Meh: A Picture Book About Depression for Children

Deborah Malcolm's wordless picture book, Meh, is a thoughtful and touching look at what it feels like to be sad all the time. With beautiful illustrations and a story that invites reader interpretation, it's a lovely introduction to discussions about mental health with youngsters, and an affecting read for adults too. In this interview we talk to Deborah about how the book came to be, as well as how her illustration and storytelling style has developed.

Front cover of Meh by Deborah Malcolm
Can you tell us a wee bit about how the book came about?

Meh was originally created as part of my honours project at university. I always had the desire to make a picture book and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. The first spark of inspiration came from an event I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. My favourite author, Neil Gaiman, was discussing how he disliked conventional story types that followed a popular yet unrealistic portrayal of how real life works. He said he would rather challenge those conventions even if the subject matter was unpopular. I felt myself totally agreeing with him, and almost instantly knew I wanted to explore mental health issues. It’s a massive problem at the moment. There is still a lot of stigma that surrounds mental health problems and not many people enjoy talking about it despite the fact that talking is very useful for recovery.

A few months after I graduated I approached the publisher ThunderStone Books and asked if they would be interested in publishing Meh. Although they mainly specialise in science and language education for children, they took a chance with my book as they liked it so much. Thankfully, it paid off for them as it has turned out to be quite successful (for a rather unknown publisher and author anyway!).

The book is wordless. Why did you make this choice? Do you think you'll use this approach for future books?

The book became wordless mainly due to the fact that I couldn’t find the right words to fit the pictures! When I added text to the pages it felt like I was stating the obvious or telling the reader to see the book the way I had envisioned. It just didn’t feel right. I also realised that by removing the words I was allowing the reader to experience the story in their own personal way, just as they would if they suffered from depression. Although there are some common similarities with thoughts or feelings when depressed, how we experience and deal with them is personal and unique to us.

I would like to continue using this approach with future books. I’m very fond of the idea of reading images to discover its story. My favourite art movement is Pre-Raphaelite, as many of these paintings use colour, composition and symbolism to allow the painting to tell a story far beyond the image itself. 

Although I know I am capable of creating wordless stories it is very difficult to get “right”, especially with such sensitive and complex subject matter.

I wanted to create a balance between tackling the subject sensitively and accurately whilst making the story understandable to children.

Your illustration style in this book is really apt for the subject matter, with really bold main characters in the foreground and more opaque stuff in the background. Would you say you have a preferred style, and how has your style been influenced and shaped?

My illustration style is something I’m always trying to explore. One particular aspect that I am always aware of is the impression of movement in characters. I often struggle to keep the same flow that an initial sketch has when I’m creating the final illustration. The illustration style of Oliver Jeffers was of great influence for Meh. His picture book characters are often simplistic in detail but have a lot of life to them. Then his background work can be quite complex and detailed, adding an effective balance of style contrast. You can possibly see slight similarities of style in Meh, such as the boy’s large head and thin limbs. I like creating the impression of texture but I also like clean and bold shapes, although I’m always open to trying all sorts of visual styles.

Were there any other influences on the book, in terms of the storytelling?

There were a handful of books that I used as case studies whilst creating Meh. I felt that addressing the subject of depression directly and literally would be too overwhelming for children to understand, and so looked for stories that had the same message but were told in a more metaphorical style. The most important influence in terms of storytelling came from a picture book that has never been translated into English. Haret til Mamma (Mother’s Hair) by Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus is a Norwegian picture book about a mother who becomes depressed and how that affects her young daughter as well as herself. The mother’s hair becomes an overwhelming mess and the young girl becomes lost within the tangles. It becomes somewhat of an adventure after that, which helps engage the reader while still tackling the bigger picture of what having depression is like and how it can be treated. The fact that it isn’t a literal interpretation of depression makes it far more accessible for a child, which I felt was very important in getting the message across.

Awareness, education and support are improving, but there is a lot still to work on, and I am proud to be a small part of that change.

The subject matter is challenging. What was the experience of creating a book about depression like? Did you enjoy it?

It was very difficult to create a picture book about depression. I wanted to create a balance between tackling the subject sensitively and accurately whilst making the story understandable to children. There was a lot of concern surrounding people’s reaction to the book. I understand that there will always be those who dislike or disagree with certain issues, but I was scared that people would say it was “triggering”, it didn’t make sense or that it diminished the severity of the illness. Thankfully, the book has received a lot of positive feedback so it was certainly worth the risk. What I enjoyed the most was the fact that I was creating a tool that could potentially help others begin their journey to recovery. Awareness, education and support are improving, but there is a lot still to work on, and I am proud to be a small part of that change. There were times where I just wanted to create fun and silly stories full of colour, but I’m happy that I stuck with this idea.

Where are you interested in going from here, in terms of projects?

The goal is to create another picture book, this time about anxiety. However, it has been a slow process. As Meh was created at university, I had a forced structure and deadlines to help me focus on the project. Now that I am out of education I’m finding it difficult to recreate that routine on top of a full-time job. At the moment the project is on hold, and instead I will try to create a workbook to accompany Meh that encourages children to engage in activities that improves their mental health and ability to share their thoughts and feelings. Hopefully I can get this workbook into schools along with Meh, but it’s quite tough when you aren’t a well known author/illustrator. I’ll continue to promote the book in any way I can and hopefully this will lead to other opportunities.   

If you're interested in exploring mental health, we have some fantastic book lists for adults and teens, as well as a list on conflict resolution and a list about bereavement for 3-7 year olds. If you have any suggestions of books like Meh which could feature on a mental health list for 8-11 year olds, let us know in the comments!

Deborah Malcolm

Deborah Malcolm is an author/illustrator with a First Class Honours Degree in Computer Arts from Abertay University. She particularly enjoys character design and creating visual narrative using symbolism and metaphor. Her hobbies include playing video games, reading comics and petting cats. Deborah is also known for her love of alpacas, goats, Neil Gaiman and lots of hugs.

Her first picture book, Meh, is published by ThunderStone Books.