‘Doernbecher is the place where the good guys help defeat the bad guys’

I was asked to be a part of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital’s Amazing Storybook campaign, along with five other illustrators, by the Portland creative agency Sockeye. They developed a children’s picture book concept and language to help tell Doernbecher’s story. It seems like such an obvious fit for a children’s hospital, but you have to acknowledge that there are a million ways of telling a story — with charts and graphs and photographs — and I have total respect for all of those methods, but illustration! Yes!

After reading through the stories that patients and families shared on the Doernbecher blog, all I could think was, ‘wow, these are some tough kids.’ And ‘how in the world do you explain this stuff to your child?’ And of course the answer is different for everyone, depending on your parenting style and the age of your child …but either way it’s a narrative. And your child is the main character. The importance of this project sunk in almost immediately.

So I called my mom. (I don’t have kids, so when I need a parent’s perspective I ask my friends with kids, and I ask my mom.) She’s a cancer survivor, so she understands the long mental and physical battle, but she was equally stumped with how to take something so heavy and tie it up in one illustration. So what did she say? She told me a story that she had read about a little boy who wore his cape every time he went to the hospital. He was the brave hero fighting against the scaries and this helped him get through it. This narrative gave him and his parents a way to talk about it.

I love stories, especially ones with pictures. They give us the chance to see another character’s struggle from a different perspective … and hopefully they help us to understand and talk about our own feelings. That’s what this story needed to do. That’s what this single illustration needed to say: We’re going to be okay. Doernbecher is the place where the good guys help defeat the bad guys.

So I started drawing. I filled my sketchbook with goofy brainiacs and scary monsters. The doctors couldn’t be too goofy and the monsters couldn’t be too scary, so it was a bit of a balancing act. But once the characters started to feel right, I needed to pull them all together onto a single page.

I needed to create a sense of place. Where is all this happening? I can point to it. This is a real story that’s happening right over there, up on that hill, every day.
And if I put myself in some tiny shoes, maybe I could think of it like a castle, with gizmos and blinking lights, and friendly faces that make it feel like everything is going to be all right.

I feel lucky to be a part of this project and contribute an illustration that tries to tell the story of this amazing hospital. I can only hope that a child will see herself in this story and feel a little braver and a little stronger because she knows there is a team of doctors on her side, fighting to banish the scaries forever.

Catherine Lazar Odell
Check out Catherine’s website and blog: canyoufeedthedog.com