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The power of small things

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Small Things is graphic novel about a young boy who struggles to shake the monsters that follow him everywhere. There are no words in the book, but its intricate, black and white drawings tell a familiar story of loneliness, sadness and lost hope, but also reveal that help is never far away.

The book was created by graphic design alumna Mel Tregonning, and its message is especially close for her family, who lost Mel to suicide in 2014. The Tregonning family was determined to finish the book, and in September 2016 Allen & Unwin published Small Things with the final three pages drawn by Perth-born artist, Shaun Tan.

Violet Tregonning, Mel’s younger sister and also a Curtin alumna, talks about her family’s decision to publish the book to raise awareness about mental health, and to share a beautiful visual narrative that speaks to readers of all ages and backgrounds.

“I think Small Things appeals to a variety of people from all walks of life, and that is the true beauty of this book: how adaptable and relatable it is,” says Violet. “Everyone we meet is touched and affected by it in some way. I know it has already had a profound affect on teachers and mental health professionals who see the educational potential to use Small Things as a tool to launch into many different topics of discussion and study.”

Illustration of the boy in Small Things
Small Things is about a boy who feels alone with his worries.

Despite the recent increase in public discussion about mental health, one in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any year, and suicide remains one of the leading causes of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44.

“The stigma [of telling others that we’re not okay] is strong,” says Violet on mental illness. “We are all collectively worried that people will see us differently if we disclose a mental health concern, especially in the workplace.

“I think this is because we need education early. When I was at high school, we were never taught about mental health and mental illness, and this is simply not okay because this is when you truly need it, and when you develop so much of your belief system which will carry you into adulthood.”

Violet hopes that Small Things will encourage readers, particularly children, to feel comfortable asking for help and to talk to someone if they’re struggling. She also hopes it teaches children to be kind to others and understand that we can all face difficulties – the boy in the book is bullied by his school peers, which only gives strengths to his monsters.

Kindness and empathy are strong themes in Small Things, and reflect the type of person that Mel was.

“She was one of the greatest types of people,” says Violet. “Incredibly smart, yet funny in a silly way. We would laugh for hours. She was very ethical and kind, she taught me right and wrong, and explained things to me that I didn’t understand at first, because she wanted to better the people around her with her knowledge, and genuinely wanted to know their opinions.”

Violet and Mel Tregonning at Violet's wedding in 2014.
Violet and Mel Tregonning at Violet’s wedding in 2014.

Violet says her sister was a very disciplined artist and continued to develop her skills after completing her graphic design degree in 2004.

“She continued to self-study anatomy in order to draw more accurately. Even if she was drawing cartoon anime style like in Small Things, you will notice the characters look so real, and that is the depth of her training and her dedication to her art.”

Violet is fiercely proud of Mel’s talent, but the strength she and her family required to publish Small Things cannot be commended enough. However, Violet says there was never a discussion about what would happen to her sister’s drawings.

“This book has become the most important thing to us since losing Mel,” she says. “When you lose someone you love so deeply, you have to find something to ground yourself and make sense of, and that was Small Things. There was no way we would have let Mel’s work fall apart on our terms.

“Having the support of worldwide publishers Allen & Unwin and famous illustrator Shaun Tan was the greatest gift, and we will be eternally thankful for their support, passion and guidance. I can’t explain the intensity this project has had for my family other than to say it was fueled by unconditional love.”

Violet with her parents and husband at the launch of Small Things in September 2016.
Violet with her parents and husband at the launch of Small Things in September 2016.

Violet has been instrumental in promoting the book and sharing the story behind it since its release, and has been interviewed by Triple J’s Hack program, Channel Ten’s The Project, ABC Brisbane Radio and Marie Claire magazine. The original drawings from the book will be exhibited in art galleries around the state later this year, including Bunbury’s Regional Art Gallery in July and the John Curtin Gallery in October for Mental Health Week.

But simply viewing the first few pages of Small Things, it’s clear that it can hold its own as a children’s book. The West Australian listed it as one of the most significant WA books of 2016, and there is development in entering the work in the children’s picture book of the year awards. Violet says it’s something Mel would be extremely proud of.

“To know the book is achieving such a high status on its own merit is all we ever wanted.”

If you’re a Curtin student or staff member and need help or support, you can contact Curtin’s Counselling and Health services.

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