I still remember, as a young boy, staring in stunned wonder at the photos taken of tiny rocks on Mars by the Viking I lander in July of 1976. I couldn’t believe those detailed rocks were on another world. Another world! I’ve been fascinated with the exploration of Mars ever since, including up to today, when I woke early to watch the NASA feed of the historic first test flight of Ingenuity, a tiny but hugely important helicopter drone. Luckily, there are many books showcasing the beauty of our red neighbor, including the stunning new MARS IS: STARK SLOPES, SILVERY SNOW, AND STARTLING SURPRISES (Peachtree, 2021), which showcases images captured by the HiRISE camera, accompanied by poetic text. I caught up with the author, Suzanne Slade, to learn more:
Me: MARS IS is a beautiful, engaging look at a huge (literally planet-sized) subject. How did you organize and write it?
Suzanne: I brainstormed various ideas while considering the best way to share the incredible HiRISE Mars photos in this book. This process involved random scribbling on papers: title ideas, Mars features I wanted to include, a list of descriptive words, book organization outline, etc. Eventually I decided on the title “Mars Is”, and also used that repeater sentence in the text to drive the story.
Me: Do you follow the Mars rovers? (My next series is about two fictional rovers, I’m a little obsessed myself!)
Suzanne: I’ve followed Spirit and Opportunity through the years, and am now a huge fan of Perseverance.
Me: How did you get into writing for kids?
Suzanne: It started with my love of books as a child. Then as a mom, I read LOTS of picture books to my children. About 20 years ago I decided to give writing a try and took a class at a local college, joined critique groups, and attended SCBWI conferences. Eight years and over 80 rejection letters later, I finally had my first book contract.
Me: I love space stuff, but definitely have the wrong stuff for space travel (like claustrophobia and an aversion to speed). If given a chance, would you sit on a ride into orbit or beyond?
Suzanne: I’m with you! Space travel isn’t my bag, but I adore researching various missions and am utterly fascinated by all things space.
Me: How cool that Alan Bean (of Apollo 12) wrote the afterword for your book DARING DOZEN (about the 12 humans who have walked on the moon). My favorite astronaut! How did you set that up?
Suzanne: I sent Alan a blind email explaining the project, and he kindly responded the next day. At first he answered questions via email. Then he asked if we could talk on the phone a couple of times, which was fantastic. One fun sidenote he shared was that he wished he’d smuggled a football aboard Apollo so he could have thrown the longest pass in the universe!
Me: Any dream topics you hope to tackle in the future? Can you share what you’re working on now?
Suzanne: Next up is more space (surprise) — THE UNIVERSE AND YOU (illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman). It’s a gorgeous bedtime book which shares a bit about our solar system, galaxy, and universe. It releases August 15. Then a few picture book bios. after that, two of which are about STEM women who made great contributions to our understanding of space.
I can’t wait to read them. Thank you so much, Suzanne!
To learn more about MARS IS check out this cool trailer and to learn more about Suzanne and her books, go to suzanneslade.com. And please support your local indies if you can, like Politics and Prose, where I first heard Suzanne (and whose books can be ordered at P&P here).
Suzanne as she would actually look on Mars! Cool, huh?
I’ve always had a soft spot for kids who love to read. Maybe because I was one of them! But do kids who love to read books make good characters in books? They certainly do if their name is Dominguita Melendez, plucky protagonist of the awesome new chapter books series, DEFINITELY DOMINGUITA (Aladdin, 2021). I caught up with author Terry Catasus Jennings to learn more:
Me: How did you get into writing children’s books?
Terry: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here with you. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a kid. Especially after I read Little Women. And stories are always rolling around in my head. I’m always reporting on what’s going on. Often making things come out better than they did in real life. But for many reasons, most of them having to do with being an immigrant and needing a secure job, I didn’t pursue a career in writing. That’s someone who is really talented pursues. Hemingway, and Louisa Alcott. It’s like in my head they were hit by lighting and turned into authors. I never even thought of looking at it as a career. You know, back then, maybe we didn’t look at having a career as much as having a job. I knew I would go to college so I could get a job where I could support myself. And I ended up majoring in math and took a lot of science and I actually did land a job in the engineering department of the telephone company. Then when I had children, I decided to stay home with them while having my own tiny bookkeeping company for small businesses.
