Friday, July 1, 2016

Illustrating the Sad Picture Book: Jenny And Her Dog Both Fight Cancer

When Jewel Kats first approached me to illustrate her picture book "Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer," she told me she had written the book some time ago, but was looking for a distinct type of illustration for this project.
I read the book and cried; it touched me deeply. While I had little experience with pediatric cancer, I had lost three dogs to the disease.

Pediatric cancer picture book

Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer features a rainbow theme symbolic of the Rainbow Bridge.

A story about a little girl and her dog both fighting cancer is not your typical, light-hearted picture book fodder, but the story rings true. There is beauty in the bond between a child and her best friend; that bond is especially strong through difficult times. There is a beauty in death (sorry for the spoiler, but the dog does not survive cancer).
As a needle felt artist, my dolls and animals are noted for their character, their expressions. With Jenny and her dog, I wanted to convey the emotions of the characters as they struggled through cancer.

Jenny tells Dolly she will be by her side as she fights cancer. 

A subtle shift of the head can change the emotions of the characters.

There is a magic to characters with very subtle features. When posing Jenny and her parents, a slight shift of the head could change the expression from happy to sad. Photographing the scenes was quite the challenge as each character has to be carefully posed.
The illustration process starts with me imagining what is the most compelling aspect of the page. I create a story board, which generally depicts each scene. Then I create the characters out of wire and wool. Needle felting is like sculpting with wool. In Jenny and her dog most of the scenes were created by building props, like a sofa out of wool, a trail with twigs for trees, and an animal hospital with a number of needle felted pets.

Jenny is thrilled to be greeted by Dolly who recently returned from the animal hospital. 

Jenny takes Dolly on a walk and notices that she is slowing down.

Jenny waits at the animal hospital while Dolly undergoes cancer treatment.

Jenny wears a pink scarf throughout her journey, which she throws in Dolly's gravesite in the final scene. The pink scarf was a natural both for its symbolism in cancer awareness and for its connection to little girls.
Rainbows also run throughout the book as I hand dyed a series of pastel shades for Jenny's dresses, which she changes with the seasons. In the final scene she wears a rainbow dress. The Rainbow Bridge is known as a sort of path to dog heaven.

Jenny throws her pink scarf in Dolly's grave. 

Understated illustration conveys the bond between child and dog, both with cancer. 

When I create pet portraits or woodland animals, I tend to fall in love with the pet or the species. Jenny and Dolly were no exception. I fell for them too and I hope readers can feel the love as they turn the pages.
I think the soft and wooly illustrations are a nice balance to the the serious subject. Jewel, who passed away in January, was so thrilled every time I shared an illustration with her. She was such a positive supporter of my work.
This was the first book I illustrated and as I continue to blaze the trail for this type of fiber art illustration, I learn and continue to perfect my techniques. I create many more wool paintings for backgrounds now than I did with Jenny.  "Hansel & Gretel: A Fairy Tale with a Down Syndrome Twist," was the second book Jewel and I worked on. "Prince Preemie: Tale of a Tiny Puppy Who Arrived Early," was our final collaboration; it is due out in fall of this year.

Next year, I will embark on my journey as both author and illustrator. Stay tuned.