Monday, June 24, 2013

Cecil Castellucci's 'Odd Duck' Makes a Perfect Fit

 We're wrapping up our Graphic Novel Summerfest with one of my favorite new books to come out this year, Odd Duck (First Second, May 2013) by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Sara Varon. I've gifted my kids' teachers with this title, enjoyed reading it again and again with my sprogs, and recommended it to anyone whose uniqueness is worth celebrating. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Odd Duck a "clever celebration of individuality," and it is. For anyone searching for a title to give a recent graduate, Odd Duck fits the bill.

This is the story of two ducks, Theodora and Chad. Theodora enjoys swimming in the pond with a teacup balanced on her head, and she has a yen for mango salsa. When the other ducks fly south for winter, she prefers staying north and enjoying the wonders of wintertime. But when Theodora meets newcomer Chad with his funny feathers, she realizes he is one strange bird. Thank goodness Chad has Theodora around to set him straight. But who is the odd duck after all?

Question: You have worn so many hats, from indie rocker to filmmaker to YA novelist. What made you decide to write a book for young readers?

Cecil Castellucci: I’m a big believer that you must follow where a story wants to go and how a story wants to be told. Whatever genre or medium it wants to be. Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve written a book for younger readers. I had a picture book called Grandma’s Gloves that came out a couple of years ago. But with Odd Duck, it just seemed like ducks were more suited to the younger set, or at least framed in a story like that. I originally thought it would be an early reader, but once Sara came on board I realized it would be more fun to make a hybrid picture book/graphic novel since we both do comics.

Q: Theodora and Chad are wonderfully wacky. Who or what were you channeling when you came up with the idea for them? What was your creative process like?

CC: Thank you! Theodora sort of sprung from my head fully formed, teacup and all. I love a prim and proper duck! Chad I think falls a little bit closer to my true nature. I think I’m much more Chad than Theodora. Except when I’m being more Theodora than Chad! I think that I was channeling from all of the amazingly odd people that I know. And I know quite a lot of weirdos. Thank goodness!  

Q: There's a lot to consider when writing for early and emerging readers vs. a YA audience. How did this affect your writing? And do you prefer one genre over the other?

CC: When you are trying to do what is best for a particular story, what’s right and wrong sort of fall into place. So I don’t think that it affected my writing in any way at all. I love all the genres that I write in. I think that’s what makes it “easy” to switch around. If I want to write about something that doesn’t fit or isn’t appropriate style-wise for one kind you get to do it in another. They are all so very different and they all have their pluses and minuses. The fun thing about writing for little kids is how streamlined and simple you’ve got to be. There is an economy to the narrative that is very fun to play with.

Q: While the book is earmarked for second- to fifth-graders, it has wide enough appeal that adults can enjoy it too. Were you writing to the odd duck in all of us?

CC: Oh yes! I was writing for the Odd Duck in me! I really think that is the magic secret of books for younger readers! They are really for everyone! I give picture books to my adult friends all the time.

Q: What was the collaboration like with illustrator Sara Varon? How did you merge your storyline and writing with Sara's wonderful illustrations? And will there be more Odd Duck books in the future?

CC: Working with Sara was amazing. She’s incredibly talented. Sara broke down what was originally the early reader manuscript and then once it was thumbnailed, she and I had a lot of back and forth until we got the text and images together in a way that we wanted. She added all of her Varon flourishes (like the egg replacer and stuff like that). And I sure do hope that there will be more Odd Duck books. I already know what Book Two and Three would be. Believe me, Chad and Theodora may have worked something out in this book, but there are plenty more things to work on in their friendship.

Q: Will you write more for young readers? What can we expect to see from you next?

