Finding colour through the grey

How do you talk to a child about serious, sensitive topics like body image, violence, death or depression? Picture books may just be the answer. It's certainly how Amanda Leiber thinks, and it's why she wrote My Giant Sea Shell. Jessica Abelsohn spoke to the author about her process and the finished product.

Amanda Lieber (pictured) is a trained actress and drama teacher. After travelling the world, living and performing in different countries, Lieber put down roots in Australia, where she got a bit more serious about her writing.

“I have always written here and there,” she told The AJN. “I’ve always written plays and poems for my drama students to perform.” But then she joined a writing community organisation and actually started thinking about it as something she could put out into the world.

When she was working at the Sydney Children’s Hospital, she came across a patient whose mother was struggling.

“One child was going through treatment and the other wasn’t. And the mother was very upset,” she recalled.

“I just wondered how you explained the mother’s emotions to the sick child and to the child who wasn’t ill.

“How did the child feel and how did the child understand what the mother was going through? And then the story, as a poem, just came to me.”

She recalled standing in the passageway at home, suddenly seeing images in her mind. She put pen to paper and the origins of My Giant Sea Shell appeared in writing.

She explained that this is her process.

“I see my writing as images at first, and then I describe the images that I see in words. It’s almost like a movie that’s playing out in my mind. And that’s how I saw My Giant Sea Shell at first. I described what I was seeing,” she explained.

Lieber said that My Giant Sea Shell acts as a way to help bring awareness to children about difficult topics, especially those who are afraid to speak about these things.

“Mental health is quite prominent at the moment, thankfully people have become more aware of it and aren’t afraid to speak about it or ask for help if they need. And that’s why I think stories about sensitive topics that people are afraid to talk about are so important. They open up discussions,” she said, recalling a time when she read the book to some of her students.

In one particular class, the book touched one student in particular who suddenly realised that other people get sad too.

“We chatted a little bit more about it and then it came out that his mum is sometimes sad. And it was good for him to see that it’s not only his mum, other people also feel sadness,” she recalled, explaining that they used this as an opportunity to speak about children feeling sad, that it’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.

The story relates to adults as well, ensuring that adults know that it’s okay to feel sad around children and that it’s okay for children to feel emotion as well.

“People have commented that their mother went to a greyness when they were in primary school, and now reading the books, they understand what their mother would have been experiencing,” Lieber said, saying someone else she knows experienced a greyness when her child was young and gave the book to her son to read, asking whether he recalled what had happened.

“She said, ‘do you remember when I was grey and had no colour in my life?’ And I think it’s so beautiful how she has related the story to her life as well.”

Importantly, Lieber explained that she hasn’t given a specific reason why the mother in the book is sad to specifically leave it open-ended and open to discussion around the many reasons for people to feel sad.

In fact, Lieber said that often when she is asked why the mother is sad, she turns the question back, asking why that person or child believed the mother was sad. According to Lieber, it provides an opportunity for the child to think about all the different reasons, and perhaps relate the situation back to their own lives if relevant.

Lieber has jumped through quite a few hoops to get My Giant Sea Shell published, sending the manuscript to various critique groups that she is part of and amending draft after draft to get the story “just right”.

“You have to refine each word, and each word has to have a special place,” she explained, saying she always starts with pen and paper before moving onto her computer for the editing process.

What she loves most about the book, besides the story itself of course, are the beautiful illustrations by Kathy Creamer who, Lieber said, has drawn the images almost exactly like she saw them in her head.

“It’s like she peeked into my subconscious somehow,” she laughed.

Most importantly, Lieber said she hopes the book helps children understand the greyness that so many people go through in their lives, knowing that it’s okay to feel the emotions and to get help. Because we all need a little help sometimes.

My Giant Sea Shell is available online through or via select bookstores if requested. For more information, visit

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