Big and Me is a beautiful children’s book written and illustrated by Australian author David Miller. Through metaphor it explores the experience of a child living with an adult who has a mental illness. Satellite’s Laura Pettenuzzo met with David to chat about creative writing, mental health and the importance of a powerful story.
L: What inspired you to write Big and Me?
D: I had been up in QLD and I’d been working at a place called Ipswich and I’d driven past a huge paddock full of giant machines that would have made airstrips and dug mines and stuff like that and I’d just done a couple of serious books and I thought ‘hmm, I’d really like to do a fun book and those things would make perfect paper sculptures so I’ll do that. After coming back home I went over to Perth where I was working I had dinner one night with my cousin who is a doctor and we were talking about mutual family friends with a father with mental illness and she explained the situation had been going for a long time so his children had been growing up with his mental illness, watching him deteriorate. It was a pretty horrible journey and she said, ‘You know in my doctor’s practice I see a lot of families like that. It would be really good, David, if you could do a book that would help children understand things like that it’s not their responsibility and stuff like that.
I thought it’s such a good idea. I can make that work with the machines. I can put those two ideas –it won’t be fun but I can make that work.
L: Oh, brilliant!
D: So that’s where that came from.
L: Just out of interest have the family members that inspired the story read Big and Me?
D: I don’t know whether they’ve read it or not. They are adults now. I’m curious but I don’t know the answer to that question.
L: Big and Me is a picture book with a really important message. So can you share with us the significance behind the characters in the story?
D: Well, there are five or six characters actually as I think about it. There’s Big who’s a big machine – he’s a really complicated machine because he can be a crane, he can be an excavator, he can be all sorts of things. He’s a lot of stuff stacked together really. He’s very Big and a bit scary. And there’s Small, who’s sort of like a little bobcat. They’ve got eyes, they’ve got expressions so they can be expressive. Small’s got hands, so he can express his emotions with his hands a bit.
Through the story Big malfunctions in a variety of ways and it causes Small distress and Small tries to manage it in different ways. There’s another character called the Boss and the Boss is really like a communications device on wheels. The Boss doesn’t have any hands to do anything with, he’s just wheels and aerials and so in my mind he could be a family friend, he could be a priest, he could be a doctor, he could be a neighbour – but he’s an advice giver and he can manage things so he’s the manager of the team.
There are other machines around but you never really see them except for one of them, and there’s another character and she’s the only one that I feel is female particularly, the others are not.
L: Was that deliberate, or it was just kind of how they felt to you?
D: I tried to write it so that they could be male or female but it’s not that easy to do.
So the mechanics are actually based on a country fire authority vehicle, so when a whole lot of trucks go out to major fires for a period of time, bits and pieces break down, and there’s a crew that are called the mechanics and they’ve got these trucks that have got spare engines and cranes and they’re not very big but they’ve got a lot of stuff on them and they fix stuff up. So that’s mechanic but mechanic again could be a doctor or an aunt, big sister.
L: Some kind of older figure maybe?
D: An older, caring, listening, understanding person.
And then there is Titch. Titch is very similar to Small and they become friends. Titch works with another machine called Titan, which I guess is just another word for Big. And they become friends and understand each other. So they’re the characters.
L: That’s so beautiful. Do you have a favourite of all the characters, and if so, why?
D: Small’s my favourite.
L: The storyline of Big and Me is open to many interpretations in the context of mental illness, but, what message would you say is most important when talking to young people about mental health and mental illness, and particularly parental mental health?
D: Well, I only know from speaking to people like Rose Cuff, and my cousin Kay what’s probably the most important is I don’t know – I can’t prioritise – it’s not your fault, you don’t have to fix it, it’s not your responsibility, you can get help. There will be good times, they mightn’t be forever but the parents/adult’s behaviour can mostly be managed. There is hope.
L: There is hope. That’s perfect. I feel like I want to get that emblazoned on a T-shirt or just like, tattooed on my forehead or something.
D: (Laughs) There is hope?
L: Yes (laughs). If I were to get a tattoo, that’s what it would be.
D: Well, I think that’s the important thing to know.
L: Yes and it can be so easy to forget sometimes. So that’s just so important.
D: The other thing I think is important is that there can be good times. In Big and Me they do good things together. They do what they know about, and that’s digging – they have a good time and it’s good to know that there can be good times as well.
L: Yes, and I suppose it means that the mental illness doesn’t necessarily overshadow the person, and they can still be a parent or a care-giver and be a good parent and a good care-giver – with mental illness.
D: So Big is flawed, but the number one character in Small’s life.
