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Helping kids feel a little: Artist Evie Kemp and author Jenny Palmer team up to tackle New Zealand’s mental health stigma

It’s no secret that Aotearoa has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world, with initiatives to solve this being hotly debated. Friends and creative minds Jenny Palmer and Evie Kemp hope their new book, Feel a Little, will lay the groundwork early on teaching the younger generation it’s okay to feel and speak up about their emotions.

 

The Feel A Little book is pitched as a book about ‘big feelings for little ones’, with 14 different emotions explored through illustrated characters drawn by Kemp and original poems penned by Palmer.

The idea for it grew from Palmer’s online weekly poem series into something bigger. Her and Kemp were long-term friends who had been searching for the perfect project to collaborate on.

Like many New Zealanders, both Palmer and Kemp have been impacted by mental and emotional health issues within their families, and were inspired to do something to help.

They thought a children’s book that talked freely and honestly about emotions would be a great way to come together creatively and use the power of the written word and art to combat New Zealand’s mental health stigma – and equip the next generation with skills that will help them weather difficult situations later in life.

We spoke with the pair about the creative process and the inspiration behind it.

Idealog: How did the idea for Feel A Little come about?

Jenny: I write and publish weekly poems in series as A Little Ink (that’s how my alphabet book, A Little ABC came about as well) and Evie has illustrated several books in the past, along with running her creative design business. We talked about a collaboration during our very first lunch together. This feelings project was perfect for us because talking about our feelings has basically been our friendship from day one and we’re both really passionate about mental health issues and the importance of being open about emotions. We came up with the concept doing just that over dinner out.

What kind of research did you gather and how did this inform the creative process for the book? 

Jenny: We both researched a lot – we were a little intimidated by the importance of tackling these big issues with children! We used education, play therapy, psychology and counselling blogs, as well as TED talks and written articles. We were always sharing links back and forth or pinning inspirations for printables on Pinterest! Not to mention childcare backgrounds and we're Mama and Godmother to my little ones, so some on the ground research there. It all informed our resources and for me, the poetry. I tried to give descriptive words and coping or communication strategies in the verses as much as possible and to make them conversation prompts. Evie’s illustrations of my poems came so much from her amazing conceptualising of the feelings. They were so thoughtfully designed.

What inspired the idea to talk about feelings in a children’s book – did you think there wasn’t enough dialogue around mental health and emotions out there?

Jenny: Definitely not! There’s never enough! As a community, we’re facing so many issues with depression and isolation and mental health issues, especially our youth. Both Evie and I wish this book had been around when we were little. We really dreamed it would get people talking about emotions with children right from the start, normalising them and opening up that space early, and it’s been incredible hearing back from parents and educators saying they never even considered talking about it and they can’t believe the conversations they’re having now. It blows our minds every time. We’re so hopeful about the impact of this book, thanks to everyone’s support.

How did you select which emotions to focus in on with the poems? 

Jenny: Again, collaboration! We wanted to represent the feelings that were really relevant to children and show the whole spectrum of emotion as valid and open to discussion. We had so many, we actually had to cut back when it came to publishing the book.


Jenny Palmer and Evie Kemp

How did you come up with the ideas for what the illustrated characters looked like? 

Evie: It was a really instinctive process, I think about the feeling and how it made me feel, and then the basic shape would come to me. I pull faces as I’m drawing to get the expressions I need, so I probably look a bit funny while I’m doing it. The patterns and colours involved are also just me letting loose on the emotion, it sounds very cliché but I genuinely just went with my gut instinct and was really careful to not over think it too much! I’d then send the draft through to Jenny and we’d make sure the text and image aligned with each other. We’re pretty much always on the same page (literally).

Was it easy to interpret each emotion into a visual idea? 

Evie: Some were definitely easier than others! I actually found ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ to be two of the hardest, they seemed like such broad and varied emotions to express with a single character. Others have obviously been sitting in my self-conscious: ‘jealous’, ‘worried’ and ‘confident’, for example. 

With the 'negative' emotions, did you ensure those characters still looked sweet to ensure there was no stigma around feeling that way? 

Evie: We were really conscious of not having any ‘bad’ emotions because every emotion is valid, even if negative. With feelings like ‘shy’ and ‘nervous’, it was especially important to be sensitive to the fact that they’re often not just emotions, but character traits and that with them comes a whole lot of positive things too.

With writing, do you think it’s more difficult to find the right tone when writing for children?

Jenny: I love writing for children! I think it's vital we don't tone down for them. We can engage them with rhythm and rhyme and then let their natural curiosity encourage them to learn new words or ideas along the way, they're so easily inspired. Kids are tough critics though. You have to have your whimsy, humour and imagination game on if you want to make it writing for children. That's the kind of tone I'm after in writing for them (and for the adults reading with them too).

How would you describe your creative process like when writing?

Jenny: I always think of writing poetry differently to prose, as being like the chapter in Roald Dahl's BFG where he catches dreams. Poems always feel to me like they're already complete out there and you just have to find that glint, have the right net and then not be afraid to leap around wildly until you nab it! I'm often bumping into things, half an eye inward on the glint and then frenetically scribbling till the poem appears. There's usually a physical pen, paper and a lot of talking aloud to myself involved as well.

Why was there the decision made to create a Kickstarter campaign to launch it? What was the response from it like? 

Evie: It was really important to us to create Feel A Little with a community behind it, and to remain true to our original vision which is why we decided, along with Mary Egan Publishing, to use Kickstarter to fund the production of the book. The response to the Kickstarter was incredible with us reaching our target in just five days and doubling it by the end. By using Kickstarter, we were also able to donate money and books to a small charity we support called Foster Hope - that provides items to New Zealand kids living in foster care. The whole process made the book a real event and incredibly personal.

What's feedback been like overall since it was launched?

Evie: The feedback on the book has just been overwhelming. Every week without fail we are so moved by stories of how the book is being used, a child the book has helped, and lovely photos and videos too. We’re so lucky that our community is just as passionate about ‘Feel A Little’ as we are.

We teach kids how to do math and read and write from an early age, but there isn’t so much dialogue around emotions and mental health. Do you think the way we treat these issues in New Zealand needs an overhaul? In your opinion, should education play a role in that? 

Evie: Absolutely. As a society, we are beginning to acknowledge the impact that mental health plays in so many people’s lives, and it’s really great to see a move towards encouraging open discussion and support in the community. However, expecting adults to be able to talk about their feelings when they haven't been brought up to do so is a bit like being told to ride a bike when you've never been on one before! Talking to children about emotions is a valuable practice for the adults involved too, and we believe that if it was taught more widely both at home and in school, we'd all get a lot better at it.

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