Small people can feel big emotions. But, they might not have the skills or life experiences to know how to deal with them.
That’s part of the reason Tamara Ellis Smith and Nancy Whitesides created GRIEF IS AN ELEPHANT, a picture book about loss that releases Oct. 24 from Chronicle Books. I’m thrilled they’re both joining Picture Book Builders today to talk about how this book came to be.
Let’s start with a question for Tam:
My favorite picture books are ones that leave me, as a reader, feeling something that lingers once the story is over. Your book certainly does that. What made you want to approach the topic of grief in a picture book? And, how did you translate that big, overwhelming emotion into a format young readers could relate to? How long did it take you to “get it right”?
I didn’t choose, at first, to approach the topic of grief in a picture book. When I began Grief is an Elephant it was actually titled Waiting is an Elephant and was about, as you can guess, what it’s like to wait for something. I played around with that idea for a while, exploring waiting in a bunch of different contexts: waiting for something you are afraid of, waiting for something you desperately want. I may have even sent one draft to my agent. But it didn’t work.
I kept trying to get it right until life intersected with my writing in a way that made me stop and totally pivot. All in the matter of a few months, my son’s friend died and my friend died, and Grief is an Elephant came pouring out of me. It didn’t even feel like a conscious choice. It wasn’t perfect the first time around (or the twelfth!), but I knew grief was the right topic.
So, the metaphor of the elephant was there from the start. The grief I felt after my son’s friend and my friend died felt like an enormous, heavy, living weight: totally elephant-like. And I thought—hoped—the metaphor would resonate for kids too. When we sent the story to Victoria Rock at Chronicle, the arc simply went from elephant to firefly. No other animals in between. It was Victoria who asked if I could explore using more animals. I think she may have specifically suggested the animals getting smaller and smaller. I loved the idea. It made sense to me.
It probably took me another four or five drafts to “get it right” and then Victoria and I continued to work on it after Chronicle bought it.
Wow, that’s a powerful story. Nancy, when you got Tam’s manuscript, what was your first reaction? And, what process did you go through in deciding how to illustrate it? The book is a series of metaphors, and it seems like the illustrations could have gone so many different ways. What did you consider when making your illustration decisions?
My first reaction to Tam’s manuscript was of amazement and also sadness. It felt like Tam’s story was leading me through an emotional journey of my own grief. It is difficult to explain. It would be like explaining grief. It is hard to put into words.
Yes, I did a lot of visual thinking is how I would describe it. I read and reread the manuscript, trying to picture the child going through the story.
It was important to me the animals did not appear too scary. They needed to have a certain air of melancholy, empathy, and a sense that something else was going on.
Other important considerations were the color palettes and textures for the book. When we are grieving, the world looks different. It is like we are dreaming, but it is not a dream. It is real. That is the feeling I had which I tried very hard to show especially in some spreads. When we lose someone, it is like the world looks so different and hurtful, and more shadowy. How do I try to illustrate that feeling? That is what I tried to do.
As much as you’re both comfortable, can you each share how your personal experiences with loss and grief shaped your work on this book? How do you think the book is different and better because of your experiences?
TAM: Well, as I said earlier, this book wouldn’t exist at all if I hadn’t experienced those two losses. I struggled a lot after them. I felt overwhelmed, couldn’t really name what I was feeling, couldn’t pinpoint where I was feeling it, couldn’t articulate it, and so my brain did what it always does in that kind of meaning-making situation—I began to write my way through my confusion.
And then, a long while later, as I was revising the story for Victoria, my father went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a tough but promising heart surgery—only the surgery wasn’t a success. My father was in the hospital for the next six weeks with his brain in a sort of delirium and his body fighting to survive, and my two sisters, my brother, my mom, and I tried to do what we could to help him “come back.” It was June 2020, and COVID was in the front of everyone’s minds and lives, and although my dad’s neurologist told us the more time we spent with him, the more of a chance he would have of “coming back,” the hospital policy was strict. One visitor, once a day, for one hour.
I would revise Grief sometimes, during those hours I had with my dad. I was feeling all of those hard-to-articulate feelings again, so I did what I knew how to do, by my dad’s side—I translated them onto the page.
My father died in the hospital at the end of those six weeks. But I did read the manuscript to him before he was gone.
NANCY: Tam, I cannot even imagine how, but you’ve translated all those feelings onto the page. I felt them all when I read your story.
I had also lost someone quite dear to me, my father. It’s been years, but this type of loss never leaves a person. It is like a piece of you is gone, and it is just how it is. While I was working on our book, memories and emotions from that time of my life came back like sharp glass. So there was the initial difficulty of trying to get a handle on my feelings and for me as an artist, I always try to use my feelings, I suppose all artists do. But for this particular story, my memories helped me decide what would feel true and not contrived. I hope the book comes across as more nuanced.
And I know Tam understands what I am talking about.
TAM: I do. And this is why collaborating with Nancy has been such an extraordinary experience. When Nancy was chosen to illustrate the story, I had seen her work and loved it, so I was thrilled and grateful right off the bat, but then we began chatting on Instagram. First basic, sweet stuff:
Me: How lucky am I?
Nancy: I’m the lucky one!
Nancy: I read your post about your father. I am so sorry. I also lost my father, but I was not able to make it home (Philippines.)
Me: Oh, Nancy. I’m so sorry about losing your father too … I’m amazed and humbled by our father connection …
Nancy: I was also amazed about the connection between our fathers. You did not know that, nor did Victoria and our agents. It was like the universe saying we are meant to work together on this project…So I will draw with my heart more than ever for this story. I will count both of us lucky.
You ask how this book is different and better because of our experiences, Pat, and this encapsulates it for me. Grief is a lonely place. And it has to be. No one else can experience your specific loss. But it’s also such a profound point of connection. I don’t think we are great at either end of the grief spectrum in the dominant culture here, but the process of working with Nancy on Grief is an Elephant felt like a way to navigate all of it—still feels like it, really. And I believe that connection, empathy, and grace is infused in the book.
I noticed that there appear to be pictures of the people you dedicated the book to incorporated into the art in the book. That is such a nice touch. How did the idea for that come about?
TAM: I think I asked Victoria if Chronicle put photos of their writers and illustrators on their book jackets and, if they did, could we substitute our fathers, and she said they weren’t planning on including photos of us, but she’d see what Nancy and the rest of the team thought about adding our fathers somewhere.
I think you came up with the placement of our dads, Nancy? Is that right?
NANCY: That’s right. When it was time to create the final dummy, our art director asked if I would be open to adding pictures of our dads in the dedication page. I did not know at that time that it was Tam’s idea. On the other hand, Tam didn’t know how I would create the art and space for our dads so it was a poignant surprise and moment for both of us, just like how Tam described—our connection.
TAM: No, I didn’t know. And so when I saw the dedication page for the first time, you’re right, Nancy, I was so surprised—and so humbled by the thoughtful, sensitive, and integrated way you did it.
Tam, I also noticed that grief is treated almost as another character in the book. It’s capitalized, like a proper name, and referred to as “she” and “her.” What led to your decision to do that? What do you think it adds to the book?
Great question. Grief was not only a character from the beginning, but she was an elephant from the get-go too. This felt true to me. It does feel hard to breathe under all that Grief, as though some sort of animal is on top of you. And in my experience, the process of moving through Grief (which isn’t linear or predictable, but that’s a whole other discussion) feels like being in a relationship with it. That feels true to me. I wanted our little girl to have an actual character (or series of characters) to connect with—and I hoped this would feel true to the kids reading our book too.
Nancy, What are some things in the art that you hope people notice? Point them out for us, just in case they don’t!
One thing I hope people would notice is there is an animal not mentioned by Tam that appears in the book. Maybe a young reader with keen eyes will find this animal in the book.
Another thing I hope people will notice is how large the elephant is in the beginning and how small the child is, and as the story progresses a change happens. The child is much larger and the firefly is so small. There is a reason for that, but I leave it to the reader to interpret this. Also notice the color of the sky with the moon. The sky is bright red and I will say what it means for me, the red color means love. I wonder how the reader interprets this.
Finally, I hope people will notice how beautiful animals are, and how they express their feelings. They suffer fear and loss just like we do, and in particular notice how the elephant nestled the tip of her trunk behind her ear. In my research, I learned this is a way for them to comfort themselves. I’ve also learned how elephants display their grief and acknowledge the loss of one of their own, touching the bones and tusks of elephants’ remains, staying with an elephant that has passed. The world is much much more beautiful and meaningful because of them.
I’m a firm believer that young readers are fully equipped to handle books with big emotions and feelings. I mean, they already feel them. How do you both hope this book will help young readers, whether or not they’ve experienced grief?
TAM: I am in total agreement with you, Pat. Young readers are fully equipped to handle books with big emotions because, just like you said, they already have those big emotions; they already have big, hard things happening in their lives.
I hope Grief is an Elephant is a way to name an emotion that feels unnameable. I hope it’s a doorway into conversation about grief. I hope it’s a way to make sense of it—even a little, even for a minute.
NANCY: Yes, I agree young readers can handle books with big emotions and feelings. I hope in this book a young reader can hear Tam’s gentle words, and see the pictures and somehow the feelings of being sad and hurt make sense. They see in the book a child who cries and wishes for grief to go away. That they see a child just like them who wishes to the moon, and misses their loved one. I hope it gives them some sense of reassurance that they are not alone, and that other children may feel the same way.
What else would you like to share about the book?
NANCY: First, I would like to share how Tam and I put our hearts into this book. I would also like to share how grief is such a powerful emotion. There is nothing like it. But perhaps there is one emotion even more powerful than grief, and that is love. But these two emotions are tied together. We only mourn people and animals, and memories we love. To grieve is to love.
TAM: Yes. A million times yes. You can’t have grief without love. And you can’t have love without grief. They’re entwined. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. One that I’m still learning, to be honest.
Grief is also not something that can be “fixed.” It’s not something that goes away. It’s not predictable. It shape-shifts, it hides, its size changes, your relationship to it changes.
Sometimes it’s incredibly hard to know how to interact with someone who’s grieving. I want to share here something that might not be obvious: I chose the Grief animals by the size of their ears. Our fox, for example, looks unusual because she is a fennec fox, known for having large ones. I wanted all of our animals to have big ears to emphasize the act of listening, because it IS hard to know what to do or say to someone filled with so much sadness and it’s important to remember that being there—doing nothing and saying nothing—bearing witness to someone’s grief can mean EVERYTHING to that person.
Thank you so much for joining us! Where can people find you on social media?
NANCY: Thank you so much for having us here, Picture Book Builders. It is an honor to be here. I am a hermit-like artist who sort of shows up on Instagram the most as @nancyillustrator. Please find my work there and also on my website, nancywhitesides.com.
TAM: Yes, thank you so much. I love Picture Book Builders—as a collective and as all of you amazing individual writers and illustrators. I can be reached primarily at my website and on Instagram, and I’m starting to be on Pinterest too: