Losing Toys and Finding Solace
Published on: 29 March 2020
In World Autism Awareness Week, Alex Strick talks to Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden about the inspiration behind her first picture book.
How did Bear Shaped come about?
It all started with a tweet - a dad’s plea to find a missing teddy, explaining how vital this bear was to his son. I replied with a drawing of the bear, on the off chance it might make him feel a little better.
Then I did a proper portrait of the bear and Jack came to collect it. Here was a little boy who was giggly; made us all play hide and seek; wolfed down biscuits; laughed at fart jokes; and adored my dog - coincidentally also called Bear. Jack's level of kindness and empathy for others was what struck me about him. Not the fact that he had autism. It made me think about how we label people. We look at that label, make assumptions and forget that there is so much more to an individual. Later Jack’s dad told me his son wanted to say thank you for a lovely afternoon and that he would 'always carry me in his heart'. I was lost for words. The phrase stayed with me.
Six weeks on, I found I hadn't got the place on a masters degree in drawing I’d set my heart on. After a day of wallowing in feeling gutted, I woke up the next day and knew I wanted to write the book. I messaged Jack's dad to ask if he'd mind. Then I sat down at the kitchen table, got a pen out, and wrote Bear Shaped.
Why was it so important to share Jack's story?
To me, Jack's story is universal. I have found it interesting how emotional so many adults have become on reading the book. Perhaps losing a toy is the first of many losses in life and we read our own grief into it. However at the core of Bear Shaped is an appreciation for what we have loved even if we have lost, coupled with the value of kindness and empathy.
Did you have any specific interest/ experience in relation to the autism spectrum prior to the project?
I didn't have a specific interest or experience with autism, no. I certainly had an awareness through the experiences of friends and their children. And for a while taught drawing classes to children including one or two on the autism spectrum. I think the true experts are the parents and families of children on the spectrum. But I must say that having met Jack and his family I really wish that there was easier and quicker access to support on so very many levels.
This is not a book about autism or being autistic - it's a beautiful and very personal story about how every child needs a bear in their life (something everyone can relate to). Was this important?
I didn't have a bear. Well, I mean I did have bears, but not one that I was really bonded to. I had Henry Hedgehog. I still have him. His nose is missing because at some stage I chewed it off. I truly loved Henry. He was my soft triangle of cuddle every night. Rather darkly I'd made plans in my head that if I died, Henry was to be buried with me in case I woke up. So I totally 'got' the importance of Bear to Jack. And I think everyone can relate to that bond. It's bizarre the things we cling to as children. My cousin had a corner of a blanket she called her 'gaw-gaw' without which she couldn't sleep - even as a teen. I even had a summer camping holiday when I was about 8 or 9 when I couldn't be without a huge stick I'd found. So I think whoever reads the book they'll be able to relate to the bond whether it's bear, hedgehog, blanket or whatever.
Would you agree that it's important people understand that every experience of autism is different?
Absolutely. And I don't think Bear Shaped can do that alone. However, if reading it brings autism forward as a conversation piece in a classroom or within a family, then it has achieved something in furthering understanding and curiosity. Every child is as different to another as snowflakes. Having autism, is just another difference; it shouldn’t be seen as a deficit. We're all different in looks, in personalities - different in a multitude of ways. It's one of the most wonderful and exciting things about being human. Difference to the next person is ironically what we all have in common. Different is normal. Having autism isn't a specific label with a particular ingredient list. Every person is unique whether they have autism or not.
To what extent did you work directly with Jack and his family?
Every illustration of Jack in the book is the real Jack. Jack posed for me for all the illustrations. And I didn't put pen to paper to write Bear Shaped until I knew that his family were happy for me to do so. I was fortunate to have the luxury of choice when it came to which publisher to go with. Jack's parents were involved in making that final decision.
Do you have any future plans/ambitions for picture books and will they be inclusive in some way?
Very much so. To write and illustrate children's books is the dream I never dared to have because it was so far beyond what I could have hoped for. I'm so incredibly lucky to have had the support and belief of an amazing agent, brilliant editor and art director with my first book. They took a rough diamond and made it sparkle. I've already written the next one. The illustrations are starting to take shape in my mind but they're not ready to come out yet. However my focus at the moment is sending Bear Shaped out into the world. It's my first book baby so all my focus is there for now. And yes, any future books would be inclusive - because every book should be. No child should ever feel that books aren't for them because they cant find someone like themselves within the covers.
Read our review
Author: Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden
This beautiful picture book is based on the true story of a family’s public search for a missing toy. The Jack of the illustrations are utterly convincing, a testimony to the fact that the illustrator worked so closely with the ‘real’ Jack (who happens to be on the autistic spectrum). Delicate, timeless artwork also cleverly incorporates all sorts of satisfy…
Books for World Autism Awareness Week
Explore our recommended reads featuring characters who happen to be on the autistic spectrum.
We believe that books are a great way to raise awareness and improve understanding of different experiences. This booklist aims to provide a range of children's and teens' books that feature characters who are autistic, or who have Autistic Spectrum Conditions.