International Childhood Cancer Day (ICCD), which is held on February 15 each year, is a worldwide collaborative campaign in order to raise awareness about childhood cancer and to show support for children and adolescents with cancer, the survivors, and their families.
On the occasion of this year’s ICCD, we spoke with Grit Brunner. She created both the text and the illustrations for a picture book on childhood leukemia as part of her school leaving examination in 2021. With her book “Does a Monster East My Hair?”, Grit Brunner offers a helping hand to little patients and their supporters while facing the challenges of diagnosis and treatment. The picture book was originally published in German in September 2021 and has meanwhile been translated into English, Spanish, and French.
You originally wrote and illustrated the picture book as your school leaving thesis (“Matura”). How did you come up with this topic? What was your motivation to write such a book?
I started thinking about the topic of my thesis very early on. In the process, I realized that I wanted to do something creative and something medical. A picture book on the subject of childhood leukemia is a good way to combine both aspects. In addition, I would like to use this book to help people affected by the disease to come to terms with it.
It feels great to see the book printed. However, it still feels unreal so far. I never imagined that my picture book would be found on the shelves of bookstores, private homes or, for example, hospital libraries. So far, I have received a lot of positive feedback from doctors and support group staff.
How did you go about it? Where did you start? How did you find your style?
I systematically researched and read extensive literature on leukemia and creating picture books to give me a good knowledge base. I also looked at picture books on all kinds of topics for creative inspiration.
At the beginning, I came up with a rough plot outline. Based on that, I wrote the story and illustrated it. Throughout the process, I kept adjusting and revising the images and text. I think everyone of us has their own style, and it’s not the first time I painted something. After a few sketches, I got into it and found my style.
How did you learn about the disease, and how did you ensure that your book is medically accurate?
Mainly through medical books, but also on the Internet, such as the Swiss Cancer League (“Krebsliga”) website. I read a lot of reference books about leukemia and summarized the relevant basics about this disease, including diagnosis and treatment, in an additional theory section of my thesis. In addition, I exchanged ideas with my father, who is a medical doctor.
How did you develop the leading character? Did you know from the beginning what she looks like, what she does, what kind of character she has?
At the beginning I only thought about a rough plot. Only during the actual writing did her character develop. Before I created the final illustrations, I tried out various ideas. Finally, the girl developed from these sketches.
Why was it important to you to tell this story?
Childhood leukemia is the most common oncological disease in children up to the age of 15. The sick child, the siblings, the parents and the general environment are exposed to great physical and psychological stress. In addition, there are not many picture books about leukemia in which the child itself is ill. It is important that children understand their disease and know what is happening to them. When you explain a disease to a child you must not trigger fear, but rather give courage and confidence in an evidence-based and empathetic manner.
Who do you think should read the book? Who is your story aimed at?
The illness affects not only the sick child, but also the environment. Life changes abruptly, and parents in particular are very worried about their child. Siblings are sometimes afraid of being blamed for the illness, for example, because they have teased their sister or brother. Often the parents worry so much about the sick child that they have less time for the others. This makes the siblings sad. Therefore, it is important that they understand why their parents are sad and spend less time with them.
Author of children’s books or doctor? What does your professional future look like?
If everything works out, I will study medicine. Creating picture books gives me a lot of pleasure, but I want it to remain a hobby. I don’t plan to write another book at the moment, but maybe there will be a suitable time to create another one in the future.
Many thanks for your time and for the interview.