Designing The Nervous Knight - out January 21st!
My new book, The Nervous Knight, is set to release in just over two months, on January 21st and I am just hugely excited. This will be the second book in what is now a series about mental health issues, told using classic and easily recognisable fairy tale archetypes, after my book about depression,The Princess and the Fog.
The book is about a young knight in training who never takes off their huge, heavy suit of armour for fear that something bad might happen. It is designed to teach kids about mitigating worry and other symptoms of anxiety - How to recognise those symptoms and what to do to help yourself or someone else to manage them.
When writing a book like this is that you have to be really careful about the language that you use. You can't point fingers at anyone or put any reader on the spot. In a very early draft I thought of the armour itself as a metaphor for anxiety, rather than a byproduct of it. The problem with that is that it implied that the protagonist must have put it on by choice, so that was quickly changed.
Another huge challenge was trying to show the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety on a character we can't even see. I had to design a suit of armour that would let me get very expressive with the character's body language, and novel ways of showing how physical symptoms of anxiety would look on the outside of it.
A big part of having anxiety is an overactive imagination. You can really get carried away imagining all the bad things that could happen to you. To show that these fears are usually unfounded, I drew them in a different art style than the rest of the book, using media I don't normally use like felt tip markers held in my non-dominant hand. The childlike appearance of these illustrations, as well as their often comically-exagerrated nature, helps show the reader that these are a reflection of the protagonist's anxious thoughts, and not real threats.
Throughout the book, we also occasionally see the thoughts of some other characters. I wanted each character their own distinct 'voice', which meant that I had to come up with several discrete art styles, which was a lot of fun.
One big plot point in The Nervous Knight is that the protagonist has hidden themself so effectively that nobody in the kingdom can really get close to them or learn who they are. In order to uphold the mystery of the knight's appearance and identity, I had been using gender binary non-conforming pronouns to refer to them throughout development of the story. In fact, for a long time even I didn't know who was hiding under the armour.
When it came time to write the ending I realised I had an opportunity to represent a group of people who don't have a lot of representation in children's books - particularly in fairy tale stories which historically display very rigid, binary gender roles - and I decided to continue using 'they/them' pronouns until even after we finally meet our protagonist face to face, effectively confirming them as non-binary. One of the things I have loved the most about working with Jessica Kingsley Publishers is their devotion to diversity and inclusivity, so I knew they'd be game. I knew I had to do this in a way that was respectful and, again, didn't point fingers, and decided the best way to achieve that would be to simply not make a big deal out of it. Ultimately, it has no bearing on the story and isn't even explicitly mentioned, but it could mean a young reader who doesn't feel like they fit into a 'male' or 'female' label sees themself in our hero and has one less thing to feel anxious about.
By the end of the book, our protagonist's story isn't over. They're not magically cured of their anxiety, and still have a lot of work to do, but they've made friends and learned to develop tools to help them get better. Much like The Princess and the Fog, this book is based on a lot of personal experience. It's a book I wish I'd had access to when I was young.