But stories never stopped rolling around my head. And when my youngest went to middle school and I really didn’t need to volunteer anymore, I decided to try my hand at writing and to see if I had what it took. So I started with essays, and some of them were published in The Washington Post. And I wrote a family humor column for my local newspaper. Then I tried to get some sort of a steady gig, and I ended up writing educational content for the Smithsonian. Science stuff. But my name was always buried in the next to the last page. So then I tried my hand at science books for kids—creative non-fiction—books that would have my name on the cover. And then some regular non-fiction. I did a lot of work for hire. And each time something was published I wanted a bigger step. Say, going from a small science publisher to a real publisher. And that happened with Dominguita and Simon and Schuster. But it took forever. I’d say about 20 years.
What was your inspiration and process for Definitely Dominguita?
Remember those stories that are rolling around in my head? I was weeding and thinking to myself that what I was doing was as impossible as Don Quijote trying to become a knight. But wait. The idea of a kid trying to become a knight might work. And this little boy showed up in my head dressed in a cape and a make-do helmet. Fortunately for all of us, my daughter reminded me that I am a feminist and it would be a lot better if my protagonist were a girl. Before I finished my weeding, my character had a name and I’d written the beginning of the book in my head.
The process for writing these books was different from writing a regular novel. First I had to read the actual classics. And re-read them. I took notes on the characters speech and mannerisms. I looked at scenes that were iconic to the book, like Don Quijote tilting at a windmill. Or scenes that could translate well into a Dominguita story, like the rescue of the queen’s diamonds in The Three Musketeers. Once I was sure what parts of the classic book I wanted to echo, then I began to write. The three protagonists don’t always take the place of a character in the classic. For instance, in Captain Dom’s Treasure, there is no Jim Hawkins, but there is a Captain, a doctor, a mate and definitely a Long John Silver. There is also the maroon they find when they get to the island. But the three characters have specific roles in the series. Dom is the big thinker. Pancho is the realist who reels her in. Steph is the peace-maker. I didn’t set out to make them that way, but by the time the third book rolled around I realized that they had settled into those roles and that those roles made the books work.
I love that Dominguita is inspired by the books on her grandmother’s shelf. What books inspired you as a kid?
I was in Cuba when I was a kid, so I was a lot like Dominguita’s grandmother. I read the classics. All of them. Particularly, Jules Verne. I loved adventure. My father gave me an allowance. He was a banker and he wanted me to learn to manage money. I don’t exactly remember how much it was, but I could spend it however I wanted to, so long as I accounted for it on this green ledger paper he gave me. I solved that problem very easily. Whatever he gave me was enough to buy a book. How lucky could I get? One entry. I got what I wanted and my bookkeeping was minimized. Now that I think back on that, I wish I had talked to him about that. I did not learn what he wanted me to learn from that experience. But I bought and read all the classics, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain and all the Louisa May Alcott book, and there were some Spanish books which today we would call graphic novels. I devoured those. They were cheaper. I could get a couple of those for the price of one of the other books. But whatever I read was always adventure.
I draw my own characters, so I’m always curious about that moment when your first see your characters drawn by someone else?
I always cry. Really. It’s just very emotional for me when someone takes my words and translates them to art. With Dominguita, I was very lucky. I had pictured her as a plucky kid. Someone who wasn’t afraid of anything. Someone who would stand up for what was right. And Fátima Anaya portrayed just that. I couldn’t have been happier. If you look at that first inside sketch when Dominguita is reading and recess is happening all around her, she is alone, but not lonely. She has her book, and she doesn’t need anything else. Fátima GOT Dominguita. She sees her the same way that I did. I actually think that Fátima understood Pancho Sanchez, Dom’s sidekick, even better than I did. I love the way she drew him. How he grew from book one to book two. And Steph is perfect. She is the peacemaker. And she looks it. Fátima is a superstar. So far in all my books I’ve been lucky in that the illustrators have made the book even better than what I envisioned. Their art has brought my text to a higher level. I love Beep and Bob, by the way. I would have been happy with them.
Can you tell us about Dominguita’s next adventures?
In Captain Dom’s Treasure, Dominguita finds a treasure map in an old copy of Treasure Island. The kids are sure it’s a real map. But how to prove it? They use logic to solve their problem. Then, once they know there is an actual treasure, they need to follow the map to find it. But the map was dated 1967. It’s not easy. And what makes it worse is that a meanie, conveniently called Juan Largo (Long John), insinuates himself into the group trying to find the treasure. Dominguita and her crew have to outwit the intruder and get to the treasure first.
All for One has echoes of The Three Musketeers. The three friends have to save a quinceañera party (a fifteenth birthday party) from the dastardly Bublassi gang. It features chocolate covered toilet plungers as Dom’s musketeers weapon of choice. Of course, you can figure out what Sherlock Dom is all about. The crew tries to find the Lost Goat of Tapperville echoing The Hound of the Baskervilles—hound and all. There can be many more Dom stories based on even more classics. I hope I get to write them.
Any advice for young knights and storytellers?
Dominguita never gave up, and storytellers should never give up. It’s a long road, but I wouldn’t trade it. The good thing about Dominguita is that, in the end, she made friends. And she goes on to live her books with them. I hope that readers see in Dominguita a Cuban-American girl who’s just like them and that it opens the door, just a little bit more, to understanding.
I was born in the city. Then moved to the suburbs. Then moved to a city in another country. Then to a city back in this country. Then to an island. Then to a farm. Then to an old town. Then to…you get the idea. Change can be scary, and there’s always something I miss when I go. But I’ve also learned how to look at the world in open and creative ways, and always enjoy making new discoveries.
Children, especially when they’re moved without any say in the matter, sometimes need help in finding the good in the new. A beautiful new book that sums up this journey is A New Kind of Wild (Dial Books for Young Readers), written and illustrated by Zara Gonzalez Hoang. I caught up with Zara to learn more about how Ren, with the help of Ava, adjusted to his new world.
Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?
Zara: I’ve always loved children’s books but I never thought I would make them myself. I was afraid of the idea of drawing a character and keeping them consistent for an entire story, I didn’t think I could do it. I even remember telling a friend that I would NEVER illustrate children’s books! I think about that and laugh now – that was my fear talking for sure. When I finally gave myself permission to try to make a children’s book, I realized this is where I should have been all along! I’m thankful to my oldest son, because I think reading books to him every day and exploring all the different stories and artwork in picture books made me realize there is such a wonderful range in what artists can do and it gave me the courage to try to make them myself.
A New Kind of Wild is a beautiful look at looking at the world. What was your inspiration and process for this book?
Thank you! This book is really special for me because it started with inspiration from a very personal place. My Dad was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York when he was a kid and that was a really hard experience for him – leaving everything he knew and moving someplace completely different. He went from a place where he knew everyone to a place he knew no one and barely spoke the language. He had to learn how to navigate this new space.
With A New Kind of Wild, I wanted to explore that feeling. Of being displaced. Of being so comfortable in your home and then moving somewhere else. At first, you might not be able see anything good about the place, whatever magic your old home had is certainly not in this new place – but if you can give the new place, the new experience a chance, then maybe, you can find that there is magic there, even if it isn’t exactly the same.
For the illustrating of the book, the process was very much learning while doing. I originally was planning to do the book digitally – at the time I sold the book I was working pretty much exclusively digitally. I had been experimenting with traditional media and I had this urge to do the book traditionally, but I was afraid to suggest it because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was lucky though, because the Editor who bought A New Kind of Wild had seen some of the experiments with traditional media I had been posting on Instagram and asked if I would consider doing the book traditionally. I jumped at the opportunity but also had to figure out HOW to illustrate a book like that. So there was a lot of trial and error. I’m so happy with how it turned out and this book really was a turning point for me because these days I work almost exclusively with watercolor, gouache and colored pencil (with some digital magic to put everything together). Working on A New Kind of Wild really changed the way I create my work and helped me figure out how I wanted to create books going forward.
