Creating Tim-Tron, the robot with a brain injury

Guest post from Ian Ray. Ian is editorial manager at The Children’s Trust, the UK’s leading charity for children with brain injury. He leads the Brain Injury Hub, an online resource and forum for families of children with brain injury.

How do you tell your child they may not be quite the same again?

Thousands of parents across the UK face this very problem each year after their child sustains an acquired brain injury.

It’s hard to overstate how shocking this can be for a family, as their otherwise healthy little boy or girl is hospitalised through an impact to the head, or a ‘non-traumatic’ injury such as stroke or meningitis. This shockwave may rumble on for many years afterwards, as children and families contend with a huge range of issues and impairments (it would take another handful of blogs to cover them all!).

Just one of these issues is the difficulty some children have with their own awareness about their injury and its effects. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it, in that the very organ children use to make sense of themselves may not be at full strength.

On the face of it, this lack of awareness might seem a blessing, but actually, it may be hard for children to address their difficulties if they don’t understand them. They may push themselves too hard, or miss mistakes they’re making.

Heads Up, Tim-Tron

Cartoon of Tim-Tron, a robot with a dog
Tim-Tron with his dog

With Heads Up, Tim-Tron, we’ve tried to help parents of younger children broach this complex issue in a colourful and interesting way. It’s a picture book about a little robot who bangs his head, an idea that came about after one of our clinicians compared the human brain to a cluster of tiny working circuits.

We know boys are disproportionately affected by traumatic brain injury, and a comparison with the circuits in a little robot’s brain seemed like a funny way to appeal to them (hopefully without excluding little girls!).

The more we thought it through, the more aspects of brain injury seemed ripe for the robot treatment; the tiredness children experience after an injury might be rendered as a battery running low, or the difficulty some children have absorbing information might be trouble with a processor.

We’d recently launched our Brain Injury Hub resource and forum, and so a story for children seemed like the perfect next step.

Getting started

After working up the story from home, I nervously took my first draft to a writing tutor, who helped me get the book in better shape. He suggested I put together some guide illustrations to ‘storyboard’ the book, which was enormous fun.

As the story developed, it became increasingly important that we didn’t have a big, shiny happy ending. Sadly, we know rehabilitation can sometimes be an ongoing process for children, so it was important that our story ended on a cautiously optimistic note. I hope we’ve achieved this.

When I had something that looked like a (somewhat amateurish) children’s book, our own experts made sure it ‘did its job’ from a clinical perspective. We also shared the draft with some of our families, who weren’t shy about telling us it was far too long.

Illustrating the book

Our director of fundraising was able to have the project charitably-funded, and we were now ready to take on an illustrator for the book. This was far and away the most exciting aspect of the project, as I trawled through illustration directories looking at every conceivable style of children’s artwork.

We eventually chose Garry Parsons, an award-winning artist who hand-paints each page of his books. With his expert eye, Garry saw immediately that my version of Tim-Tron was too adult-like for young children, so he put together a collection of little robot drawings we could show to children to see who their favourites were.

With our main character designed, Garry developed initial ‘thumbnail’ sketches that soon became a pencil storyboard for the entire book. This itself then blossomed into a series of vivid paintings telling Tim-Tron’s story.

Tim-Tron playing with a dog outside his house
Tim-Tron playing outside his house in Transistor Avenue
Tim-Tron in a rocket, flying past a red planet
Tim-Tron on a trip to Mars

Richard Hammond lends his support

Richard Hammond in a recording studio
Richard Hammond records the audiobook

Over the last few years The Children’s Trust has benefited from the support of Richard Hammond, the Top Gear presenter who himself sustained a brain injury during filming. Despite a manic calendar of filming and appearances, Richard took the time to record an audiobook version of Heads Up, Tim-Tron for families to read along with.

With the audiobook recorded, our production process was almost complete, and after a couple of insomnia-inducing slip-ups in our schedule, we got the book to our printer.

Getting the final product back in a series of neat little boxes was a genuine thrill. And shortly afterwards, we were told the United Kingdom Brain Injury Forum had awarded us their “Innovation in the Field of Brain Injury” award for the project, a wonderful recognition of the hard work of our little team.

All we need to do now is get the book into your hands. I’m already proud of our little robot, and I hope his story will be genuinely useful to children, their friends, siblings and families.

Tim-Tron will be available from 13 January for just the cost of postage and packing from The Children’s Trust, email if you’re interested.

Scope also has a list of positive children’s books featuring disabled characters and storybooks to download.