Zeno Sworder’s new picture book began in darkness, when the rest of the world was asleep. It was built, slowly, gradually, in between the padding of one pair of feet and the weight of two bodies down a corridor. Both tired. One, the tiny one, who was painfully aflame. The other there to comfort.
It began and it grew with love.
‘When my oldest daughter was one or two,’ Sworder tells me, ‘she would have trouble sleeping at night, because of her eczema. She would wake up maybe 2am or 3am, and I would walk her up and down the length of our house. We live in an old Victorian townhouse which is like a long dark cave. I set up a notepad and pen at one end of the house, and every time I did a lap I’d spend thirty seconds to write another sentence.’
An unusual way to write a story. But, in some ways, totally fitting to My Strange Shrinking Parents. From these nocturnal circuits of care emerged an exquisite, fantastical and dreamlike allegory about the sacrifices parents make for their children – migrant parents in particular. The second following Sworder’s This Small Blue Dot (which won the 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for New Illustrator), the book centres an Asian immigrant family, with the two parents literally shrinking in size as they make themselves smaller so that their son can flourish in what is often a avaricious, uncaring place.
It is in many ways a very personal book. Sworder is the son of a migrant mother, and spent his childhood feeling strange and out of place in the small country town of Bendigo in Victoria, where there weren’t many other Asian families. Alienating him further, like his daughter he too suffered from eczema as a child.
‘I would scratch in my sleep, and I would often scratch so furiously that I would remove the skin from the backs of my legs. I’d wake up in the morning and they’d be stuck to the sheets and I’d have to tear them off to remove them.
‘Some of my very earliest memories of my mother were of her sitting next to me at my bedside while I was falling asleep, holding my hands. Part of that was because she was trying to stop me scratching while I was sleeping. I would often wake up in the morning and she would be asleep next to me, still holding my hand.’
‘I never really thought anything of it until we had our second daughter,’ he admits. ‘It just dawned on me, how difficult it would have been for my mother to do, night after night, sacrificing her own sleep.’
Fortunately for young Sworder, his family moved to Melbourne when he was still young, and in the public housing flats where he used to play, he met immigrant and refugee kids with strange names like his.
‘Spending time with those families kind of made me recognise how similar all of our parents were. How much commonality there was, even though we were very culturally different.’ This appreciation for sameness in difference, particularly through cultural dislocation, grew in depth when he began advocacy work for migrants and refugees.
In spite of his quiet hope to distil these lessons and observations about the world around him for children like he used to be, when Sworder submitted his manuscript of A Small Blue Dot, he worried that he’d made the protagonist – a young, bespectacled Asian girl – too specific. Was it marketable? he wondered. All the research he’d done after writing the story to prepare himself suggested not.
Fortunately, with the encouragement of publisher Thames & Hudson and the support of bookshops Australia-wide, his fears came to naught. Since it was released, it has not only won industry acclaim, but parents have sent him many letters of thanks for creating such a ‘atypical’ main character. ’When I read it to my children it helps build them up,’ they’d write.
It is fortunate that Sworder published any books at all. And, alongside Sworder’s enduring creative passion and self-discipline, it is at least a partial credit to his parents that he has. As a child, there was no TV in the house (another thing that alienated him from his classmates), so he turned his boredom into days with pen and pencil and paper and imagination. Still, although his parents urged him to put his creative talents to use, he instinctively enrolled in a Commerce degree at University, following the path he expected of himself to go into a profession. (He laughs remembering his father coming into his room during his first semester and shaking his head when he saw the Human Resources books on the shelves: ‘“You think humans are resources? Like coal?”’)
Although never a dedicated artist, all throughout his career – whether as an advocate or a journalist – Sworder would draw in his downtime as a way to relax, spending two hours usually every evening sketching, experimenting, developing his identity as an artist.
The process he used for My Strange Shrinking Parents is a highly elaborate one, involving graphite powder, cotton buds, pencils, photo references (in which Zeno would act out the poses of each of his characters ‘a bit challenging when doing the mother!’), an iPad, a program called ProCreate, a lightbox, art paper, more graphite and watercolour. The images that have bloomed in the pages as a result are breathtaking. Self-taught, he has created a style all of his own, which draws from Japanese and Chinese artists, and the French artist Gustave Doré, whose graphite drawings he discovered as a child on his father’s shelves.
His use of perspective in My Strange Shrinking Parents is particularly extraordinary – the intimacies and distances essential to the story so carefully rendered. The colours are autumnal, muted, creating a sense of gentle timelessness. And the images and text is laid out on the page in a way which is so thoughtful to setting the reading pace, and creating a certain type of wistful, sometimes heartwrenching affect. I’ll admit, though the book takes all of five minutes to read, by the end I was choking down tears.
Part of the emotional weight this book so expertly carries also has to do with its relationship to time. As a parent who reads about a dozen books to his children every week, he realised that so many stories for kids were compressed into a single day, sometimes a single afternoon – as though their imaginations couldn’t handle wider frames. By contrast, the plot of My Strange Shrinking Parents spans generations, carrying a sense of both melancholy and hope at irrevocable patterns and cycles of change.
‘And as a child who felt awkward and strange,’ Sworder says, ‘I wanted to express to myself as a kid that some of those things that make you feel awkward and out of place, they may actually turn into things that are real points of pride and that you hold onto tightly when you become an adult.’
My Strange Shrinking Parents is a beautiful second book from an Australian author who has and will continue to enrich the inner worlds of old and young with his books. Find it and its predecessor, This Small Blue Dot, in store at Roaring Stories Bookshop Balmain.
By Kate Prendergast
My Strange Shrinking Parents by Zeno Sworder was published August 2022 by Thames and Hudson.