What was it like releasing a book and being an artist during this new kind of time?
It was a bit of a blur…A New Kind of Wild released in April of 2020 – and it was already going to be a crazy time for me because I had a baby at the end of January so I thought I was going to be out doing school visits and bookstore readings sleep-deprived, with a baby in tow…Instead, everything had just shut down and all of the stops on my tour got cancelled one by one. At the time, we thought, maybe by summer we’d be able to travel again but, well, obviously, that did not happen! I tried to do some virtual visits and readings and such but figuring out how to do all that while also juggling a new baby and my older son home from school all day proved to be too much. So it was not the book launch I thought it would be! It was fine though, towards the end of the year the baby was bigger, my other son had fallen into a rhythm with online school and I was able to figure out virtual events a bit more. So, my “tour” was a bit later than expected, but I have managed to figure out ways to engage with kids and their adults virtually and that has been incredibly fun. It was definitely a different launch than I’d anticipated though! Generally, this has been a really tough time to be a parent and it’s tough to also be an artist. I have books I should be working on and art I’d love to make but it all has to come in fits and starts because I need to deal with virtual school for my older son and just general life for the baby! My husband and I try to juggle things as best we can but, some weeks I definitely get more done than others.
I feel like I am complaining about how hard it is to get creative work done right now, and it is, but it is an extraordinary privilege to be able to work from home, to still have work to do, and to be able to spend this much time with my boys and my husband, so when things are extra tough, I try to think about that for awhile and it usually makes me feel a bit better.
Can you share what you’re working on now?
I’m working on a really fun book written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and published by HarperCollins called Gato Guapo – it’s a counting book featuring some mischievous kitties and it has been such a joy to work on during this very stressful time. It doesn’t come out until 2023, which seems like light years from now, but also I am hopeful it will come out when visiting schools and bookstores are a thing we can do again! I also have a book coming out this October with Candlewick called Mi Casa is My Home written by Laurenne Sala. It was the sweetest text to illustrate about home and family – and it was super special to me since I was illustrating it while pregnant with my youngest son. I have a number of writing projects as well but it has been really difficult for me to write during this time. My normal process involves complete silence, uninterrupted time, an empty house and a lot of me talking out loud to myself….that process doesn’t work with the house full of everyone and only an hour to myself – if I’m lucky – to work at a time. So I’ve been trying to cultivate a process that works within the chaos and I’ve been trying to be kind to myself and tell myself that if the writing doesn’t happen until I get my quiet back, that’s ok. I’ve been jotting down story thoughts in a notebook, so at least I will have my scraps of ideas when I am finally in the mind space to sit down and write!
I love how your book celebrates the creative spirit! Any advice for young artists and storytellers?
Thank you! I think the best advice I can give, is to keep a notebook. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but I do think it should be a notebook and not just pieces of loose paper. And then, draw in it. Write in it. Paste pictures into it. Play with it however you are inspired. I think it’s so important to have a place to put your ideas and drawings – a place dedicated to your creativity. And the best part about them is once you fill a few up, on days you are feeling discouraged or out of ideas, you can open one up and flip through them. I find, with my own notebooks that when I am having a rough creative day, a flip through my old notebooks will fill me with so much inspiration!
You can find out more about Zara and her work atzaralikestodraw.com. And at @zarprey on Twitter and Instagram.
It’s hard to forget January 28, 1986. Well, not the whole day, but the shocking news. I was a teenager, living overseas without a tv (before internet!) but word of the Challenger disaster spread quickly even to my home on the campus of the American School in Kinshasa, Zaire. I had long been a space fan, from my early memory of watching a moon walk (late Apollo) on a grainy black and white tv in my grandparents’ flower shop in Detroit, to Viking, Voyager, the fun fictions of Star Trek and Star Wars, and the Space Shuttle. Space exploration had its dangers, but it was always a noble adventure that ended well in my mind. Until, that day, when it didn’t.
