Trigger warning: This post mentions suicide.
Ryan Abramowitz runs a successful art business and works in marketing part-time, but he realised he also wanted to learn the art and craft of writing children’s books. Although he writes a lot for work, he knew he needed training tailored to the magical world of picture books.
“I felt my writing abilities would greatly benefit from a learning that was specific to teaching the conventions and forms of the picture-book genre. I looked no further than the Australian Writers’ Centre,” Ryan told us.
Ryan completed the course Writing Picture Books, and then joined the Writing Picture Books Masterclass. He has now published his debut picture book, Elegy for an Elephant, a touching and important story that explores grief following loss through suicide, which he wrote and illustrated in consultation with mental health practitioners.
“The Writing Picture Books course shared elements that helped me to anticipate how I could bring harmony and synthesis between my art and writing,” Ryan says.
The structure to tell his story
The assignments in the Writing Picture Books course gave Ryan the structure he needed to be able to start to tell his story.
“I had had so many nebulous thoughts and preliminary ideas for the words of Elegy for an Elephant. But at that stage, I was still fearful about taking the plunge and starting to write. With a few hours left until the assignment for Week 2 was due, and feeling the pressure build, I just started to write.
“It took the pressure and expectation off doing the manuscript itself. It brought me into movement and motion. Then the following assignment asked for another section of the manuscript, and within a few weeks I had gathered some foundations for the manuscript. In this way, the assignments were catalysts for the development of the bodies of the work themselves – in a less pressured and direct way than what can accompany the anxiety of writing the book itself.”
Ryan particularly enjoyed the “exquisite range” of picture books that the course introduced him to and where he could carve a unique place of his own.
“They showcased the breadth and textures of the picture book universe,” Ryan says. “The course was a wonderful first foray into the magical landscape of picture books, and made me even more excited to journey through its terrain.”
As an artist, Ryan also appreciated that the course welcomes writers who are also illustrators.
“Another thing I loved about the Writing Picture Books course was that every week had a bonus tutorial for illustrators. This was particularly helpful for people intending to dually author and illustrate because it expanded the scope of thinking and considerations to include the illustrator's perspective.”
A personal story
Ryan’s debut picture book Elegy for an Elephant comes from a deeply personal experience. Ryan’s father died by suicide, and he and his sisters struggled to come to terms with their father’s decision.
“Elegy for an Elephant is a story of three children seeking their father’s soul,” Ryan says. “As voices of the bereaved, in a nebulous space between the sea and the stars, the book considers the questions that those who have lost someone to suicide can find themselves haunted by. These can include ‘why did you leave me?’ or ‘could I have done anything differently?’. The textures of grief following loss through suicide can include shame, abandonment and guilt for what was and wasn’t done to have changed the outcome of someone taking their life.
“I realised that a picture book would be an accessible format to support those navigating grief and struggling with processing these complexities, for younger and older audiences alike.”
And while the book touches on suicide, its universal themes also explore grief and healing following the loss of loved ones. Given how difficult a subject this can be, Ryan was careful to consult with mental health and suicide support organisations.
“I engaged a wide variety of clinicians and organisations across the mental health community, whose varied feedback helped me to iterate and develop the manuscript into something that was non triggering and activating,” Ryan says. “I also wrote the manuscript in close collaboration and dialogue with many mental health care providers such as child psychologists, suicide bereavement researchers, grief counsellors, psychtherapists and various spiritual leaders.”
Ryan has a deep love of the natural world, so it made sense that his characters were represented as different animals.
“My mother and twin sisters both chose their animals (a lioness and birds, respectively) while I chose a whale because of my deep oceanic affinity and reverie for them. My father was a gentle giant, born in South Africa (as was my whole family). I imagined his soul as an elephant crossing the night sky.
“I feel that having a family comprising different animals can make the book relatable to a wider audience as we can see different qualities of ourselves reflected in different animals. Anthropomorphism is a wonderful way of transcending many of the biases human protagonists or characters may exude through their appearances or any other physical stereotype.”
Ryan continues to work part-time, as well as running his business illustrating Jewish wedding certificates, but has many more ideas for future picture books.
“My sketch diary is brimming with many concepts and drawings involving animal allegories and botanical motifs!” he says. Now that he has self-published his first book, he is excited to publish many more books that explore human nature through expressions of the natural world.
“I think one of the many wonderful things about the AWC is the dynamic variety of courses they have on offer. This probably reflects my own bias, but I would recommend the Writing Picture Books course because it’s the most wonderful foray into the magical world of picture books – what could be more lovely than the experience of reading and art woven together?”
Courses taken at AWC: