We recently published Mel Tregonning’s stunning graphic novel Small Things, but before completing the book Mel took her own life. However, thanks to the efforts of her family and help of Shaun Tan in completing the final pages, we can now share the beautiful and heartbreaking legacy to this talented illustrator. On R U OK Day, Mel’s sister Violet shares the story of Mel and the story behind this important book.
Mel was the greatest artist I ever knew. From a young age she was consumed with drawing, cartooning and creating the most realistic art. We shared a room for most of our childhood and even though there was five years between us we only parted once Mel was 17 as my parents had built a studio in the back yard for her. My brother and I looked up to her as she had already achieved so much, she always seemed sure of who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. She was always different but seemed to like the point of difference and seemed very comfortable in herself and in her choices. Art was everything and there was no possible chance of her pursuing any career other than an illustrator.
After she graduated university, Mel secured a full-time job as an illustrator for a children’s publication company – a dream job for any artist to be able to do what they love day in and day out. But Mel wanted more, she wanted to create a masterpiece, her own story, which would resonate with people and make them feel something. She began coming up with ideas, searching for a story and mapping it out on paper in her own time. Mel had finally determined the story she wanted to tell the world and how she wanted to do it. She was going to create an illustration book with no words, which would depict a very clever way to visualise the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness.
We never made the connection of this book being a reflection of what Mel was feeling, to this day I am still not sure if it was. Whenever she talked about it with me, it was always with excitement and passion. She was sure she was on the right path to achieve a finished book, which would mean something to many people. She never mentioned feeling this way herself, in fact she never actually labelled what the character is going through as depression or anxiety. She would just say, she wanted to capture the essence of the hard place he was in and the overwhelming emotion he felt.
Mel worked hard and finally had a draft of the book. She made contact with a well know Perth-born illustrator Shaun Tan and asked for guidance on how to get published as he had already had so much success in his career. Shaun was so impressed and inspired by her work that he recommended her to publishers Allen & Unwin. They were equally as impressed and offered Mel a publishing contract that was signed in 2010 with a 2013 publication date.
Mel was over the moon, but was quickly feeling the gravity of the task ahead of her. With a full time job as an illustrator plus her own work to complete after hours, she became absorbed. The years went by and Mel was running out of time, she asked for an extension, which they gladly gave, pushing the publication date back to 2017. This relieved some of Mel’s stress, but she was concerned about how long her art was taking. She decided to leave her full-time job in order to focus solely on the book.
By this point, I had become concerned about Mel’s wellbeing. She was becoming more and more isolated as quitting her job resulted in a strict savings and limited spending regime. This meant she didn’t socialise except for contact with friends through social media, as it would cost money and take valuable time away from creating her art. I would encourage her to try and meet someone special but she would just say she didn’t have time for a partner and that she would meet someone once the book was published. She would joke and say, once I’m rich and famous I won’t have any problems finding someone.
At that time, so much was happening in my own life, that perhaps I did not see the warning signs soon enough. It was the start of 2014, I married my wonderful husband, we had our dream wedding and honeymoon, everything was perfect. When I returned, Mel said she felt I had been away too long. Mel’s birthday then came around. She turned 31. My brother and I made an effort to ensure we did something fun as a family. We went to Adventure World for the day and I still vividly remember looking sideways at her on the roller coaster and seeing the joy on her face.
After that Mel suffered a rapid decline. In the space of a week my sister wasn’t sleeping at all. It was Mother’s Day and we were together as a family but she wasn’t really there, she didn’t smile and she didn’t talk. I asked if she was ok and she said she was having trouble sleeping. When I hugged her she would hug me tightly back, but that was it. At the time I thought she just needed some sleep and that she would be ok.
She didn’t sleep and started saying irrational things. Late that night my mother sat with her in the living room to try to soothe her but she was increasingly agitated. When my dad woke that morning they took Mel to get help, but unfortunately no one helped. Many things went wrong, poor communication between doctors and other medical professionals. The system failed and we were let down, she was sent home, she was not admitted even after being sent to the Hospital in an ambulance.
That night I saw my sister for the last time. I asked her if she wanted to talk but she said she didn’t. I hugged her and again she hugged me tightly back like she had before. I said I would come back tomorrow, take the time off work and spend it with her and she said she would like that. But the following morning my mother called me to say Mel had taken her life.
I can’t possibly explain the depth of the feeling of losing someone so instrumental to your life. I felt so much shame for not taking more action. How could I have not realised just how serious and how at risk she was. I should have been more proactive. I should have made her talk and even stayed with her all night. I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough. I still think these thoughts today, however I try to remind myself that we are just an ordinary family who did not have enough time or resources and who also expected the system to support us when we were in need.
After Mel’s death I was filled with pain and anxiety, other than my devastation and regret, all I could think of was the book. The note that she left behind, asked that we publish her book. What do I do, what if she hasn’t completed enough of the art work? What if the publishers wanted to terminate the contract? I couldn’t bear the possibility of not being able to publish her work. Once the publishers knew of Mel’s death they were deeply affected and straight away acknowledged that they would do all they could to publish the book. This including collaborating with Shaun Tan, and to everyone’s relief he offered to draw the final pages that were required to complete the book. What a relief this was and how deeply moved we were to know that Mel’s legacy would live on.
Once the book started to materialise and the work progressed with the publishers, the book stopped feeling like a weight on my shoulders and started to become an exciting journey. The idea that her book will finally be published and that anyone can see her story, and it having the potential to touch peoples’ lives is something I am proud of. But more than that I am proud of the person she was and that she is my sister.
Her work, Small Things is truly inspiring. Small Things tells the story of a little boy who feels alone with the worries he has inside, but who learns that help is always close by. The message at the core is about early intervention, reaching out to others and turning to your family and friends for support. It is a universal story of sadness told simply and beautifully, just through illustrations, so that you can be moved purely by the powerful imagery, not by what you have been told to feel.
It is a book for anyone who’s ever felt sadness, anxiety or depression, no matter how old or young they might be. This book is a way to explain to others what depression and anxiety feels like, it is relatable and reminds you that you are not alone. The book cleverly depicts the emotions that can overwhelm someone suffering from a mental illness in a way that anyone can understand.
It seems somewhat ironic now, that this book will help others and show that they are not alone, knowing what happened to her. I feel though that in some way Mel’s story has the power to make this book even more important, which is why I chose to share our story.
Small Things is another way to have an important conversation with someone, but without words. It’s not about asking someone if they are okay on one particular day. It is about asking them often and in different ways. Ask weekly, even when they seem perfectly fine. Sometimes it is not as simple as asking if someone is ok, but it’s a good start.
R U OK Day is an annual day in September dedicated to remind people to ask family, friends and colleagues the question “R U OK?”.
If you, or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- Reach Out
Small Things by Mel Tregonning
With no words, only illustrations, Small Things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with his worries, but who learns that help is always close by.
A universal story, told simply and with breathtaking beauty, about dealing with sadness, anxiety, depression, heartache or loss, and finding your way in the world.
The best art gives a voice to the voiceless parts of our lives, and Small Things does so with heartfelt precision.
I’m very proud to have played this small part in bringing this excellent book to a broader public, I believe Mel’s vision is an important one to share, regardless of its origins or backstory: it’s just a great book.
– Shaun Tan writing about his admiration for Mel’s work and involvement in Small Things on his blog.