When my media specialist handed me Pranas T. Naujokaitis‘ new historical graphic novel for kids, The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies (First Second, 2020) I was immediately hooked. Although it’s a heavy topic, Pranas pulls us in by setting the story amongst a normal group of kids in the future who go to school in space (not unlike Beep and Bob’s Astro Elementary!) and delivers an engaging and sensitive look at that fateful event in exploration history. I caught up with Pranas to learn more:
Me: How did you get into creating comics?
Pranas: I’ve been drawing my whole life. Any scrap of paper I could get a hold of I’d scribble on. I never knew you could make a career out of drawing though. As a kid I actually wanted to be an actor AND a paleontologist when I grew up (yes, this dream brought to you by being eight when Jurassic Park came out).
Then I saw Star Wars on the big screen. It was early 1997 and the Special Editions had just come out and my little eleven-year old mind was blown. As soon as the Death Star blew up I knew I wanted to do THIS. Tell stories.
At first I wanted to make movies, but that quickly turned into comics when I started drawing comic strips about me and my friends at the time. And the types of comics I wanted to make changed as I grew, got exposed to new things, and kept practicing my craft. First newspaper comic strips, then mainstream superhero stuff, and then in college (where I actually majored in Sequential Art aka the fancy way of saying ‘comics’) I was exposed to so many new and different types of comics and I turned to making indie, journal comics, and minicomics. And post-college my career has naturally transitioned to more all-age comics.
I can’t see myself doing anything else. And honestly after this long, don’t even know if I know how to do anything else!
What inspired you to write about one of the sadder moments in space history?
I crossed paths with my amazing (and patient) editor Dave Roman at a comic show in Denver a few years back and he approached me about a new line of books FirstSecond was putting together, History Comics, a sister series to the already established Science Comics line. He already had a list of topics they wanted to do and Challenger was on that list. He gave me a few weeks to think it over and get back to him if interested.
At first I was going to pick something other than Challenger. I mean, everything on the list he proposed was a historical tragedy/disaster, but they all happened a long, long time ago. Everyone involved with those stories are long, long dead. I feel that makes it so much easier to write/draw when it happened that long ago. But Challenger was so recent. A lot of the people involved with it are still alive. The families and children of the Challenger Seven are still alive. Even though I was only three months old, even I was alive for this! It was just all so recent and terrible.
Oh, AND the comic had to be geared towards kids.
But the more I sat on it, the more I got the itch to tackle Challenger. I became obsessed with figuring out a way to tackle something so recent while still being respectful AND making it palatable to kids. I wanted to tell and honor the story of the Challenger crew but also get the message across that humankind should keep exploring even when horrible setbacks occur.
At first I asked Dave if I could just write the script and someone else draw (drawing technical spacecraft is not my specialty) but the more research I did the more I got attached to the story and to the crew and just bit the bullet and asked if I could also draw it as well.
I will say I’m so happy with the final product (shoutout to everyone at FirstSecond and my amazing colorist Cassie Hart) but it did take a huge toll on me. All the research, crafting the story, the writing, then drawing. Working on this project, getting attached to the crew members and then half way though the book, the explosion. I kept trying to put it off but it’s inevitable. You know it’s coming but you hope maybe, just maybe, this time history might change. But history doesn’t work that way. So it was tough.
And the horribleness of the disaster is why I made it a goal to end the book on a very hopeful and positive note. I wanted to rip you heart out, make you cry, but then lift you up. Let you know it is oh-so-human to keep exploring the unknown. And when setbacks happen (and they sadly do and will) to honor those who sacrificed everything you have to dust yourself off and keep reaching towards the stars.
So even though this was all so sad there is good that came from it.
Would you go into space yourself if you had a chance?
