Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the pain. Anyone who has lost a child has experienced the unimaginable. When your child takes their own life, time stops. You are sucked into a void that threatens to rip you apart, and the universe shifts. You can almost hear the earth moan and nature weep. Days pass. Years pass. You struggle to find meaning in death, but the whys and what-ifs are incessant. To quote the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Sept. 17, 2021, marked the sixth anniversary of Clayton’s death.
Several weeks after his memorial service, my wife, Jamie, found a manuscript on Clayton’s computer that he had written when he was 16 years old.
Clayton had written an unconventional fairy tale about a misshapen boy who discovers a way to escape his lonely existence by making a Faustian bargain with a supernatural entity, a talking mask. “I’m going to publish it,” I said immediately.
I knew nothing about self-publishing. But I also knew intuitively that no traditional publisher would accept a manuscript that was being published to honor the memory of an unknown author.
Of course, I tested the waters. I sent out a few inquiries, more out of curiosity than hope. Sometimes, I would get a response such as “the story doesn’t fit our guidelines.” More often than not, I would hear nothing. However, I expected as much and was not daunted. I was determined to have my son’s story published, and nothing was going to stop me.
Instinctively, I knew I had to find an illustrator. I did know of a person who created absolutely beautiful art, but soon learned that a substantial difference exists between an artist and an illustrator. I also learned that it was critically important to find an illustrator who would work collaboratively as a team and be amenable to suggestions.
So I had to begin another search. For three months, I trolled the internet for an illustrator who could artistically mirror the themes and mood of my son’s story. This was not an easy task. The illustrations I saw were amazing and wonderful, but which illustrator could reflect the story’s darkness and, at the same time, capture its multilayered meaning?
I contacted illustrators in my home state, Colorado, but the manuscript wasn’t the sort that they would illustrate. I even contacted a Caldecott Award winner who emailed me about the illustration process. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did know how to do a Google search.
Then, one day, I stumbled across someone whose work and style registered with me immediately: Rohan Daniel Eason. I looked at the many books that he had illustrated and was tremendously impressed. His style was intriguing—such fastidious detail, incredible imagery, and a juxtaposition of elements that compel the viewer’s attention.
Could I get him? Would he illustrate Clayton’s book? Would he work for a nobody?
Not feeling very hopeful, but with absolutely nothing to lose, I contacted his agent, explaining that I wanted to publish an illustrated children’s book in honor of my son. She asked what the story was about. Within the week, she responded, saying that he would illustrate Clayton’s story.
We signed a contract, and the journey to create a children’s illustrated book based upon Clayton’s inspiring allegorical story began.
With Rohan’s help, I found an incredible designer, Jim Dunn, with whom Rohan had worked on other projects. Over three years, Jim and I worked in tandem with Rohan, creating the “specs,” layout, and the book’s elaborate design.
I had the marvelous opportunity to observe the creative process of an accomplished illustrator and a talented designer. It was quite incredible to see the book being born through the vision of two wonderful artists.
Even with a great story and phenomenal art, it is not easy to capture the attention of a universe of readers in this highly competitive and challenging field. I am no social media star. I am not a “microinfluencer.” I don’t have 10,000 email contacts. As explained to me by a friend employed by Facebook, the algorithms of social media platforms are intricate and complex. They won’t drive readers to find Clayton’s book without knowledgeable marketing help, he advised.
To complete this journey, I had to find my own distributor, a custom printing company, and marketing opportunities that might help increase the visibility of The Mask. I researched. I studied. I attended workshops. I read and downloaded so many DIY manuals. I asked so many questions of anyone who would educate me.
Luck! Providence! Good people in the industry, touched by my dream of publishing a book for my son, graced me with their experience, guidance, and advice.
Finally, on this challenging and difficult road, through publishing Clayton’s book, I found a purpose in my grief. The awful pain led me to wisdom. More importantly, what started as a project to honor Clayton has become so much more in terms of its intrinsic value to children.
Rohan asked if he could do a reading of Clayton’s book on Instagram. He asked me to pen a dedication that he could share with his followers. It’s fitting to conclude with it here: “The Mask is dedicated to a beautiful son and lovely human being. An amazing intelligence and grand sensitivity embodied in a young adult body with a very old soul. He challenges us to ask meaningful questions about kindness, beauty, love, courage, integrity, and commitment. He asks that we be better than we are.”
Spike Adams is a retired county court judge and the father of Clayton Marshall Adams.