Where the Magic Happens by Amanda Christensen & Coral Vass, illustrated by Nicky Johnston
I found the picture book, Where the Magic Happens very moving, instructive and hopeful, not only for young children with brain cancer but also for their families. In fact, it helps all readers understand what a young cancer patient may experience. It demystifies some of the medical treatment and is a timely initiative that will play an important role in helping and encouraging young patients and their families.
Award-winning co-author, Coral Vass writes about Where the Magic Happens
The quote, ‘Sometimes, real superheroes live inside the hearts of small children fighting big battles’ by an unknown author, is the essence of a new children’s picture book published by the charity, Hand in Hand Fighting Brain Cancer.
When Cooper is told he needs to be brave, put on a mask and fight a fierce brain tumour, something wonderful and magical happens.
Where the Magic Happens is a heart-warming story about a young boy’s fight with brain cancer. The story sensitively deals with the realities of brain cancer in a way that is accessible to younger readers. Written by Amanda Christensen, who lost her own six-year-old son to brain cancer, together with author Coral Vass, Amanda has captured the brain cancer journey through the eyes of young Cooper.
Mum and Dad take Cooper to the doctors, because he is feeling sick and dizzy. In the room filled with doctors and nurses, Cooper is told he has a brain tumour.
The text is simple, yet profound, allowing the reader to follow Cooper’s experience from diagnosis through to treatment. We are transported into the halls of the hospital and allowed to enter the big cold room with the huge machine. We see Cooper’s body change, he loses hair and grows weary over time but Cooper, a real superhero, never ever gives up.
Illustrator Nicky Johnston’s choice of colour pallet, enhances the gentleness of this story. The illustrations also tell a great detail of information.
Johnston says, ‘It was extremely important to me that this book was accurate in every way. To do this, I did a lot of research about what hospitals, beds, wheelchairs etc, look like, as well as the emotions and the features of those who have lived with a diagnosis and the journey of treatment.’
For Carolyn Oldano, the founding director of the charity, this book has been a goal for a long time.
‘It was an idea I hatched up after my husband’s first radiation treatment,’ she says.
Carolyn watched her own husband lose his life to brain cancer. ‘He wanted something done to help children and eliminate the fear associated with brain tumour treatment,’ she says.
Where the Magic Happens is a poignant story with themes of bravery, comfort, fear and hope.
It is an excellent resource for any child, parent, sibling, teacher and friend who has been impacted by brain cancer in some way.
‘Until you have sat in a doctor’s office and told that your child has brain cancer, it is hard to relate to the importance of this book,’ says Amanda Christensen.
It is the Charity’s vision to see this book distributed as a free resource for every suffering family, in every hospital around Australia.
For more information on how you can help, visit: www.handinhandfbc.org
Interviews with the book creators (courtesy Hand in Hand Fighting Brain Cancer Foundation)
Interview with AMANDA CHRISTENSEN
1. Why is a book like this so essential?
Until you have sat in a doctor’s office and told that your child has brain cancer, it is hard to relate to the importance of this book. After Cooper was diagnosed, I googled everything on childhood brain cancer. I searched every bookstore, looking for books that would help explain what Cooper was about to endure. I found nothing for children that would help me explain to Cooper, in an easy to read and illustrated way, what was happening to him and the way in which we were going to fight it.
To have had this book on the day of diagnosis, would have been an enormous first step in having a very real and hard discussion about brain cancer and what his treatment journey was about to look like.
If this book can help just one family feel less alone and scared of the unknown, then we have done what we set out to achieve.
2. What do you wish you had after your child was diagnosed with brain cancer?
My first honest answer would have to be a cure for brain cancer, or in Cooper’s case, a cure for DIPG, which has a 0% survival rate. After this, I wish we had had a child friendly resource that assisted and gave me the confidence and tools to have the discussion about what happens next after diagnosis.
Radiation treatment can be scary and daunting for both adult and child but especially for children. Google can be a very helpful tool for an adult, it was for me when I needed all the information I could find on brain cancer, but when it comes to your child you need something relatable that they can associate with and feel connected to personally.
3. How would having a book like this changed your situation?
As mentioned previously, after diagnosis I reached for Google. That gave me a lot of clinical information, which was helpful to me as a parent, but I found myself having to re-word and communicate what I was learning about brain cancer treatment to a then four-year-old.
