During high school, Isabelle Duff struggled with an eating disorder and was eventually diagnosed with acute depressive disorder and anxiety at 17.
“I missed a lot of year 12 and was in a really bad place, it was a really tough time for myself and my family,” she said.
So for her 18th birthday her parents bought her a Border Collie puppy, which she named Saffy, which is short for Saffron.
They could not have known that single decision would influence the course of their daughter’s life and that of hundreds of other people, young and old.
“Saffy really changed everything for me; walking him got me out of the house, and cuddling him calmed me down,” Isabelle said.
“There is something about a puppy that makes it impossible not to smile, a level of completely irrefutable and unconditional love that you cannot help but love back,” she said. “He was the beginning of everything getting better.”
Saffy was also instrumental in inspiring Isabelle to start pondering, jotting her musings about what he thought of her and what he made of her ups and downs.
Isabelle grew up in the Hilltops region, attending Murringo Public School before the family moved to Orange.
Earlier this year she returned to her old school to read to students what those observations became – a heart-warming book she had created called Cookie, which tells the tale of a girl, named Girl, and her dog, which she named Cookie.
It’s simple enough but the story really is a powerful result of the healing power of love between a pet and their person. It’s the story of Isabelle and Saffy.
“My mum used to say I was his girl, and he was taking care of me, which is where the idea for Girl came from,” Isabelle said.
With beautiful words and playful artwork by Canberra-based illustrator Susannah Crispe, Cookie provides a gentle starting point for big conversations.
Isabelle says she wrote Cookie as a celebration of the power of friendship to make everything OK and, in doing so, hopes it can help reduce the stigma around mental health, start conversations with kids and parents about “scary feelings” and encourage them to seek the help they need.
Cookie also explores the importance of empathy.
“It isn’t just about the kids who might one day battle a mental illness themselves,” Isabelle said. “It’s about understanding what a friend or parent or sibling might be going through.”
Having said that, at the end of the day, she said Cookie is also just for anyone who likes dogs.
But Cookie also became a tale of tenacity, which for Isabel was the tough grind that is book publishing.
“I initially sent my draft of Cookie to every Australian kids book publisher I could find, and was unsuccessful on all fronts,” she said.
A breakthrough came in the form of a mentoring program through EK Books, where Isabelle was paired with publisher, editor and author Anouska Jones.
“I had absolutely no idea how a kids book should be written, structured or how to find the balance between what was in the words and what was in the illustrations,” Isabelle said.
“I was incredibly lucky to have such a brilliant mentor and was absolutely overjoyed when I was offered a contract at the end of the program,” she added.
Released in October 2021 and now available in Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand and Australia, the response to Cookie has been overwhelming for Isabelle.
“I have had such lovely messages from so many people,” she said. “I have been sent such gorgeous photos of kids reading Cookie and had some amazing conversations about mental illness (and also dogs) with adults,” she said.
Cookie also placed third in the inaugural 2021 Forevability Book Awards.
Currently in her second year of Advanced Science and Commerce – majoring in genetics and accounting – at the University of NSW (UNSW), Isabelle is hoping to return home to work on the family farm after uni.
She and Susannah are working on a second book titled The Real Cowgirl which is due to be released in early 2024.
“It has similar themes to Cookie, although more focused on anxiety than depression,” Isabelle said, “but like Cookie, it is a story about being brave and the power of friendship.”
Isabelle says working with Susannah has been very special.
“For me that Cookie in the book is so thoroughly Saffy and that all the love that went into writing it is so well conveyed in the pictures,” she said.
“One of my favourite things about the illustrations are the birds and butterflies and flowers in the background. Susannah has made Cookie really beautifully bush-Australian in a way that couldn’t be in the words.”
For more information, visit www.isabelleduff.com
People wishing to purchase a copy of Cookie can do so by visiting this website.
Anyone experiencing distress can seek immediate advice and support through Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or the digital mental health gateway, Head to Health.