FLR: Jennifer, how did your role as the only sister among five siblings lead to the creation of Babymouse?
JLH: Growing up with four brothers, you wind up with a lot of boy-stuff in the house, like Star Wars figures, LEGOs, and stinky socks. You also tend to have a lot of comic books. So I read a ton of comic books when I was a kid (I still do!), but was always a little annoyed that the only girl characters seemed to be Wonder Woman with her lame lasso and invisible jet and Betty and Veronica, who mooned over some weird redheaded boy. I always wanted to see a cool comic book character that girls could identify with.
FLR: How did you come up with the character of Babymouse?
JLH: I was having a really rotten day—what we would now call a “typical” Babymouse kind of day. Late for work, missed the bus, forgot my lunch, pouring rain, etc. When I got home at the end of the day, my husband saw me stomping around and said, “You are so irritable!” And the image of this irritated little mouse came into my head, with crazy whiskers, her hands on her hips, and a pink heart on her dress. I scribbled it down on a napkin, and gave it to Matt the next time I saw him.
FLR: Does she appeal to boys as well as girls?
JLH: Absolutely. Some of our biggest fans are boys, and school librarians tell us they see similar circulation numbers for Babymouse books between girls and boys. I think the artwork, and the idea of drawing cartoons themselves, sucks in a lot of the boys, and then there’s a lot of action and giant monsters and spaceships and aliens in the books. Plus, pink is coming back — I see boys wearing pink shirts more and more these days. At our school visits, my brother, Matt, even wears a pink T-shirt that says, “It’s not pink — it’s lightish red.”
FLR: Matt, once Jennifer had the idea for Babymouse, how did you come to be the illustrator?
MH: She knew that I had been drawing cartoons on the side for years — ever since I was in about sixth or seventh grade. And she and I shared a love of comics, especially the ’80s comic strips like Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. So she handed me that napkin scribble of Babymouse, and I started drawing my own sketches. (I lost the napkin, though. Sorry, Jenni.)
FLR: Had the two of you discussed working together before?
MH: I had helped her with some fact-checking and copy-editing on her Boston Jane novels, and then she asked me to draw three cartoons for her book Middle School Is Worse than Meatloaf. We actually worked on that book before Babymouse ever came about, but the illustrations for the rest of the book were so complex that it only came out in 2007, almost two years after Babymouse.
FLR: What is your process for creating the Babymouse books? Do you each have specialized, sequential roles, or is the entire process collaborative from beginning to end?
MH: We have a pretty solid workflow that we developed over the course of the first few books. We start off with some brainstorming. Jenni might say, “Okay, how about a book where Babymouse goes to the beach on summer vacation? What funny stuff do you remember from when we were kids?” Then we each rattle off as many anecdotes and funny things we can remember from our many trips to the Jersey Shore as kids, and Jenni goes and writes the manuscript. She uses a storyboard format, a practice she picked up during her years in TV advertising. The storyboard breaks out each scene into a “panel” with separate rows for narration, dialogue, and a description of the setting/action. After I edit the manuscript, we send it to our editors, who make more suggestions. Then I take the approved manuscript and start drawing hundreds of small thumbnail sketches for every scene in the book. I scan my sketchbook into the computer and e-mail it to Jenni (she lives in Maryland and I live in Oregon, so we rarely work face-to-face), and then she prints out the thumbnails, cuts out the individual drawings with scissors, and pastes them down to create the rough layout for the book. She lays out two facing pages of the book at a time (a “spread” — what you see when you hold the book open). Jenni then sends the layouts back to me, and I create final sketches on paper using Sharpie markers. We show these sketches, which look pretty close to what you see in the book, to our editors, who give us final comments. Then I draw the final “inks’ for the book completely in the computer, using a Wacom drawing tablet. (And, of course, add the pink!)
FLR: Babymouse has a doll, a website, a poster for ALA, and her very own line of T-shirts! Did either of you ever imagine Babymouse would be so wildly popular?
MH: It’s been a surprise, if only because we put in so much work up front before anyone out in the world ever heard of Babymouse. We finished the fourth book before the first one even hit the bookstore shelves! And the truth is, we started making Babymouse merchandise on CafePress.com just because friends of Jenni’s wanted to have Babymouse T-shirts and messenger bags.
JLH: But now, we can finally announce that we’ve partnered with United Media (the folks who handle licensing for Peanuts!) to create even more cute and awesome Babymouse gear. My five-year-old son is holding out for Babymouse LEGO. (He’s obsessed with LEGO at the moment and who says they can’t be pink, right?)
FLR: Graphic novels overall have certainly become more popular and prolific in the 21st century. Why do you think their popularity has grown so rapidly?