L: Okay, I’m so happy, and I love this so much, it’s speaking to my soul. Okay, next question. At Satellite we try to foster connection through different activities and programs and they’re often centred around creative outlets. For example, we ran a Music, Art and Song Writing program earlier this year, where for part of the program, the kids were invited to have like a story sharing time – which would kind of be a bit heavy – but then we’d balance that by maybe having food or doing painting or song writing afterwards so that the kids could experience both heavy and light in much the same way that everyone does in their lives. Writing a book about experiences can definitely be a creative outlet – I know that it’s one for me – how would you describe the experience of sharing your ideas through creativity and through writing and picture books, or just writing in general?
D: Well I love sharing ideas. I love being able to communicate ideas. I think of myself as an artist, and being an author came as a surprise, so it’s a rich thing to communicate, to be able to understand your thoughts through other mediums. It’s wonderful to talk to people after they’ve read Big and Me and a couple of other the books that I think are important, and to see that in some little way it’s changed some part of their life, that’s pretty good. The books have all been children’s books, picture books. I get a huge buzz out of thinking sort of round about 6 o’clock at night, there’s all these little kids curled up in bed having my book read to them.
D: I get maybe one, only tonight, I don’t know, but that’s good, that’s wonderful, I love that.
L: That’s amazing. And I suppose, do you find that, because I know for me, writing can often be a form of self-care and it can kind of be a way of writing myself out of like, if I’m like stressed about something, I’ll just think, okay, stop focusing on that and focus on getting words on the page. Do you find that something like that because you said you consider yourself an artist.
D: Not with Big and Me, because it wasn’t my journey, it wasn’t my struggle, but with some others. There’s a book I’ve got in this pile here called Refugees and I was – and still am – pretty angry about the way our country and other countries treat people in need. So I was furious about that and I wanted to communicate that so I wrote that with that intent.
L: What have been some – some of the most significant responses you’ve received from people who’ve read Big and Me?
D: Very early on with that – before I’d had the conversation with Ford Street another publisher had agreed to publish the book and had asked me to take it to dummy stage, which, which is, in my case, small black and white drawings. I was asked if I could test run it for them so I sent a copy of the book to some teacher librarians that I held in high regard in a range of schools and places. There were some expensive, exclusive schools in inner city, some in country, towns and some working with children way out and said, can you run this past your kids and see what they think?
They did that in different ways but one was in a country town and the way they work is they worked in little teams of two, students. So I got letters back that were clearly written by two different people, different handwriting and so in one letter so they teamed up and wrote to me. One of them from was two girls, and they gave me a bit of, you know, you could do this or you could do that – (Laughs) – check on your spelling and stuff like that, which was great. But one of them said my buddy’s little brother doesn’t speak, and she thought it was her fault, and after reading your book, she realised that it’s not. And I thought it doesn’t have to go any further than this, because it’s already done its job.
L: Oh my goodness! Yes! I think I might cry.
D: Yeah, well, I just about did. So yeah, that was a highlight.
L: That’s so powerful. That’s the beauty of the fact that you didn’t put labels specifically in the book, it allows them to kind of apply that to their experience, and kind of gives those young people power in being able to see themselves or others reflected in fiction. Oh, I love it so much! And I know that even in the groups that I’ve co-facilitated, Big and Me is the book that we read to the kids most often. A lot of the time when we’re trying to deliver psychoeducation, and we’re trying to give them activities and stuff that won’t stick, but if you sit them down in front of someone who’s sitting there reading that book, their attention will be on you the whole time and they’ll be nodding and they’ll be asking questions and it’s just beautiful because we’ve given them this indirect accessible way to think about an issue which is really tough to think about any other way.
So why do you think the conversation around mental health is important for young people?
D: I think it’s important for everybody. I guess because we’re all, we’re all affected, every family, is going to have members in the family that are in some way affected by mental health – so we need to talk about it – you’d never get anywhere if you don’t talk about things. You can’t solve it if you don’t know it’s there and face it.
L: One other question I had was around the illustrations. Um, did you do those?
L: How did you decide on the illustrations? What did you want the illustrations to add and I guess how did they fit in with that narrative of a carer or a parent having mental ill health?
D: A picture book is a team job between the illustrations and the words. Big and Me is fairly heavy with text, almost too much. Some of my books don’t have any on a lot of the pages – it’s just a picture so the illustrations are doing the work. That’s important – if you only heard the words of Big and Me you wouldn’t know they were machines. I don’t think I refer to them as machines in the book – the illustrations are telling that part of the story, the illustrations amplify the words.
L: Yes, I think they really do. I mean, the words are brilliant, but like you said the two kind of complement each other and work together to give a really realistic and sensitive portrayal of what it’s like to grow up with a parent with a mental illness.
D: Have you ever looked at someone dancing and turned the sound off?
L: No! But I think I need to do that.
D: It looks really silly. You can listen to the music and it’s a nice piece of music, but if you see the dancer and hear the music, it all fits together. I think books – picture books – are like that.
L: I love that explanation. I’m actually going to do that now – it’s going to give me a renewed appreciation for picture books. Thank you so much David.