CC: I am quite sure that I will write more for young readers when the next right idea comes along. Meanwhile, I’ve got two YA books coming out next year. Tin Star, which is Book One in a two-book sci-fi series, and an as-yet-untitled graphic novel about hobos.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Maxwell Eaton's Fast-Paced 'Flying Beaver Brothers'

Maxwell Eaton III's first graphic novel had me at hello. Who can resist a title like The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin PlanSeriously. When evil penguins are involved, I'm all over it. Both Penguin Plan and The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Fishy Business, which Kirkus Review calls "funny from the first panel," were released in January 2012 by Knopf. And for those of us eagerly anticipating his next installments, we have only a few weeks left to wait. As part of our monthlong Graphic Novel Summerfest, we're celebrating the release of his third and fourth titles, The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Mud-Slinging Moles and The Flying Beaver Brothers: Birds vs. Bunnies, which come out next month, on July 9th.

The Flying Beaver Brothers are the adorably furry siblings Ace and Bub. Ace is the active one, who loves extreme sports, surfing, and seems always up for adventure. Bub prefers nap time. But when danger lurks, the Beaver Brothers leap into action. And young readers will take the leap right along with them.

Whether it's swinging through trees, hang-gliding, or swimming deep below the waves, Ace and Bub are on the move battling the bad guys in these action-packed stories. Maxwell offers up the right dose of suspense, silly puns, and zany humor (the evil penguins are Bob and his assistant, Bob). The three-color palette that he uses is reminiscent of Jennifer Holm's wonderful Babymouse books.

My second-grader devoured the first two books and laughed out loud at the humor. "Some readers won’t make it through the most painful jokes," writes Kirkus, "but those who do will see something marvelous building itself in front of their eyes." Maxwell is also the author and illustrator of The Adventures of Max and Pinky series and Two Dumb Ducks.

Question: You've created a fast-paced, engaging story about two adventuresome brothers who save the day – and just happen to be beavers. Did the idea for this series come to you in a dream? How did you settle upon beavers as your heroes?

Maxwell Eaton III: At first they were The Flying Groundhog Brothers, but then I realized there were large rodent alternatives that made for catchier titles (plus “flying” and “ground” in the same title somehow fail to inspire). I also happened to grow up next to a swamp full of beavers and had been lucky enough to witness a lot of their skydiving and dry banter in person. After 18 years of eavesdropping, the stories basically wrote themselves.

Q: Graphic novels are a hot commodity for young readers. Did you study any other series before launching the Flying Beaver Brothers? What were your influences?

ME3: Of course I’d read Babymouse, which really broke ground for these sorts of series. But I’ve also always savored my newspaper comics. Especially the terrible ones, which really teach you the importance of timing. It can make or break things like make joke. Also or action. Too. Hi. [Editor's note: These typos are Maxwell's. Please message him directly to figure out what the heck he means or to gently point out his typing shortcomings!]

Q: There is a lot of sly humor in your stories, especially from the penguins. It seems perfectly calibrated for my second-grader, yet my older kids love the stories too. Are you writing to a particular audience or reader? Or perhaps to the reader you were back in elementary school?

ME3: I don’t really ever have a reader or audience in mind. I just write what I think is funny and what seems to work with the characters. A lot of the time my editor has to remind me that a certain joke might not work for the age group, and I remember that these are for young readers. Then I have to go back and take out all of the dirty stuff. And the reader I was back in elementary school wasn’t a reader at all. But he did manage to avoid ever getting head lice, so he couldn’t have been all bad. I do hope these books would have appealed to him and any of his modern day counterparts. Lice or not.

Q: What I love most about the Flying Beaver Brothers books is that they are hilarious without being obnoxious. Is this deliberate restraint on your part? Or are you trying to hit at a different level with your series?

ME3: Are you suggesting that I’m naturally obnoxious and have to reel it in when I’m writing? Well, you’ve done your research. But again, I just write what I think is funny. I know that sometimes it’s a little goofy, but there’s a fine line between goofy and obnoxious. And it’s straddled by a fish wearing a neck tie.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

ME3: A few laughs and a couple of readers to read without worrying it’s reading. I’m also on the lookout for synonyms.

Q: What will we see next from you?

ME3: Two new Beaver Brothers installments this July! In The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Mud-Slinging Moles, Ace and Bub defend their island from the diabolically pleasant Captain Jojo and his crew of near-sighted, dirt-stealing, but-basically-courteous moles. Then, in The Flying Beaver Brothers: Birds vs. Bunnies, Ace and Bub are caught in a battle between the feathers and the fuzz as they’re caged, cooped, and chased across Little Beaver Island in search of some vacation time amongst more oversized household appliances than a Claes Oldenburg retrospective. And, of course, there are further adventures in the works!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado Hit Big WIth 'Giants Beware'

Jorge Aguirre,
True confession: I am a sucker for First Second Books. Publisher of the Zita the Spacegirl series, Sara Varon's beautiful titles, the award-winning American Born Chinese, and many more terrific books for young readers as well as adults, First Second is the gold standard for graphic novels. And as we celebrate week two of our Graphic Novel Summerfest over here, let's take a look at Giants Beware (First Second, 2012) by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado as another example of how this imprint does things right. 

Scrappy Claudette is a pint-sized giant slayer who teams up with her best friend Marie (who aspires to be a princess) and her little brother Gaston (a pastry chef in the making) to venture off on a quest to rid the land of a baby-feet-eating giant. But there's one minor detail, they forgot to tell their parents. Along the way, Claudette and her sidekicks encounter plenty of challenges but ultimately realize that “monsters” often don't live up to their bad reputation.

Rafael Rosado,
Jorge is a writer for television and documentaries, and Rafael works in the animation industry as a storyboard artist for Warner Brothers, Disney, and Cartoon Network. So trust that with these guys behind the scenes and Claudette at the helm, we're in good hands. Giants Beware has earned rave reviews, including from The New York Times, which wrote, "Claudette may be undersize, hotheaded and prone to violence and lock-picking, but she’s also loyal, brave and ambitious."

Question: Where did these characters come from?

Rafael Rosado: Claudette had been kicking around my sketchpad for years. I kept drawing this rambunctious girl with spiky hair who was looking for a fight. Later, I added Gaston and Marie and drew the three kids as French street urchins. I had a general idea about the three of them going after a giant and asked Jorge if he could flesh out the story and write the script, and he added other characters as he wrote.

Q: You both have long careers in other fields, so why children's literature? What inspired you to create books for kids?

Rafael: We’re both fans of graphic novels and comic books in general, and in a way we made the kind of book we would go out buy for ourselves. There seems to be a renaissance in children’s comics and graphic novels at the moment, and we’re very happy to be a part of it.

Jorge Aguirre: Giants Beware is our first graphic novel, and this might sound a little naive but we didn’t realize we’d written a children’s book until we were done. (Maybe it started dawning on me about three-quarters of the way through). Rafael and I have known each other for years, and our main goal was to write a story that would entertain both of us. If I wrote a gag, Rafael would take the gag a step further in the art, then when I was re-writing all the dialog when I lettered, I’d try to re-write lines to make Rafael laugh some more. There was a lot of back and forth, but our first audience was each other. Probably since our starting point was three child characters, most of the jokes and story lent themselves to a young audience. But we never made a conscious decision to write for children.

Q: The beauty of graphic novels is that they hook young kids into reading early and reading often. They are the genre of choice for many students, strong or struggling. But sometimes graphic-novel creators can forget about their audience, for example, including things like fancy typography that can distract or make the act of reading a frustrating exercise. How much do you think about young readers as you collaborate on your projects?

Jorge: As a writer of graphic novels, I try not too think about it too much. I obsess about the story and the dialog, but if I think too much about the reader, like trying to please someone else besides Rafael or me, then I get a little stilted in my writing or I’m afraid I might start talking down to our readers. For example, when it comes to vocabulary, I like to throw a word or two in there that I found in my thesaurus just because it makes Rafael and me laugh, even though kids might not know the word. I think that’s okay as long as I give the reader context so he or she is not lost or frustrated, and there is always that secret hope that the reader will learn a new word or two. Having said all that, we stay away from sex, extreme violence, cuss words, but that’s pretty easy because that doesn’t feel like a part of Claudette’s world. Now, when I write for TV, the audience is a big part of what I think about.

