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How the story of a little boy who lost his teddy inspired an NI artist to write and illustrate a touching tale about love, loss and moving on

Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden tells Claire O'Boyle about the influence behind her new children's book, Bear Shaped, and how, in a bizarre turn of events, she sold her illustrations to American singer Stevie Nicks

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Jack Barnfield, the boy who inspired Dawn's book

Jack Barnfield, the boy who inspired Dawn's book

Artistic talent: Dawn Coutler Cruttenden

Artistic talent: Dawn Coutler Cruttenden

Tearful: comedian husband Hal cried when he read Dawn’s book

Tearful: comedian husband Hal cried when he read Dawn’s book

Famous fan: one of Dawn’s illustrations that proved a hit with Stevie Nicks

Famous fan: one of Dawn’s illustrations that proved a hit with Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks

Dawn with Jack and her dog, who she has named Bear

Dawn with Jack and her dog, who she has named Bear

Jack Barnfield, the boy who inspired Dawn's book

It was a story that captured hearts across the world. When schoolboy Jack Barnfield lost his teddy, Bear, people everywhere felt the pain of his loss acutely. Because little Jack's story was special.

Living with autism, Bear was the little boy's best friend.

The pair did everything together and when Jack was nervous or overwhelmed he'd hold Bear in front of his face and speak through him. Bear was a confidence booster and an ally. A bridge to the rest of the world.

So when the story of Jack's loss made it out to the world through a desperate plea to track the bear down through a tweet from the boy's dad Matt, it went viral.

And Northern Irish artist Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden felt moved to reach out.

"I saw it and I instantly felt I wanted to do something," recalls Dawn, who lives in London with her family. "I remembered when my daughter lost her dolly when she was a toddler and we walked around the town at night looking for it. It was awful and I just thought, 'Can you imagine how many times worse it is for this little boy?'

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Artistic talent: Dawn Coutler Cruttenden

Artistic talent: Dawn Coutler Cruttenden

Artistic talent: Dawn Coutler Cruttenden

"I did a little sketch of the bear using the pictures that were there and told the family I'd do a portrait for Jack. It was all I could think of to do."

Jack came to collect it at Dawn's home a month later and it gained pride of place on his bedroom wall.

And while the story of Dawn's pictures made the national news and was shared across social media, the artist wasn't finished there.

So moved was she by Jack's story, and the remarkable outpouring of support that followed the online campaign to track Bear down, that she has gone on to write a stunning children's book inspired by it all.

Bear Shaped, written and illustrated by Dawn, will be published on April 2 and is an incredibly moving tale of love and loss, and vitally, of moving on.

"Jack's dad Matt sent me a message after everything happened with the pictures, and told me Jack said it was lovely to meet you and that he will always carry you in his heart. I'd really never heard anything so pure and sweet. The whole thing really moved me," she says.

It was around that time Dawn, who had already achieved amazing success as an artist and illustrator, found out she hadn't been accepted onto a Masters course at the Royal Drawing School in London.

"It's incredibly hard to get in, so I wasn't overly surprised," she recalls. "But I was disappointed. I thought I'd give myself 24 hours to wallow and then get up and do something.

"The next morning, I thought, 'Right, I'm going to write a book'. And Jack's story became the keystone for the whole thing."

Dawn's own path to success has been pretty remarkable, too.

Originally from Londonderry, the mum-of-two went to art college in Belfast before moving to The School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was there she discovered a talent for copywriting, a career she pursued for more than a decade.

"I chickened out of illustrating full time, because it was so competitive, and the writing end came to me quite naturally too," she says. "It was still creative."

But when Dawn's daughters - Martha, now 19, and Gracie (17) - were little, she left copywriting and turned back to art.

"It would have been around 2006," she recalls. "London is hard when you've got small children and I did a lot of freelance stuff."

Combining selling watercolours with freelance photography, Dawn continued to create illustrations inspired from her childhood, for pleasure.

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Famous fan: one of Dawn’s illustrations that proved a hit with Stevie Nicks

Famous fan: one of Dawn’s illustrations that proved a hit with Stevie Nicks

Famous fan: one of Dawn’s illustrations that proved a hit with Stevie Nicks

"I was doing lovely watercolours of the sea and things like that, because I thought that's what people wanted to buy," she recalls.

"But at home I was doing more illustrative work, pencil drawings of fairy tales and things like that. It was the stuff I really enjoyed and cared about, but I thought they were a bit too twee. I didn't think people would go for them so I was nervous of putting them out there."

In the end though, it was these illustrations that brought Dawn's work to national attention.

After putting them on her website alongside her watercolours, they were spotted by none other than Stevie Nicks, who bought up a collection and installed them in LA.