Oh heck yeah! It’s still dangerous and anything could go wrong, but I do think we are getting closer and closer to the age of space tourism. Will I ever be able to afford it in my lifetime? Probably not. But if given a free ticket, and it’s proven to be as safe as can be, I for sure would be on that first rocket (or space elevator).
While probably not in my lifetime, I do think humanity will get to the point when space travel is as routine as getting on an airplane is today. Gotta catch that 3PM rocket from Earth to my business meeting on the Moon. And if that does happen we’ll have people like the Challenger Seven to thank for that, for helping to pave the way for us all.
I also wrote about a space school in the future, and love that your characters study aboard the Space Station Sagan. Do you think students may attend classes amongst the stars someday?
I hope so! I was always fascinated by how in Star Trek: The Next Generation the Enterprise had whole families living on the ship, complete with teachers and classrooms for the kids. They would even take field trips! It was all so routine. Now, it was probably illogical to have children onboard a spaceship that is essentially a battle cruiser that sees its fair share of space battles and is going into red alert every other episode, but still, it’s the future I wanted to see. And hopefully when humanity gets to the point we won’t be having space shootouts with Romulans or the Borg.
And unless we actually figure out a way to overcome the speed of light, space travel, especially deep space, will take sooooo long. Whole generations even! So it only makes sense to have classrooms for those kids who might spend their whole lives living on a deep space ship.
Whether you are on Earth or in space, kids still have to learn and go to school!
What are you working on now?
Some secret stuff I can’t go into right now that is in the works, fingers crossed. But I’m taking a break from space for a little bit. Just with drawing the space shuttle and its innards over and over again…oof! I’m so glad I did it but it was a challenge and hard on my wrist. But if the next project pans out it’s going to be fun and think anyone who enjoyed this book will also enjoy it.
Also going to take the time between book projects to work on a webcomic idea that’s been building dust. A post-apocalyptic mutant comedy geared towards older audiences as a release for all my anxiety about politics, nuclear war, pandemics, and being a millennial. You know, fun stuff. 😛
Also want to take this time to try to pump out a few more minicomic projects so I’ll be ready with new work on my table once it’s finally safe to hold in-person comic shows and conventions again. I miss comic shows…
Me too! Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?
Practice drawing and writing everyday and keep a sketchbook. But know this when you start out: Your stuff will NOT be good…AND THAT IS OKAY! Making comics is a skill and like all skills it takes time and practice to get good at it. Any artist you like right now? They were not good the first time they picked up a pencil or guitar or camera. If fact, they probably stunk! But they didn’t give up, kept working, and over time they slowly got better and better and better. And I know, it’s hard to not be instantly good at something and so easy to give up. But that is what separates the greats from everyone else: they stick with it. You should too! This doesn’t just apply to comics but ALL skills. It is a cliche, but practice DOES make perfect.
Comics can be ANYTHING. Any genre, any story, any setting, any character, anything. Only limits are your drawing skills and imagination. They can be comics about you, comics about superheroes, about space, romance, funny, sad, scary, all of these things and MORE! That’s one of the great things about comics, they can be whatever you want them to be. That blank page in front of you has the potential to become anything.
And finally, tell YOUR story and the story that YOU want to tell. It’s okay to be influenced by or have similar stories to others, but you are a unique person with a unique life and unique point of view. Let that point of view and life experience come through when telling a story. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, put yourself in it. Comics, art, and the world are all better when we have many different voices contributing to it.
So well said, Pranas! Thank you so much for answering my questions and illuminating your process!
Kids love to make comics. As an art teacher, I see them drawing their favorite characters or creating their own almost every day (even if it’s not the assignment!).
Confession: sometimes us teachers like to make comics too. I first learned to draw by copying Batman. Now I’m working on my own graphic novels! Another fellow teacher/author/cartoonist, Aron Nels Steinke, has created a wonderful series called Mr. Wolf’s Class. I talked to Aron about what it’s like to both teach and ‘toon.
JR: When did you start creating comics?
