The teenager with a special gift and a story with a special message

Never judge anyone just because they're different…

AS World Autism Awareness Week begins today, children’s author Peter Barron explains how he came to employ the remarkable talents of an autistic teenager to illustrate his latest book

AS a little boy, Jonathan Raiseborough was different. He didn’t quite fit in and found it hard to make friends. There were times when he was bullied.
When he reached primary school, Jonathan was finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Despite being confirmed as having a disability, the diagnosis came as a relief to his family in Darlington.

One of Jonathan's illustrations

But, as is the case with so many autistic people, Jonathan wasn’t just different. He was special. He was born with a gift for art.

For as long as he can remember, Jonathan has been drawing. Inspired especially by the Roald Dahl books, he wanted to be a children’s illustrator, like Quentin Blake, the artist who created characters like The Big Friendly Giant, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Matilda.

“I just loved the imagination behind the books and how the characters came to life through the pictures,” recalled Jonathan.

His love of drawing continued to grow and, now aged 18, he is busy with a foundation course in art at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.
I first met Jonathan a year ago when I was compering last year’s Vibe Awards for young people in Darlington and his artistic skills were recognised. The award citation mentioned his ambition to be an illustrator for children’s books.

Snowdrop The Spikeshuffler is dedicated to anyone who has ever been judged because, in the eyes of others, they were different.

Jonathan at  work

Coincidentally, I was looking for an illustrator for my latest book, Snowdrop, The Spikeshuffler. It’s a story inspired by a cutting taken from The Northern Echo, telling how a baby albino hedgehog had been taken to an animal sanctuary amid fears it would be killed by other animals because of its colour. In the book, Snowdrop overcomes prejudice in Merlin’s Meadow and ends up a hero.
After the awards ceremony, Jonathan and I had a chat and I sent him the manuscript for the new book. A few weeks later, he sent back the most beautiful illustrations, some of which are reproduced on this page. His talent was clear to see and I immediately knew I had my perfect illustrator.

Around the same time, I’d been helping the North East Autism Society (NEAS) to publicise an appeal to employers to make more use of the skills of people on the autism spectrum. Jonathan was a case in point and, when the charity’s chief executive John Phillipson saw his illustrations, he was also hugely impressed.
The result is that the North East Autism Society has now agreed to fund publication of the book as a way of showcasing the talents of autistic people.

“Jonathan is a great example of someone on the autism spectrum who has wonderful, natural ability,” said John. “His ambition is to be a children’s illustrator and it is a joy for us to help make his dream come true and send out a message to employers everywhere to look beyond the label of autism.”

Jonathan’s dad Mark, also a talented artist, added: “I don’t think people realise what an asset autistic people can be and it’s absolutely brilliant that the book is going to be published. Jonathan has worked so hard in life to overcome his challenges and this is the best opportunity he could have been given. We’re just incredibly proud of him.”

Jonathan is putting the final touches to the illustrations and the book is due to be published by Pro-actif in the autumn.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be in this position,” he said. “The chance, at my age, to illustrate a book is an amazing opportunity and so exciting.

“I really identified with the main character, Snowdrop, because autistic people feel different. They don’t quite fit but don’t understand why. Snowdrop has to prove himself and that’s how I felt too.

"It's a heart-warming story but it has a really powerful message – that it’s wrong to judge someone just because they’re different."

In my book, Jonathan Raiseborough isn’t different. He’s definitely special.

Here is a little taste of the book

Another of Jonathan's illustrations

Now read an excerpt from the book...

HE was different from the very beginning. From the moment he came into the world in the warm, cosy nest beneath the old hedgerow, the difference couldn't be hidden. And, as a result, it seemed that his stay on earth was destined to be brief. "It doesn’t matter – he’s still our son," Twig Hawthorn whispered, soothingly, to his wife Poppy as they looked down at their five new babies which had been born as the first stabs of sunrise broke through the branches. 

“But they’ll take him away,” gasped Poppy. “I know they will. They’ll kill him because he’s…because he’s different.” 

“No they won’t! Never!” declared Twig, his words slow but rising with defiance. “He’s more than different. He’s special.”