Welcome to the start of Picture Book Therapy Thursday!
Each Thursday we will discuss a different picture book (or books) that can be used to tackle tough topics with children.
For our very first author interview on the blog we have the incredible Anthony Lloyd Jones, author of "The Princess & the Fog" and "The Nervous Knight".
Anthony Lloyd Jones is an author and illustrator from Portsmouth, UK. As well as award-winning children's books about mental health, he has also been known to make promotional illustrations for Let's Players, zines, webcomics, paintings of birds, fursonas, art and animations for puzzle roguelite video RPGs, and all sorts of other stuff. He is very tired but he will never stop.
Anthony, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!
To start, what inspired you to write The Princess and The Fog?
I have depression. I've had it since I was a child, but I didn't have the tools at the time to know what to do about it. While taking a break from University, I made some comics about depression that people really resonated with. I decided I wanted to make something on the same topic when I resumed my studies, thought a children's book might be an interesting challenge, but in my initial project research I found a surprising lack of resources for children about the subject at all. It turns out childhood depression isn't something that's been officially recognised in the psychology market for very long, so there was a gap in the market.
As someone who also struggles with depression, I love that its becoming a topic that can be openly discussed so that people of all ages know that this is something they don't have to be ashamed of.
Most kid lit writers know getting the book from concept to published can be quite the journey. What was the process like for you from inspiration to getting published?
It was a pretty long process, which I'm grateful for. It being a university project meant I had a lot of time and space to experiment and explore. I really played with the idea and visual style for a long time, used my friends' kids as sounding boards for early drafts, stuff like that. I'd also never made anything for kids before at all, so I had to do more research than you might expect to make sure I got the language right. A classmate, Emmi Smid, also made a kids' book for her final project and after graduation was in the process of pitching it to Jessica Kingsley Publishers. She mentioned my book to them as something else they might be interested in and they got in touch, we refined the story a bit more and now it's out there. I got really lucky! It's not usually that easy to get a book published.
In addition to The Princess and the Fog, you have a second book about a tough topic. Tell us about The Nervous Knight.
The Nervous Knight is about anxiety. It is set in the same universe as The Princess and the Fog, and focuses on a young trainee knight who is always wearing a needlessly bulky and inconvenient suit of armour because they're afraid of seemingly just about everything. They spend so much time stuck in their own head imagining every possible bad outcome to every possible situation that they never want to do anything with their life, just in case their fears are realised. They don't see how badly they're holding themselves back until a new friend encourages them to gradually (literally!) come out of their shell and learn that things are usually not as scary as they might seem. The book covers everything from symptoms of anxiety to possible short and long-term exercises to try to help develop healthier habits.
Do you have a scene in either or both books that was your favorite to illustrate?
Weirdly, my favourite scene to illustrate from TPatF actually ended up being cut from the book. After finally asking the Princess if she wants to talk, her friend is suddenly bombarded with a torrent of thoughts and feelings (in the form of huge messy speech bubbles) The Princess had been bottling up. The conclusion to the story was eventually reworked to be more gradual but it was fun to draw all this chaos.
In The Nervous Knight, I loved coming up with different art styles and using different media, drawing with my left hand and emulating the way kids draw to represent how the characters' internal thoughts look.
Alternatively, every time I get to draw a wide shot of the relatively normal, modern-looking kingdom with the enormous, absurd pink Princess Barbie castle sitting proudly in the middle. I do it a lot. It's a funny visual.
Why do you think these books are important for kids to have on the shelves?
I basically made TPatF for myself, retroactively. It's a book I could have really used when I was a child to help me understand what I was going through and how to ask for help. I wanted to make this book to help other kids like me and The Nervous Knight fulfills a similar purpose. When you're a kid it can be hard to articulate your feelings. An illness you don't understand can feel insurmountable, and the adults in your life can easily misdiagnose it. It can be very lonely.
I use fairy tale tropes to make the stories feel familiar at first glance, but then to subvert expectations and take away some of the stigma around mental illness. You don't expect a beautiful princess who lives in a huge pink castle and has a bunch of horses to be depressed, somehow. But if it can happen to her, it can happen to anybody. How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids?
The cool thing about Jessica Kingsley Publishers is that they always include a section written by someone much cleverer than me at the back of the book that guides grown-ups through these deeper conversations. The stories themselves are designed to be relatable and get kids thinking, but these sections are good in driving those conversations with specific talking points and questions. If a grownup knows a child in their life feels like either The Princess or The Knight does, I hope they would sit down with them and read the book together and if anything in the story sounds familiar, work on a plan using suggestions from the book on how to get through it. Do you have any advice for authors hoping to write books about tough topics?
Obviously do your research. See how other books, TV shows, films, songs, video games or whatever have tackled the same topic. Know your audience and research how to write specifically for them. (Don't assume you already speak their language!) If you have experience with the topic yourself, use that. If you don't, listen to somebody who has. With young readers it's important to not make them feel put on the spot. A kid can be turned off by a story that hits too close to home, so be gentle, use metaphor and don't write like there's only one possible solution to a problem. Suggest possible solutions, but also give them some room to think about it and experiment and figure it out themselves. I use a lot of humour and hope as well so that, despite the subject matter, my books aren't a downer to read. Your point about not writing as if there's only one solution to a problem is a great one. In my work as a therapist, your job isn't to tell people how to fix their problems but help them see the possible answers and decide on their own what's best for them. This is so important for kids to know as well!
Thank you so much again Anthony for taking the time to discuss your work. Where can we connect with you on social media to follow your upcoming projects?
I'm always working on something or other! Follow @aljillustration on Twitter and Instagram for semi-regular updates, and drop me a message if you want to talk about anything I've made. I'm nice. A full portfolio can be found at anthonylloydjones.com. (I can attest that Anthony is very nice if you drop him a message!)
Check out The Princess & the Fog or The Nervous Knight at your local bookstore or library! And join me next week for another Picture Book Therapy Thursday when we talk to author Chelsea Lin Wallace about her debut picture book!
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