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'Citizen artist' creates new graphic novel about teen's depression journey

'Citizen artist' creates new graphic novel about teen's depression journey

Laura Lee Gulledge knew that her new graphic novel, “The Dark Matter of Mona Starr,” would strike a chord with readers — particularly those who understand what fighting depression is like.

But after stay-at-home mandates to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 novel coronavirus canceled the book’s debut at the Virginia Festival of the Book, a launch party at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative that was to have been filled with participatory art activities, and the rest of a long-awaited book tour, young protagonist Mona’s quest to transform her fears into triumphs gained a whole new resonance and timeliness.

The “epic party” Gulledge had intended for The Bridge instead will take place on Facebook Live on Saturday. Head to facebook.com/lauraleegulledge for a weekly series of events through mid-May to explore mental health and encourage self-care practices that can be even more meaningful while readers are away from friends, school and other familiar supports during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gulledge plans to present what she calls a special “back yard edition” edition of her Artner Live Saturday series of virtual book tour events on Facebook Live from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday. The event includes a musical performance and group meditation led by Juliet Trail. Gulledge also plans a live reading from her book, as well as art activities and suggestions for creating an effective self-care plan.

The former public school art teacher still hopes that her young heroine’s experiences will start conversations among friends, family members, creative types and people of all backgrounds when words aren’t the only tools that can help express emotions.

“I’m still a teacher at heart,” Gulledge said. “And I’m a visual learner.”

Her Amulet Books release, a 192-page hardback officially published on April 7, is intended for readers in seventh grade and older. Gulledge uses an engaging comic style to bring sensitive Mona’s world to life.

Mona, like many people, battles depression. Mona’s depression, however, actually takes a concrete form that can’t be ignored.

The Matter — Mona’s name for her depression — is working overtime to make her think that she doesn’t matter. The Matter chips away at her sense of worth and her faith in her creative abilities, and it isolates her from allies who could offer encouragement and support.

But Mona fights back, armed with a loyal therapist, the healing power of writing and art, and friends who are there for her.

Gulledge, the author of “Page by Paige,” “Will & Whit” and “Sketchbook Dares: 24 Ways to Draw Out Your Inner Artist,” knew that finding the right combination of images and words could help her readers find their own inner voices, or inner images.

“Growing up, I always had trouble finding the right words for what I was feeling,” she said. “I think more in pictures, and I’d be frustrated when I couldn’t express my feelings in words.”

The new book gives young readers a chance to build empathy and to see themselves and their own struggles through the lens of someone else’s experiences. It reminds everyone that it’s possible to be a significant support in someone’s life at a challenging time even when you can’t quite find the right words.

“I think people think visually, but I don’t see [the interior life of a character] in comics a lot,” Gulledge said. “I think people have trouble relating challenging experiences. If anything, it’s something we share; it’s the human experience of feeling the feels and seeing what we have in common.”

That’s where Gulledge’s skill sets as artist and author joined forces. Readers who find themselves becoming fond of the characters are meeting them through their nuanced facial expressions as much as through their words and actions.

Mona’s strong ties to the people who are rooting for her offer a grounding force and a sense of accountability while she works toward wellness. Gulledge uses the concept of kite strings to describe the need for creative personalities in particular to find ways to stay connected and centered; each of us can benefit from that invisible tug to keep us moving in the right direction.

“Having that accountability is important for young creatives,” Gulledge said. “It’s not just me who has this active inner world.”

Another element that resonates in “The Dark Matter of Mona Starr” is the realization that one does not have to be an expert in treating depression to reach out to a friend or loved one who is suffering. What matters is being there, and being exactly who you are.

“I’m part of a wave of comics about mental health,” said Gulledge, who sees herself as a “citizen artist” with a responsibility to help others “step up and take ownership of their stories.”

“I realized, ‘No, I don’t have to be the expert.’ It’s part of a conversation. I’m just really good at drawing about stuff.”

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