Bertie Bombus and Tom Tit are the hand-drawn creations of neuroscientist, and now author and illustrator, Janette Mills, who has told their story in a new children’s book.
The 57-year-old hospice patient from Shrewsbury was inspired to put pencil to paper for Bertie Bombus, The Brave Bumble Bee, when she became a grandmother for the first time.
She said: “The idea of the book came to me in July 2021 when I realised this cancer had got to the stage where I probably wasn’t going to see my first grandchild, Matilda, grow up, or any other grandchildren. I thought it would be nice to leave something for them – part of myself. And I added another character named after Matilda – Tilly, the long-tailed tit – to the story."
Having only mainly drawn as a hobby, Janette says creating the book has "taken her to another world, far, far away from the horrors of cancer".
She said: “The story came to me very quickly; the inspiration was my granddaughter’s mother Grace’s love for bees."
All proceeds from the sales of Bertie Bombus will be donated to Severn Hospice and other local cancer charities, both of which have helped Janette following her diagnosis of an aggressive, unknown cancer.
Janette first received pain treatment from Severn Hospice in December 2021 and has been cared for on the hospice ward.
She said the charity is a "fabulous place – what humanity is all about", adding that she wants the profits to go to the local charities because she ‘received fantastic care from the nurses in both charities’.
Five years ago, Janette and her husband, Simon, moved to Shrewsbury from Llanfyllin in Powys and downsized with the view of spending their later years regularly travelling abroad.
But in January 2018, Janette was diagnosed with cancer when her eldest son got married and ‘the nightmare started’, with experts left baffled by the non-specific disease.
Instead of travelling, they spent the last four years going back and forth to the Lingen Davies Centre for treatment, and then latterly to London for several operations.
After having her lymph nodes removed, a mastectomy, plus radiotherapy and chemotherapy at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, Janette and Simon took six months off to enjoy a road trip around Poland and several other European countries.
During the holiday Janette knew the cancer had returned and didn’t say anything as she didn’t want to ruin the break away.
Once they returned she started chemotherapy again and had another operation in April 2020 when the pandemic hit.
Janette said: “Dealing with the cancer has been relentless, apart from the time in Poland, we have never stopped. The pandemic brushed us by. We were at appointments constantly and continued to receive treatment throughout.
“In 2018 I was told I had a year left to live. And I’m still here nearly four years later, so I’m very grateful for that time. I’ve kept going; I kept walking, I kept singing in the Mere Singers choir, I kept drawing, painting, and creating.
“I started drawing 20 years ago, when I was ill in California and a friend turned up with pencils and paper. I love nature and the outdoors and walking, and that’s what I started drawing.
“Drawing has really helped me get through the cancer – you need things to almost take you into another world. I hadn’t written creatively since I was in school but most of the story was written in one afternoon. The illustrations were drawn over time. I used pastels, watercolours, pen and ink.”
The new-found author based the story in Fife, where she has previously lived.
And because of her scientific background there is a nod to science throughout.
“Bombus is the generic name for bumble bee so that’s where Bertie Bombus comes from,” she explains. “And when Bertie meets a red mason bee in the garden, her name is Osmia which is the scientific name for red mason bees.”
In September 2021, just before a major operation to have a kilogramme-weighing tumour ‘the size of a watermelon’ removed, Janette decided to finalise the story.
She said: “My husband and I were in an Airbnb in Camden Town in London waiting, when I realised, we might not have time, so we put our heads down and proofed and re-wrote some of the book.”
The book has been a labour of love, with family and friends rallying round to support Janette with the production.
Janette said: “My friend knew we had to get the story done quickly, so her husband scanned the pictures, and their daughter did the page layouts and prepared it for printing.”
Without her knowing, Janette’s long-standing walking group friends then joined together to pay for the first copies to be printed.
When they turned up with them at her house, Janette said: “I burst out crying when I saw the book because it was fantastic to have it in my hands and see it all come into fruition.”
Bertie Bombus, The Brave Bumble Bee will be sold at £6 and is available at the Refresh café at Severn Hospice, Bicton.