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Laura Dockrill on Why She Wrote Grey

Posted on 3rd May 2024 by Anna Orhanen

A sensitive and beautifully reassuring examination of how to handle overwhelming emotions, Grey – the heartwarming new picture book from Laura Dockrill and Lauren Child – recounts the story of a child who feels like all their colours have disappeared. In this exclusive piece, Laura Dockrill talks about the experience she had as a new mother that led her to write this story and the importance of finding ways to talk to children about mental health. 

Why Grey?

When I was pregnant with my son, people would say, ‘how lucky your kid is to have a children’s author as a mum.’ This made me feel like I would be a total natural at parenting. I found myself stereotyping my own role as a ‘children’s author’ and a mother too. Tropes and cliches that I had always ignored, I was now embarrassingly boxing myself inside. Maybe they were right, I worked around young people; it must mean I was ‘fun’, ‘upbeat’, ‘energetic’, ‘imaginative’, ‘kind’ and ‘colourful.’

Except, six years ago, following a traumatic birth, I was hit with the debilitating mental illness, Postpartum Psychosis, completely out of the blue. The illness hit me like a tidal wave. Turned me and my young family upside down and inside out, crashing me at rock bottom. I was hospitalised in a psychiatric ward, separated from my new born, who was just 3 weeks old. Nothing about this matched my expectations of motherhood. I was not fun. Or upbeat or kind or anything else I had hoped. Least of all colourful. I was grey: a ghost. A gravestone. Storm. Every day, just to stay alive, felt like pedalling through concrete. Yet still I walked around in bright clothes and pink lipstick, like I always had done, like the colours were proving to the world I was well. Even when I wasn’t. Colours were a mask.

I had never experienced mental illness before yet the worst symptom of my illness was shame. And that’s not even a real symptom, it’s something external, that we put on ourselves; why should I feel ashamed of something that could happen to anybody, like being hit by a car or a heart attack? Why hadn’t I been taught about mental illness at school instead of messing around with a protractor of which I’ve never used in my life, or algebra? Why wasn’t I given the language, as soon as possible, the tools to ask for help, the knowledge and wisdom to understand that it’s possible to recover; the courage to ask for help? I was desperate for communication, conversation, warmth.

My mum, who was adopted at birth, said she always knew she was adopted, there was never moment of big reveal or shock, it was just was. So, during my recovery I began to tell my little boy what had happened after he was born in a way he might understand; I said that ‘all my colours had gone’, that I felt, ‘grey.’ He just accepted this with an, ‘aw’ and toddled off. But I knew that if we kept talking, one day, it would click and we’d both be grateful for it.

It’s not an easy thing to barge into your publishers waving a scrap of paper around saying you want to write about depression for 5-year-olds but that’s exactly what happened. And they said, ok, yes, let’s do it. I adore my publishers for taking that risk and for being as tenacious and as fearless as they are. Never in a million years did I think we’d have the legendary icon that is Lauren Child along for the ride, who just seemed to blast everything into life, her work is so beautiful and deep; full of feeling. Collaborating with Lauren is just another sparkly silver lining that I am grateful to the illness for.

Sharing lived experience is crucial to human survival, real life testimony, proof that we can and will endure hardship but can also make it through. We cannot pretend to little ones or ourselves that difficult things don’t exist, but share hope and empathy. Silence only inflames shame and stigma. Grey is not a scary, dark book but one of empowerment, it’s a bedtime story of comfort, of unconditional love and true acceptance and I am so proud of what we’ve made. 

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