Posted on: March 10, 2020
1. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to create these books?
PJ - A few years ago, an integrative art psychotherapist put out a call on a forum on behalf of a child client dying from leukaemia, asking for a story to say goodbye to their family and life. I was so moved by this call that I search high and low for ‘end of life’ stories but sadly couldn’t find any. As time passed and I encountered increasing stories of grief and loss in my own therapy practice, this child’s call for a book kept coming back; so much so, that I made the decision to write it myself. Fairy tales have historically tackled the big themes of life and death, which gave me the idea of writing a ‘therapeutic fairy tale,’ one that could help facilitate immensely difficult but necessary conversations. As soon as the story was written, I felt its intense emotional power. On sharing it with the Senior Editor for Speechmark at the time, Katrina Hulme-Cross, she immediately understood the need for extra-careful handling. We both agreed that this story needed careful, sensitive illustration, so that the pictures themselves could help ground and hold feelings. In further discussion, we spoke about how ‘therapeutic fairy tales’ might support children across a variety of difficult life experiences, and the whole series was born.
SP – Pia already had the idea for the first book when she came to me with the idea of illustrating it – I was very moved by this idea of creating an illustrated story for children going through such difficulty, books to support them. I was also very touched that Pia wanted me to create the illustrations for the story, I immediately agreed to do it, I couldn’t not – this was an opportunity to use art to make a difference in a child’s life and to work with Pia’s wonderful stories. From one story the project subsequently became three illustrated story books and the manual.
2. The set is truly a product of collaboration, and it is impossible to separate the stories from the illustrations; both are so vital to each other. Sarah, can you explain a little bit about how you created the images?
SP – Firstly I read the story and imagined where it would be. I tried to place the character in a specific location so I could visualise and investigate the landscape and nature of that place before I began to draw the scenes and characters. After I’d drawn the final images I created the backgrounds - It was very important to me that the illustrations had a hand made quality, that real things like leaves and feathers were used in the pictures. Also as a printmaker I wanted the print textures to be visible, I hand-printed real objects to create textures on fabric that I later combined with my pencil drawings to make the finished images – the natural world is very important to me and the real textures link it into the stories.
3. The thematic content of the therapeutic fairy tales is often very powerful. How did you manage the emotional impact of creating these stories, as writers and artists?
PJ - As writer, I started with feelings, imagining what each child might be going through, connecting with them. When my own heartstrings were pulled, I knew it was where the story needed to be. As a therapist, so much of the training is about developing emotional resilience, allowing feelings to come and go, rather than fight them off, or feel overwhelmed. There was definitely a need to combine my writer/therapist self – hence the ‘therapeutic fairy tale’ structure. Throughout the creative process, I also kept checking in with Sarah about her experience. I was very aware that these stories were asking a lot from an artist – all those strong feelings, difficult journeys. Equally, it’s why I chose Sarah–she’s not afraid to go to dark places, yet she approaches them with so much colour and life.
SP - In hindsight, I underestimated the emotional journey that creating the images for the books would take me on, it certainly did have an impact. Luckily, I’m used to creating artwork with diverse groups of people many of whom are in challenging life situations which they reflect in their artwork – I am used to carrying heavy emotions.
In each of our three stories the characters are on a very difficult journey. To create the characters within their different scenes I had to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they would feel in each situation, I went on the journey with them. Also, invariably I knew children who have been in each of the three situations, I thought of them with great sadness but also of how these stories could have helped, comforted or supported them on their journeys. Their stories were very important, and these real children were never far away in my mind. When I was making the images, it was an intense time, I could only focus on one book at a time as I could only live one story at a time. Yet another success of our creative collaboration was that Pia was always there at the end of the phone to talk to about how I was feeling which made a huge difference – she also always fully supported any additions I added to what I thought the characters might need even it wasn’t written in words.
4. In the Storybook Manual, you talk about the ways in which therapeutic storytelling draws on the innate power of story, but moves beyond entertainment. Can you talk a little bit about why stories make such an effective therapeutic tool?
PJ - Stories seem to be how we understand and make sense of the world. We only need look at our legends, folklore, myths, fairy tales to see the long history of storytelling in our cultures. What these ancient stories all seem to have in common is a use of metaphor, creating an ‘as if’ world of magical creatures and characters. Most children live naturally so close to the world of metaphor. In offering an alternative ‘as if’ world, metaphor can bring some much-needed distance to difficult themes and emotions, which can feel overwhelming when faced directly. The Ancient Greeks understood this, with their concept of drama and catharsis. In watching or reading about other characters’ journeys, stories can serve as a vessel to access a range of feelings and experiences. Stories also show us how a character’s inner resources and qualities can develop under stress. Importantly, storybooks can be opened and shut as needed.
SP – Stories provide a way to escape from reality into a different world. Stories are a doorway into places where things can happen that spark our imaginations and lead us into new directions. The metaphor in stories can help us to understand situations that happen in our own lives.