Rafael: Well, sometimes we knew or guessed that a particular visual gag would go over well with the kids, so we went ahead and put it in. Like all the potty humor with Valiant the dog. It’s a cheap gag, but kids love it. . .

Jorge:  And so do we!

Q: What do you hope kids take away from your books? What do you hope to accomplish?

Rafael: We hope that it gets them excited about reading in general, not just graphic novels. We hear from a lot of parents, and kids themselves, that this is a book they read over and over. That makes us happy. It means the story clicks with them, and they want to go back and re-visit the world we’ve created.

Jorge: We hope they enjoy our story. We hope it makes them laugh and that the story sticks with them after they put the book away.

Q: What will we see next from you guys?

Jorge: The story for Book 2 of Claudette is done, and Rafael is very busy drawing it. It’s going to be action-packed! We’re very excited. And we’ve just started working on the story for Book 3.

Monday, June 3, 2013

David Petersen's Mouse Guard Returns With 'Black Axe'

With schools letting out for summer vacation, we're devoting June to great summer reads. And we're putting the focus on graphic novels, simply because nothing gets the wee ones fired up about reading more than a speech bubble. Graphic novels offer adventure, drama, and thrilling storytelling while still feeling recreational. And for kids needing a break from the daily classroom grind, these books are a perfect escape. So please tune in every Monday this month for another installment of AuthorOf's Graphic Novel Summerfest!

Author-illustrator David Petersen has created his own remarkable world with his Mouse Guard series. He's been honored with multiple Eisner Awards, which are considered the Oscars of the comic book industry, for his Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 and Winter 1152 titles (both Archaia, 2009), as well as Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard (Archaia, 2010). Coming this July, the prequel to his current titles hits shelves: The Black Axe.

In David's beautifully rendered fantasy series, mice struggle for survival amid harsh conditions and dangerous predators. The Mouse Guard heroically battles bad guys, patrols the borders, and helps the residents find routes to safety through treacherous terrain. The mice are swashbuckling characters draped in vivid cloaks and wielding serious swords. And while there is a real Tolkien sensibility, this is a thoroughly 21st-century franchise. The Mouse Guard world is open for easy exploration online, allowing young readers to click on at least 35 characters from the books, five specific groups (like the weaselly Fishers), and a variety of settings and maps.

Question: You've created more than just a book series with Mouse Guard, you've built an entire world both on paper and online, including a role playing game. Can you describe the genesis of the story and where the idea originated? Did you envision an empire?

David Petersen: Mouse Guard started as a comic idea I had in high school titled 1149. It was a combination of Disney's Robin Hood and our Dungeons and Dragons adventures. There were no mice at that point; the animals were all human proportioned, but with animal heads, like the Disney film. In college I decided to revisit the idea focusing on making it less of a cartoon-ish idea and more like Aesop's' Fables. In addition to the species being their actual size and keeping their predator/prey relationships, I figured each species could get its own civilization, allowing me some fun world-building.

In planning out how I'd tell a multi-species story did I come to realize the smaller herbivore species would be hard to write in. They were hunted by all, without ever huting any species themselves. And that is how the focus came to be on the mice. After hearing a story of a mouse's plight against the world for survival, why would you ever sympathize with a fox or weasel's story?

I knew I'd set up Mouse Guard to be a place I could world-build if I wanted to, but had no idea how much of it I'd set myself up for. . . and in building that world I set up the 'real empire'. . . it's because of the depth of the world that online character and location guides and role playing games can exist.