It can be a very difficult process finding the balance in communicating too much or too little information and in a child friendly way. Having this book available to parents to take away with them to read to their child is an excellent tool for not only the parents and child, but all family members.
4. What was the best part about working on this project?
Working on this book has not only been healing for me personally but it’s been a great accomplishment which honours Cooper and sees Carolyn’s husband Mike’s wish fulfilled. Cooper had a saying during and after treatment, which was ‘Never Ever Give Up’. I feel by creating this book, both Cooper and Mike will be forever changing the lives of all children diagnosed with brain cancer, helping them feel a little less scared and reminding them to never ever give up!
5. What was the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part of writing this book, was the fact that there are many steps involved with the treatment of brain cancer and lots of information to comprehend. I had to find the balance between important information that I believed was essential and honest, whilst also making the book relatable and not scary. Using Cooper’s experience of radiation treatment allowed me to write this book through his eyes and his journey.
6. What is your hope for this book?
My hope for this book, is that when a family is sitting in a doctor’s office like we were, and they are told their child has brain cancer, they will receive this book with other resources and information and know that they are not alone on their journey. My wish is they will find comfort, understanding and hope within the words, not just for the parent and child but for their family, friends and anyone who needs to understand what happens after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Interview with CORAL VASS
1. Did you know much about childhood brain cancer before you collaborated on this book?
I didn’t know much about childhood brain cancer before embarking on the project. Although a friend’s son died of a brain tumour when he was only nine, the world of DIPG cancer was completely foreign to me.
2. What did your research involve?
Straight away I interviewed and got to know Amanda; initially over the phone, through email conversations and eventually over numerous zoom calls. I listened to her story, her heartbreak and tried to get to know Cooper through her eyes.
I also read everything I could about the disease, as well as blog after blog after blog from parents who had lost children to brain cancer here in Australia and all over the world.
3. What surprised you the most when you began working on this project?
I think the thing that surprised me the most was the fact that still so little is known about this terrible disease. We live in a world where technology is advancing at an enormous rate each year, and yet not much more is known about DIPG today, as it was back in 1962 when Neil Armstrong’s three-year-old daughter passed away from this incurable cancer.
4. What was most rewarding about working with Hand in Hand Fight Brain Cancer?
The most rewarding thing about working with Hand in Hand Fighting Brain Cancer was seeing the heart of this organisation and its people and knowing the tiny part I play can help this work and benefit so many children.
5. What was the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part is the heartbreak that so many families have had to endure until a cure is found for DIPG.
Interview with NICKY JOHNSTON
1. What media did you use to create the book’s illustrations? Can you explain a little bit about your process?
The illustrations are completed in water colour and pencil on 300 gsm watercolour paper. I always begin illustrations with a character design process, experimenting with shape, colour and emotions.
I used a lot of reference photos of Amanda’s son Cooper to create his character, focusing on his hair and clothes to make that connection between the book character Cooper and the real Cooper.
2. Did you have to do a lot of research to get the details right? If so, what?
It was extremely important to me that this book was accurate in every way. To do this, I did a lot of research about what hospitals, beds, wheelchairs etc… look like, as well as the emotions and features of those who have lived with a diagnosis and the journey of treatment. The illustrations in this book
tell a great deal of detail and information. Lots of double checking was essential to be sure everything was true and accurate.
3. What was the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part of this project was during my research. It was extremely confronting and difficult to imagine having to deal with the journey of brain cancer diagnosis and treatment for a child. I have four children of my own and my heart broke. However, I reigned in this emotion to drive me to make sure my part of the project was the best it could be. The families who need this book NEED it to be perfect.
4. What was the most rewarding part of the project?
The most rewarding part of this project was working with Coral and Amanda (authors), seeing the final proof of the book, as well as the heartfelt dedications to both Mike and Cooper and knowing that we could honour them in such a powerful way.
5. Did you know much about brain cancer before working on this book?
I have known of people who have died from brain cancer, (a long-time family friend and a school friend’s husband) but I have not known of a child. I also didn’t know the different types of brain cancers and the variety of treatments used. It was quite overwhelming; lots of long words, medication and information to understand.
6. Did you learn anything unexpected while researching this book or creating the illustrations?
I learned that for children in general, a hospital can be a very scary place, let alone a place where quite drastic treatment is given. From what I learnt, I was able to include the little details, like posters for children to stamp each time they have radiation and the choosing of a superhero to have their masks painted for radiation. This entire process has been a huge learning and rewarding experience.