Two years ago, fresh out of high school at the age of 18, Nikolai Deleff was living in Yellowknife when he was assailed by Ulcerative Colitis, landing him in and out of the hospital for a month.
“It was a really hard time to go through so much uncertainty,” he said in an interview with Black Press.
Deleff, now living in Victoria, had always loved drawing but a shift happened to him while spending long days and nights at the hospital. He discovered just how much art could give him a “renewed sense of purpose” and help him weather “life’s toughest storms” as he drew sketches on the hospital whiteboard and in a sketchbook.
Drawing gave him a gateway into his inner world and soon, the idea for his first children’s book, the northern adventure tale Bear and Ivory, came to him in mental images.
“It was a ship stuck in an iceberg and it’s almost metaphorical for how it was at that time; it almost felt like I was a ship stuck in the iceberg, in the hospital room in a way,” he said.
Deleff is now unstuck two years later, cruising towards a world of possibilities. The 20-year-old is releasing his second illustrated children’s book, Superdog Jake, on Feb. 10.
Deleff, whose eyes light up when he talks about his work, has had a fast-track launch in his career. He’s been featured in NorthWest Territories Arts, CBC and Cabin Radio to name a few.
And he’s been busy creating resources to connect with his book’s readers. His website is full of colouring sheets, drawing tutorials and behind-the-scenes videos that show his creative process working with watercolour.
For the release of Superdog Jake, which follows an imaginative journey as Jake the dog tries to figure out what to do when he’s given too much birthday cake, Deleff will be touring schools. The book is also being sold at Russell Books, Books & Shenanigans, Ivy’s Books and Bolen Books.
What Deleff wants young readers to take away from the story, which is based on sketches and poems he did of his dog, is a sense of companionship, he said.
“I’d say there’s definitely an element of making friends and how good things come back to you.”
It’s the joy that comes from immersing in the creative world of picture books that led him down the path to children’s books, Deleff said. He read the first copy of Superdog Jake at a school in his home town and recalled how excited the children were, wanting to read the story again when it was finished. For Deleff, it’s a familiar feeling that went back to his childhood, when he’d read picture books or make his own by sticking his drawings between cardboard pieces.
“Children’s books were something that inspired me as a kid a lot and to see all those creative worlds and ideas vibrantly shown in picture books, it really stuck with me. So when I started doing more illustrations and drawings, I thought how cool would it be to create something I would’ve enjoyed as a kid,” he said.
Deleff doesn’t show any signs of stopping soon as he is enrolled in creative writing at UVic and is interested in exploring short or graphic novels.
But whether children’s books or graphic novels, at the end of the day, his mission remains the same.
“I hope to inspire others to embrace their struggles, discover their strengths in art, and dare to dream bigger,” he said.