Q: The illustrations are incredible, and with the lush drawings of the mouse characters in their colorful capes and weaponry, one can imagine Mouse Guard on the big screen as an animated film. How long do you take to illustrate each story? And what is your process like? How do you develop the storyline and the art?

DP: Thank you. It would be fun to see a Mouse Guard film! I only worry that it would be done correctly, embracing the all-ages feel of Mouse Guard and not ignoring either the old or young audience. . . something few movies achieve these days.

It takes me quite a while to finish a whole book. I'd say about a year and a half per book. We release them as comic book issues first, and I take about three months per issue, but that includes all the writing, layouts, pencils, inks, colors, and lettering. The process starts with an outline that I develop into a script as I start each issue. Then I draw and ink pages and color them digitally as I go. Lettering the pages is the last step, and it allows me a final edit to the text now that I have the final artwork to compare it against.

The storylines develop out of me thinking of the endings to each book. . . not the ending so much as "what is the last page or the last line, or the climax" but the ending as-in where I want the characters to end up emotionally or developmental wise. I also have a goal for the reader for the end of each book: "by the end of this book the reader will know X." Having those goals in mind helps me figure out how to build up to that point. Some of it is decided purely on whim of what it would be fun to draw or write about, but other times it's a more logical approach to what needs to happen for the sake of developing the characters or world.

Q: There are elements of Tolkien and other epic tales in these stories. What has influenced you most in your storytelling, both in word and in illustration style?

DP: Thank you again. When I started Mouse Guard, I hadn't fully read any Tolkien, but I had a real sense of what he did with his stories and the world he created. . . and that's certainly something I set out to do with Mouse Guard. Star Wars mythology was a big influence as well, not so much directly as the Star Wars universe, but how George Lucas was playing with the mythic ingredient list Joseph Campbell spells out in Hero With 1,000 Faces. All myth and hero journeys share the same key points and similar paths. My working vocabulary for these was with the classic Star Wars trilogy. I was also influenced by the illustrations of Rick Geary and Tom Porht and the comic pacing of Mike Mignola.

Q: This summer, the prequel The Black Axe will be published. What made you go back in time and lay in the history of the Mouse Guard? And what will you work on next?

DP: In the first book, Fall 1152, I needed to introduce the reader to the world of Mouse Guard, the concept of the Guard itself, the key players, and the historic figure of the Black Axe. The second book was all about world building, deepening character development, and a passing of the torch of who is to wield the Black Axe. I went back in time for the Black Axe prequel to give some weight to the history of the Axe and what it means to wield it. I've hinted at its past in the first two books, but I wasn't ready to show the new axe wielder without giving the reader a more full understanding of the context and history of the role.

I liked the challenge of working on a prequel story too. There is always a trap in writing past stories since the reader knows ultimately the outcome based on the other books. But I thought I could really add something with this volume, to not show the how or the outcome, but the why. Any part of the story I can add that will help deepen or even change your understanding of the existing volumes I felt was worth telling.

The next major Mouse Guard volume will be a prequel as well. The Weasel War of 1149. It's the war I've mentioned several times and is more of that added history. . . not only with the war, but also with certain characters. For example, it was in that war that Lieam joined the Guard.

Q: I can attest that the Mouse Guard books are among the most popular reads at my children's school library. What kind of reader were you like as a child? And what do you hope young readers take away from your books?

DP: I was not a very active reader as a child. I did okay, I wasn't behind my reading level or anything, but I never found reading enjoyable enough to pursue it beyond classwork. I didn't become a read-for-pleasure guy until I was an adult, and I think it's a shame. I missed out on reading some great books when I was age appropriate for them.

I hope that young readers enjoy my books and that they challenge themselves with more reading and other subjects as well. For me to create my books means doing math, and I have to research science, history, geography  physics, etc. The more well-read I am or willing to become well-read I am, the better I am at making stories and books.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the Mouse Guard stories and games?

DP: I really just want to tell good stories that people enjoy. I want to inspire people to enjoy my world so much, they start dreaming up their own to share.