ANS: Like you, I was really into superhero comics as a kid and really loved to copy the artwork. But the work I was copying seemed so complex and intimidating (muscles and shading) that I really could figure out how to manipulate the characters, so I rarely drew characters with my own poses. Even when I made up my own characters I would basically copy the poses from the books I was studying and change the uniform or hair style, etc. I didn’t draw and write my own stories until I was an adult, after I had training as an animator, an experience that gave me lots of practice drawing and not being precious with my artwork. The first real story I wrote and drew in comic form was done with tiny simple drawings. I had adopted this style because I wanted to focus on telling the story, rather than letting myself get bogged-down by the details of drawing, as I had in the past.
I see kids making their own comics today totally free from the drawing hangups I had as a kid. They just blaze ahead and create stories. I really think it’s the influence of today’s middle grade graphic novels like Mr. Wolf’s Class. Get a kid who has read through all the Dog Man or Raina Telgemeier books and they’ll be off creating their own comics in no time.
I love that you feature a teacher who is caring but real, nerves and all. How much of Mr. Wolf is you?
Mr. Wolf is a fictional version of myself, so he’s maybe ninety-percent me. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he is learning and growing and wants to do his best. Unlike Mr. Wolf, I do not wear ties and nicely-pressed and tucked-in shirts to work each day, and I certainly don’t have pointy ears, sharp teeth, and a snout.
The students of Hazelwood School seem very real too (despite being animals). How did you create the class?
I started working with children over ten years ago, and over time I’ve come to know lots of great kid personalities and voices. Mr. Wolf’s Class truly began as an autobiographical comic strip called MR. WOLF. As a way to protect the identity of my students, I drew them as animals and then, born out of those comic strips, was the desire to make a full-length graphic novel for kids. I wanted to make a book that my students would love and appreciate. The characters in Mr. Wolf’s Class may have all started out with a personality germ, inspired by real kids, but over time, they have evolved and claimed a unique life of their own.
Not to boast, but I get recognized all the time at the mall. Not for being a famous author, but as a teacher! (“Mr. Roth, what are you doing here?”) Do you have brushes with educator or author fame?
I did a comic strip about this once. Yes, when you’re a teacher you get noticed and recognized by the people in your school community all the time. It is a lot like being a mini-celebrity. It’s fun to run into students at the grocery store, or out and about, and it can be quite a shock for the student. Once when I was teaching preschool, I ran into a family of a two-and-a-half-year-old I was teaching. When the boy saw me, he must have had quite as shock as he reacted by quickly sinking his teeth into his father’s arms. The fourth and fifth grade students I teach today are usually quick to share and start up a conversation if I see them out and about. It’s a little different now with the pandemic, obviously. We’re all starved for real human contact, so it’s even more exciting to see people and connect when we do, even at six feet distance and with a mask on.
The outdoor world, particularly the woods, plays a big role in your series. What role do you hope the great outdoors plays in our students’ lives?
I grew up on eleven acres in rural Washington State, where I spent my childhood roaming the woods and fields, picking huckleberries and hazelnuts, and falling asleep to the howls of coyotes. When I’m in nature I feel an immediate and spiritual connection to the universe. For me, there’s nothing better than being in the middle of an old-growth stand of cedar, hemlock, and douglas fir, surrounded by giant ferns, salal, and big leaf maples dripping with moss. In my latest Mr. Wolf’s Class book: FIELD TRIP, students spend the night in an old-growth forest and experience that beauty first hand. I hope the reader is inspired to get out to appreciate and protect the natural world.
Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?
Make real, physical copies of your comics with a photocopy machine or a scanner and printer if you can. Fold and staple your books and give them away to friends and family. Share your work with other people. You’ll only get better at making comics by making lots of comics. Try making a comic about yourself. Try to avoid writing and drawing a really long story until you’ve done lots of short-story comics first. Practice, practice, practice, and keep at it. If you need to start with stick figures, that is just fine. Don’t overthink your work. Just begin.
Great advice, Aron! Thank you so much for the awesome interview.