5. And following on from this, art and illustration – both the ‘reading’ of images and the creation of images – go hand in hand with story. How does art function as a tool for therapy, and how can a reader use your stories as a basis for therapeutic artwork?
SP – Making artwork offers children a route into their imaginations and also a way to communicate things that they don’t always have words to say.
PJ – Sarah’s images are at the core of these books. Their colour, texture, the character’s expressions, journeys, can all be a vehicle for children to project their own emotions and experiences. Ideally, we’d love these images to be ‘springboards’ so therapists working with children can help their clients to create their own stories. For example, in each story, there’s a helper/guide. It could be very empowering for children to invent and create their own personal helper. That’s what is so powerful about arts in therapy. They can really help bring what’s inside a person outside to be seen and heard. Feelings don’t just stay inside someone’s head.
6. These stories tackle difficult topics. Can you summarise your top tips for creating the right environment for therapeutic storytelling?
SP – Comfort, quiet, and a calm space is very important as is patience, open mindedness, understanding.
PJ - It’s all about building a safe, quiet space – with a clear beginning and ending.
• Using a child’s own words when presenting a book helps create safety
• Reading a story slowly, giving plenty of time and space for responses
• Not assuming anything about what a child thinks or feels
• Follow the child’s natural interest… and taking time to listen to them
• Staying in metaphor is enough – we don’t have to make direct links to life
• Looking at the pictures together, at the characters’ expressions can be very useful.
• Being sure to leave enough time to process any feelings/learnings from the book
7. What are some key questions that an adult can ask when reading the stories with children?
PJ - Before asking anything, follow the interest of a child, where their attention is directed. Physically pointing to images, touching the pages, can be very useful. Simply focusing any questions on pictures, and the kinds of emotions shown, is often enough
• Show me which picture/s have stayed with you?
• What’s going on for this character here?
• What do you think you’ll take away or remember from this story?
Sometimes, too many questions are asked, which can feel invasive/intrusive, and end up ‘killing’ a story
SP – This is a difficult question as there are so many very different questions that can come up from reading a story, one of the reasons they are such an effective therapeutic tool. We give examples of many suitable questions to ask in the manual. A few questions that I have asked are;
How does this story make you feel? What really stands out from this story? Can you imagine…?
8. You also discuss the importance of self-care for the practitioner when reading therapeutically. Why is this so important?
SP - Self – care helps to build our own strength and resilience. You need to be strong, to be able to hold onto your own emotions in order to fully support a child to feel safe whilst working with them.
PJ - Practitioners will inevitably have had their own life experiences which can be a rich resource. At the same time, it’s vital that practitioners have worked through their own feelings and emotional triggers, so they can be wholly present, to attend and hold the full range of a child’s feelings. Therapeutic stories by nature tend to hold difficult themes, so preparation is important.
9. What is your advice for parents or non-professionals working with stories?
SP – It’s always a good idea to read the story yourself before reading it with a child so you have an idea of what to expect from the story and so you can prepare for any trigger points in the story that the child may react to.
PJ - Story and picture books in general are a wonderful way to connect and bond with children. There are so many brilliant, beautiful books out there. Creating a relaxed story-time, unrushed, with no disturbances can be so beneficial. Just being curious about a story, taking time to look at its pictures, characters together –noticing specific elements, can create a mutually rewarding reading experience. For stories that have stronger, more emotional content, just be careful of when/how these are introduced. Bedtime is usually not the best time for stories that provoke strong feelings. Parents and non-professionals also need to think about their own self-care, so they are not introducing stories that feel too much, either for them or children. Equally, it’s not always a good idea to offer thematically strong books when right in the middle of a big life event. A bit of time and distance often helps.
10. Do you have a favourite moment or image from the stories, and if so, what is it and why?
PJ – Ah… hard to choose. In The Night Crossing, there’s a moment when the Boy and the Bear look deeply into each other’s eyes. Sarah’s illustration brought such tenderness, life and loss into this one moment yet at the same time gave it an unbelievable vibrancy of colour.
SP – I have lots of favourite moments from each book. There are a few images that were born before the story caught up - one of the many things I loved about Pia and my creative collaboration - in ‘The Island’ I felt the girl really needed to ride the turtle so I drew the image and then Pia made it work in the story – the moment where the girl rides the turtle is a favourite, the tropic bird flies ahead one of a few secret characters that pop up in the illustrations that could have another story to tell.
11. Can you sum up the set in one sentence?
SP – For me it was a pleasure to work with Pia to create these stories, it was work from the heart and I dearly hope that they can help, even a little, any child in need of them.
PJ –A set of colourful ‘therapeutic fairy tales,’ to help children not feel so alone through deeply difficult times. And a Manual to help practitioners fall in love with story as a therapeutic, creative resource.