"It was bonkers really," laughs Dawn, who splits her time between London and Donegal. "And how it came about was really unexpected. My husband Hal is a comedian, and it was on a flight over to the UK for a concert that Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac were watching him on the Comedy Channel. They thought he was hilarious.

"The make-up artist then Googled Hal and they came across my website as well and that's when they saw the drawings."

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Tearful: comedian husband Hal cried when he read Dawn’s book

Tearful: comedian husband Hal cried when he read Dawn’s book

Tearful: comedian husband Hal cried when he read Dawn’s book

The couple were unexpectedly invited along to the concert and it was that night, after the event back in 2015, that the musician's interest in Dawn's work came to light.

"We were going to meet them afterwards, but Stevie wasn't there," recalls Dawn (47).

"We got talking to her sister-in-law who said, 'Stevie loves your work' and I thought, 'Bless her she's got me confused with someone else'. But then she started talking about the fairies, and I thought, 'Gosh, Stevie Nicks has seen my work'.

"I couldn't believe it. The next day Stevie asked to see what I had and I took everything. That evening I got a phone call to say she'd like to buy it all.

"It was incredible. It was like this amazing seal of approval that what I was doing was right.

"It was amazing because it was me doing what I really wanted to do. I'd been nervous about it in case people thought it was silly, but the fact someone like that had seen it and loved it was such a breakthrough for me.

"She even wrote me a beautiful letter to say she loved the work, and to say, 'please keep drawing'".

Next for Dawn was a milestone achievement when in 2016 she became the first woman to become artist in residence at The Savoy Hotel in London.

"That was incredible," she recalls. "It was bizarre actually as well because as well as being blown away by being asked to do it at all, I didn't realise I was the first woman. It was 2016!"

So when she turned her attention to her book two years later, Dawn was uncertain how successful she'd be, away from her main pursuit of illustration. However, she needn't have worried.

Because in the incredibly competitive world of children's publishing, Dawn's story was snapped up within weeks, in a situation that would be the stuff of dreams for most authors. "Once I'd written the book I showed it to my husband and he started crying," recalls Dawn. "Then I showed it to my sister-in-law and she had to pass the phone to her husband because she started crying too."

Dawn then sent the book to a friend whose child had autism to check the its tone was right, as well as to an old tutor - along with some initial sketches she'd done for the book - and the feedback was incredible.

Her old tutor said she thought the book was great and recommended a publisher. "I wasn't expecting much back, because I know how these things work," says Dawn. "But I sent it on anyway and they came back to me the next day to say they loved it.

"They wanted to meet, but I have no idea how these things work so I wasn't sure. I love the personal and creative side of it, like drawing fairies and writing stories, but I really am not sure about all the other stuff. So I got in touch with the agent I had for my art, who didn't represent authors, and she told me to get in touch with an agency that did."

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Dawn with Jack and her dog, who she has named Bear

Dawn with Jack and her dog, who she has named Bear

Dawn with Jack and her dog, who she has named Bear

Incredibly, the agency - the same organisation that represents none other than JK Rowling - also came back quickly and offered to represent Dawn and her work.

"I was blown away," she says. "I couldn't believe it. I told them I might already have an offer but they told me to hold off, and within a week I had all these amazing companies showing interest.

"It was incredible because I know it can take years for these things to take off, but one thing just seemed to happen after the other."

And with the book's release right around the corner, tying in not only with International Children's Book Day but National Autism Week as well, Dawn is clear that the little boy who inspired her picture book will remain right at the centre of it all.

"This book isn't about autism," she says. "The lead character has autism. There are little clues in the book that he has autism, like wearing ear defenders when he's out and about.

"But I honestly think every kid should be able to pick up a book and see a child that looks like them. That's what it is. It's about being represented."

And in a touching sign of Dawn's ongoing relationship with Jack, now eight, she has planned her first reading of the book to take place at his south London school, whenever the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end and normal life ensues.

"Last year at Children's Book Day, all the kids at Jack's school had little forms to fill in about their favourite book," she says. "Jack said his was Bear Shaped, and of course nobody knew what that was. So to mark it this year, I'll be at Jack's school for my first book reading, whenever we get back to some sort of normal."

Jack's father Matt Barnfield explained how the book has come as an "incredible gift" to his son.

"We are beyond thrilled about the book which represents an incredibly positive outcome from what started as a very sad event for our son," said Matt. "I feel this story is relevant to so many people, young and old, who have experienced loss. It doesn't ignore the heartache but shows that you can learn to move on.

"For Jack, he lost his precious Bear but he learned that you can make loss easier by showing love to others. Jack can't believe his story will soon be in bookshops - what an incredible gift for any child. We are so grateful to Dawn for the beautiful story she has created."

Bear Shaped, by Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden, is out on April 2, published by Oxford University Press

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