Jackson Saves an Owl, an interview with writer Darren Garwood and illustrator Carl Osborne

Jackson Superhero might not be a real name, but it is a story about a real boy, and as the name suggests, Jackson is far from ordinary.

By day, a rare disease limits his ability to move freely, but at night he is far from grounded. When the sleeping hours come around, and weightlessness takes over, Jackson takes to the skies. He knows what it means to need the support of others, which is why when he hears a call for help, he is quickly there to lend a hand.

The first question we have to ask right off the bat is what do you mean when you say the ‘story is about a real boy’?

Darren Garwood: Well that’s an easy one to start with. The book is about a real boy, my son Jackson. As it says above, a rare disease limits his ability to freely move. So Jackson has something called Krabbe disease, which came on when he was around one. And yeah, it’s a leukodystrophy, so he lost all muscle function, basically. I mean, he really can’t do anything for himself. We can make him smile, and even though he can’t talk he can let us know when he’s happy or upset with his noises. Which, is actually a huge deal for us because that enables us to focus on making him happy.

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I watched the mini doc that Untold Books made about you and Jackson and it seems like a very tough situation, yet the book about Jackson is outrageously positive, where does all that positive energy come from?

Darren: On the one hand it is really tough, but at the same time when you have no choice you just have to get on with it and finding the positive, and highlighting the positive, is so important. But I think that’s true of life, not necessarily just our life. I wanted to write a book that tapped into everything positive about what we are trying to do for Jackson on a daily basis, but that would also really move readers, and inspire parents and children to always be the best versions of themselves. In many ways that sounds really big and challenging, but the story is really simple. But I genuinely believe whoever reads it will be in a better mood afterwards than they were before.

How did your son become the owl saving superhero that he is in the book? 

Darren: Well, as I said, he really can’t do anything physically. He basically sits in his bean bag all day and even though we have some ways to communicate we really have no way of knowing where Jackson is in all this. One day my wife asked me if I thought Jackson dreamed and I just didn’t know what to answer. The idea of him not dreaming just seemed so awful. So I decided that as I didn’t know whether he dreamed I wanted to help him and make sure he did dream. That’s when I realised that, yeah, your days may be limited, but at night when you dream you can be anything you want to be. So I started making up Jackson Superhero stories for him. I started with the owl story because owl’s are among his favourite animals. I always get a smile when I do the Twit Twoo sounds,

How many Jackson Superhero stories do you have?

Darren: Oh, don’t ask. Lots of them. Basically in his stories he goes around helping people and saving the day, the basics of being a superhero I guess. In one he saves Christmas, in another he saves the planet from pollution. But the first book, Jackson Saves an Owl is really where he hears somebody in trouble and as the book says, he flies out of the window as fast as a rocket, with flames coming from his socks and out of his pockets. He flies over trees and blocks of flats, and waves to his friends the local stray cats. Over parks and through the fair, into the zoo and, hello bear. And then at some point Jackson finds an owl who is stuck in a puddle and Jackson helps him out and sends him on his way. Basically he reaches into the puddle and pulls out the plug, then dries out the owl with a lovely big hug.

So we just got a taste of the fantastic rhyme in the book, were the stories originally in rhyme or did that come later?

Darren: They were in rhyme right from the beginning, but that’s not to say they were great from the beginning. The thing with rhyme, at least for me, is it gets better with each telling. Until it doesn’t and that’s when I normally right the stories down. But I drove our editor mad. I was still making changes the day it went to print.

Carl, as the illustrator of Jackson Saves an Owl, you decided to open up the story with an illustration of Jackson in his bean bag, pretty much as he is in real life. What was behind that decision?

Carl Osborne: Well, I have known Darren for years and I know Jackson and I just didn’t feel I could ignore the reality, to be honest. It sounds stupid when I say it, but I don’t think there’s always enough reality in children’s books. Many, many kids grow up in tough lives and books are a way to help with that. They are a way to say, you are not alone. Look at this little boy or girl and look how well they do. Roald Dhal did it well, not reality, or course, but more than once he killed off the parents on the first page.

That first illustration of Jackson sitting in his bean bag is quite sombre, which goes against the grain of what you expect from the opening page of a children’s book. Was that intentional?

Carl: I’m not sure it was intentional to be sombre, necessarily, but it was intentional to be very authentic and true about the real Jackson and how he spends his days. The book doesn’t dwell on Jackson’s situation, in an instant the book is just magical positivity, and I can call it that because I’m talking about Darren’s words and not my illustrations. But it also doesn’t brush Jackson’s reality under the carpet either, which is really important. I think more children’s books should focus on our differences in order to better prepare our children going forward.

How was it illustrating a real boy, did Jackson’s family have a lot of feedback?

Carl: There was a little bit of pressure, to be honest, but I presented Darren and his wife with a few different versions of how Jackson Superhero could look, and they took bits from this one and that one. But they helped with all kinds of things that I didn’t know about, choosing colours based on Jackson’s favourite teddy bear, also his hair. I needed some pointers on his hair style.

What are your dreams for the Jackson Superhero stories?

Darren: Well, we’re starting small and realistic. This first book is really about raising funds for medical equipment to help us better care for Jackson at home, so we don’t have to go back and forth to Great Ormand street every time we have a challenge. The publisher has been kind enough to give all the profits from the book to that. But just as I wanted Jackson to dream, of course we would love to see it as a series with more and more of the stories coming out. We are already working on the second book, but I really hope it doesn’t stop there.

We would like to thank Darren and Carl for answering our questions and wish them every success for Jackson Superhero. A truly inspiring book from a father, who is trying to make life better for his son. This interview moved me to tears and I hope motivates others to be the best they can be and support a good cause.

Jackson Saves an Owl, written by Darren Garwood, illustrated by Carl Osborne and published by Untold Books.

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