Northeastern Journalism alumna Emma Northup Flinn, AS ’73, was looking for an illustrator for her new book Dear Allison when she approached a contact at Northeastern for help. That’s how Rachel Roberie, AMD’ 17 with a combined major in Media Arts and Communications and a minor in Business Administration, started to work with Flinn to illustrate her new and upcoming book detailing Flinn’s son, who has bipolar disorder. We were able to ask a few questions about the book, how they met, and what Northeastern means to them.
Emma Northup Flinn
Tell us a little bit about your project. What was your inspiration?
My goal is to create a book for young readers explaining mental illness and the stigma experienced by those afflicted with the disease. After publishing my first book, Email to Heaven, my nine year old cousin, Allison, asked her father if she could read my book. He suggested she wait since it chronicled my son’s struggles with bipolar disorder. In turn, he encouraged me to write an age appropriate book on mental illness that would appeal to young readers.
When did you come up with the idea for this project? How long have you been working on this project?
As I began to write Dear Allison, I quickly realized that I needed a third person to draw my readers into the story. I asked Allison who her favorite author was and without hesitating, she said Beverly Cleary. As I perused Cleary’s books, I discovered I needed an animated character. But who could that be? In a dream, I recalled my grandfather with his Irish wit , entertaining me as a young girl with story after story about an ant, he named Sammy. Perfect, I thought. Sammy would be ideal to explain to young readers not only the complexity of mental illness, but also the importance of understanding the stigma and hurt felt by those afflicted with the disease. The process has taken me about nine months.
How did you find Rachel? How has it been working with a current Northeastern student?
Just as I recognized I needed an animated character to explain mental illness to my young readers, it was also essential to find a young illustrator for Sammy. As I had kept in touch with Nancy Galindo-Rodriguez, a former Senior Developement Officer, I decided to consult with her. It was through Nancy that I found Rachel. Working with a current Northeastern student has been so enlightening and just plain fun. A lot has happened in the 43 years since I graduated: fax machines have come and gone, along with the manual and electric typewriter, film camera, pagers and pay telephone. We are “on the line” and the advancements are tremendous. Co-op has endured and it’s been great hearing about Rachel’s experiences and to know that some things never change. I met Rachel over the phone during her Christmas break. After our conversation, I emailed the book’s manuscript to her. When we met in early January, she had sketches and many productive ideas for Dear Allison. I was impressed with her motivation and sensitivity.
Is there a specific experience or individual that empowered you during your time at Northeastern?
The supervisors I met through co-op had such an impact on me and gave me the confidence to believe in myself. Classmates also positively influenced me. Paula Levy Leonard kept me focused and pushed me and everyone else to excel. Kennedy Hudner’s world view inspired us all.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in doing something like this, taking a chance, going out on their own?
You must be totally passionate about whatever project you undertake. You must also be patient and not allow set backs to stall your efforts. Keep your eye on your goal.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I often think of a quote from President Kennedy in 1963 about mental illness which was the first time that the subject had been discussed in public by a world leader: “It was said, in an earlier age, that the mind of a man is a far country which can neither be approached nor explored. But, today, under present conditions of scientific achievement, it will be possible for a nation as rich in human and material resources as ours to make the remote reaches of the mind assessable. The mentally ill … need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”
Why did you decide to do the combined major program?
After accruing a number of credits in a digital art degree program, I switched to a combined major that could also incorporate marketing and writing experience. I wanted a skillset that would allow me to adapt to work with anything from graphics and copy to advocacy and events.
What was your process of working with Emma on the book?
Emma and I started meeting in January of 2016. I bought some children’s books and went over the manuscript, she sent me some reference photos of people and locations, and I came back to her with character sketches. After we had a look nailed down, I started down a list of imagery that each chapter described. I make a pencil sketch, scan it, and use my Wacom tablet to trace and color the image in Adobe Photoshop. Words and illustrations come together in InDesign.
What have you learned through working on this project with Emma?
Neither of us had designed a book from scratch before, so we were both helping each other learn along the way. I learned how to work with a writer to bring a concept to life, how to produce a published book from a plaintext manuscript – it’s quite a project such a small team!
What are the next steps for Dear Allison?
We’re finishing up the book itself right now – finalizing illustration placement, text, and other little formatting details, so we can submit it to Amazon. Then we’ll be designing some marketing materials, like fliers and postcards, that we can post in bookstores or distribute at author events.
What other formative experiences have you had at Northeastern?
This university has been the bridge to all of the opportunities and learning experiences I’ve had in the last four years. I found a game internship with Mass DiGI through The University Scholars Program, worked as a marketing intern at the Boston Globe for 6 months as a co-op, and traveled to Japan for a month-long Dialogue. I’m on my final co-op now, at a pet care startup called Baroo. There I get to do marketing, design, and events – and hang out with dogs all day!