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'Animal Appetites' raises autism awareness with an unconventional alphabet

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Andrea Bull wasn't quite sure what to expect when she asked her brother Robert to illustrate the quirky alphabet inspired children's book she'd written. Robert, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, had been drawing for years. But what would he produce when faced with lines like "alligators eating anchovies on an airplane?"

The results were even better than Andrea expected and she and her brother turned a small project into children's book called Animal Appetites.

Andrea hopes to encourage children to learn through the book and to raise autism awareness -- a portion of the book sales going towards the Canucks Autism Network.

When given the right support anyone can succeed no matter their challenges and disabilities she says.

In this interview with rabble, Andrea talks in depth about the creation of the book and what might be coming up for her and her brother in the future. The interview has been edited and condensed.


You said that as someone who has a lot of faith in Robert even you were impressed with the illustrations he gave you. What was it about the art that really struck you?

I thought I would have to guide him a lot more to get something that would sort of be commercially appropriate … but I truly just gave him the text on the plain piece of paper and just said "Rob I need you to draw an alligator eating anchovies on an airplane" and he sent me back the first one and I thought wow I didn't help him at all with it and the whole airplane is there, the alligator you can tell what it is, he's wearing clothes, you can see the anchovies, it's all there!

So I gave him a couple more and as they were coming back more and more I was just blown away by the detail that was in them, how the entire scene was articulated, how the whole page was coloured in. There's tons of information in the background and the characters are really vivid. All the color choices that he used were amazing.


This was originally supposed to be a Christmas present for your parents -- when and why did you decide that you wanted to take it further?

I'd been putting it together and I saw the potential that was there, I saw how great these illustrations were. It sort of made me think even I second guessed what the potential would be here ... maybe this can be something bigger. And I was showing it to people because I was so surprised and they were like "you should do something with this you should make it into a book, people need to see this kind of work, like it's amazing."

So then I thought it would  be really special if we could put it together put it out there and use it, not to prove a point but to send a message out there to say a lot of people are judged, their capabilities and capacities are judged by a label, and that doesn't necessarily mean anything really because everybody is so different and the support systems that people have in place are so different and if you give someone the right support ... now he's no longer my autistic brother he's my brother who's an illustrator. That changes the conversation, it changes the interactions with people when we meet people ... I think that there needs to be more of that in the autistic community.


What does Robert think of the book?

He was really impressed when he saw it. He said "wow it's cool to have a real book in my hands." I told him what we were doing but I didn't necessarily know if he knew what we were doing like if he expected to see a book on the shelves.

At Christmastime he took me a mall and Coles books has them on the shelves and he brought me in there and he showed me "see they're right here!" And I was like "wow isn't that great Rob, your name's there, your book's right there everyone can see that."

So you can tell he's beaming with pride that his work is there but every time we talk about it now ... he's kind of over it you know? He did his part, it's up on the shelves and now he's talking about how he wants to make a video game or he wants to make a TV show or a video so ... he's just sort of running full speed into all kinds of other projects. He thinks [the book] is great but he's moving on!


You've already touched on this a bit, but how will you be approaching future projects?

We're not sure really how we're going to do a video and get all of his characters animated so I'm thinking of getting him an illustrating tablet ... which would cut down on the mountains of paper that he burns through. It would also be a very big challenge for me. So we might try something together, I might get him a piece of equipment like that to see what we can start doing. My boyfriend makes videos so he might be able to put together some video.

I've started playing with what we could do for a second book in the meantime. Hopefully one or two or both will end up coming out in the future.


I would like to know about your writing and where you want to go with it. Is children’s literature the area you're most interested in as a writer?

I think so yes. Because it's so challenging to write for kids and the market is so saturated with kids books. They're everywhere and I don't find a lot that are that unique or special in a certain way. There's a million alphabet books, there's really a million alphabet books out there but they're all very very similar there's nothing that really stands out or really makes an impression.

I used to love to read when I was a kid and I loved how special some of my books were you know, like a set of Beatrix Potter that came in a little box with a little gold cord ... it really made me love reading and I wanted to put something out there that was a little more special. More engaging.


Do you have a favorite page of Animal Appetites?

My favorite is X because it was "Xenopses eat Ximenias in X-Ray machines." X was really hard. It was good learning -- we put a 'did you know' bubble in X saying 'this is what these are' and Rob had to go onto his Ipad and google 'what is a ximenia' ... the way he drew the bird in the X-Ray machine just blows my mind. I saw that and was just floored by it.

To learn more about Animal Appetites visit the website.

Clarissa Fortin is rabble's books intern.

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