator of a playgroup called PODS (the Parents Overcoming Depression Supported playgroup) for mums with the condition. While
performing this role I had attended meetings at PANDA’s offices and was a professional acquaintance of the CEO Belinda Horton. Belinda was kind enough to write an endorsement. I also prepared a marketing plan which I submitted to Rochelle, outlining my background in journalism and readiness to utilise my industry knowledge and contacts to promote the book.
Rochelle then emailed asking what sort of illustrations I had in mind. I was surprised because I knew it was unusual for authors and illustrators to even meet, let alone choose each other. I went on to the Wombat website and had a look at her bank of illustrators and emailed a few suggestions.
A couple of months passed and she contacted me again – she still didn’t have a feel for the kind of illustrations I wanted. It was at this time that my husband suggested Liz McGrath. Liz was a friend of ours, who lived locally and made her living as a graphic designer and artist for government publications. Liz and I had a chat and she was thrilled at the opportunity. I put her in contact with Rochelle who had her draw a sample of what would later become page one.
Communicating through images is something I love, and I especially enjoy working with themes of children and families. The right illustrations can send powerful messages, and for years I illustrated health promotion publications for families. Sometimes an image can be a bit like a “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”.
A little while later contracts were signed and Liz set to work. Liz and I had lots of discussions about the illustrations. If I had my time over, I would have left her to it. Last year, I was lucky enough to win a Maurice Saxby mentorship which was designed to immerse me (and the three other mentees) in the children’s writing industry. As part of the mentorship, we met with illustrator Ann James. Ann gave me a new perspective on the relationship between
picture book author and illustrator. Her strong preference was to receive the text only. She found illustration notes hampered her creativity and inevitably influenced the end result. She gave an example of Gillian Rubenstein’s ‘Cat in, Dog Out’ and talked of the delight she had in the project because of the freedom to interpret the story in pictures as she saw it.
As it was, Liz and I discussed the use of colour at some length.
I’m naturally drawn to upbeat colour palettes but was careful about how colour was used in Happy Pants. The story includes some very sad scenes, but I was determined that these should not feel dark or gloomy as they depict a child’s view, and my childhood memories always seem awash with colour. I wanted to bring as much light to the story as I could, and worked with washes to create an intimate feel.
Liz gave the dad things to do, which hadn’t really occurred to me – Dad doing the washing, feeding the baby. And Grandma was so divine I wanted to adopt her.
As the story came to life in pictures, I was happy to lose some of the text.
Though we often came to scenes from very different perspectives, we always managed to find common ground that worked. I really admired Heather’s confidence to pare down the text as the illustrations developed their own presence.
We did have one major hiccup. When all the illustrations were complete and Liz and I believed the manuscript was about to go to the printers, Rochelle came back to us and said that her test “buyers” were unhappy with the climax. In the original version of the story, the boy – in a fit of frustration that “happy” Mummy has disappeared – cuts up her happy pants with his scissors. The buyers were concerned about a pre-schooler left alone with scissors and felt this dramatic scene would put people off. I was able to turn to some of the contacts I had met through the Maurice Saxby mentorship for advice. Helen Chamberlin who facilitated the
mentorship of behalf of the Children’s Literature Australia Network (CLAN) advised me to go back to PANDA and COPE (the Centre of Perinatal Excellence) and see what they thought. It turned out they thought the scissors weren’t a great idea either!
That was the turning point for me. I had been prepared to stick to my artistic guns but as Nicole Highet from COPE pointed out, if toning down that scene gave the book a broader appeal to mother’s on the spectrum of PND, it was worth it. So, at Liz’s suggestion, the pants rip when the boy hides them in his cubby house.
This was my first published children’s picture book and a great journey, that I’d love to repeat. Heather and I worked well together, and I was lucky to have direct contact with an author who trusted me with such a personal tale.