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.
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 how much art could give him a “renewed sense of purpose” and help him weather “life’s toughest storms” as he drew away on the hospital whiteboard or in a sketchbook.
Drawing gave him a gateway into his inner world, spurring mental images that would his first children’s book – the northern adventure tale Bear and Ivory. Images of a ship stuck in an iceberg were almost a metaphor for his surroundings at the time.
“It almost felt like I was a ship stuck in the iceberg, in the hospital room in a way,” he said.
Two years later, Deleff is unstuck and 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 the NorthWest Territories Arts program, 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.
Deleff will be touring schools for the release of Superdog Jake, which follows an imaginative journey where Jake the dog tries to figure out what to do when he’s given too much birthday cake. The book is also being sold at Russell Books, Books & Shenanigans, Ivy’s Books and Bolen Books.
The author wants young readers’ takeaway to be a sense of companionship from the story, which is based on sketches and poems he did of his dog.
“There’s definitely an element of making friends and how good things come back to you.”
The joy that comes from immersing himself in the creative world of picture books led him to children’s books. He read the first copy of Superdog Jake at a school in his hometown and recalled how excited the children were as they wanted to read the story again after finishing it. 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.
Whether it’s 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.