MH: I think it has to do with the media that people grow up with — both kids today, and the generation above them. Our generation grew up with comic books and graphic novels, and see them as legitimate forms of storytelling and literature. As authors and artists, we want to create them, and as librarians and educators, we want to encourage kids to read them. Meanwhile, kids today are growing up in a rich and ever-changing multimedia world. Not too long ago, I saw a talk by designer Brenda Laurel (in the late ’90s, she founded a company called Purple Moon that created computer games for girls) in which she discussed some recent research her team had conducted on today's kids. Unlike older generations, kids today see no distinctions between different modes of communication — texting, IMing, MySpace, e-mail, cell phones, land lines, etc. It’s a continuous spectrum to them, whereas to our generation, each of those modes of communication is a discrete task. I think mass media is going the same way — iPods, TV, YouTube, cell phone video, graphic novels, books, etc. Graphic novels are just one band on that spectrum.
FLR: The first volume of Babymouse was published in 2005. Since then, have you found that librarians and teachers are more willing to embrace the educational and literary value of graphic novels?
JLH: Definitely. The thing about educators — especially librarians — is that they see, first-hand, which books in their collections get kids excited to read. They see reluctant readers get drawn in by graphic novels. A lot of the libraries we’ve visited have waiting lists for the Babymouse books! That’s a huge compliment to us, personally, and a great indicator of how important the whole category is for encouraging kids to continue reading during those years when so many drop away.
FLR: Speaking of librarians, Matt, can you tell our readers about your recent blog entry (http://www.matthewholm.net) regarding one library patron’s challenge to Babymouse?
MH: Well, Kiera Parrott, a librarian at the New York Public Library, wrote about a recent patron interaction on her blog (http://libraryvoice.wordpress.com). A mother came up to her with a pile of mouse-themed books (including Babymouse and Mouse Guard) and said:
“What’s the deal with all these mice? I mean, not to be a troublemaker or anything, but I really don’t think that it’s appropriate to have so many children’s books with mouse characters. Mickey Mouse—he’s okay. That’s one thing. But all the rest of these mice? I mean, it’s not right. Kids will get the wrong idea. They are flithy, dirty, disease carriers. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. A child will see a mouse at home run across the floor and they might go to pick it up or play with it. Because they think it’s cute. Because of all this.” [gesturing to the pile of Babymouse books].
FLR: How do you think Babymouse would react if she heard herself describes as a filthy, disease-carrying rodent?
MH: Ha! I don’t think she’d take it too kindly! I imagine she’d say something like, “Hey! I’m not filthy! I take a shower every day! My whiskers are just messy!”
FLR: Jennifer, what are the different challenges you face when writing standalone novels versus series titles? How would you compare the experience of writing Boston Jane, a historical fiction series, to writing Babymouse, a graphic novel series?
JLH: My novels require so much research and take years to write, especially now that I have little kids. Babymouse is a much lighter format, and the “research” is just plumbing my own elementary-school experiences.
FLR: Jennifer, all your female characters tend to be loved and celebrated because they are so strong and resourceful. How would you compare/contrast the character development of Babymouse to that of Penny (Penny from Heaven), Boston Jane (Boston Jane series), and May Amelia (Our Only May Amelia)? How do you make each character her own person, while maintaining that common element of strength?
JLH: I think that at the end of the day, I just have to get in the character’s head. Babymouse channels all my elementary school frustrations whereas Penny and May Amelia tend to deal with more complicated family situations.
FLR: Matt, how does illustrating the Babymouse series differ from doing a weekly comic strip?
MH: The deadlines are better now. I did a daily comic strip in the past, and you never seem to get rid of the feeling that you have “homework” hanging over your head every day. Plus, drawing a comic strip is a much more solitary profession; for Babymouse, I have input and ideas from many people throughout the process, so the work is more rewarding and less of a personal burden, as you have more people to share the load. Still, there is something very pure about being forced to fit all of your ideas into three or four tiny little boxes, and come up with a working gag every single time. The length of overarching narratives is much more flexible, as well: You don't have to make sure the story ends exactly on page 91 every single time; a storyline can go on for weeks, or just a few days.
FLR: Have you ever thought of doing illustrations for a picture book?
MH: Only a little. The picture book market is probably the toughest one there is, and I'm just not sure that I know enough about the format to pull it off to great effect. For some reason, everyone thinks picture books are easy. I constantly run across would-be authors and artists who say that they have always wanted to do a picture book, but in reality, making a successful one is tough. I think if I did one, I’d first have to spend a year in my local library, reading through every single picture book to get a really intuitive feel for what works and what doesn’t. (Jenni has two kids who she has to read to every day, so she’s much better versed in the format than I am.)
FLR: What can you tell us about January’s Babymouse: The Musical?
JLH: I grew up in the golden age of Andrew Lloyd Weber Broadway musicals, and had the soundtracks to Cats, Les Mis, Annie, Grease, you name it. We thought it was only natural that Babymouse would have her own musical experience.
FLR: Are either of you currently pursuing any projects, other than Babymouse?
JLH: I’m on year three of a novel. Hopefully, it will be finished before my one-year-old hits kindergarten!
MH: I’ve been plotting out some other chapter book and graphic novel projects, but they’re still in the very early stages. Needless to say, Babymouse requires a lot of my attention. (She’s high-maintenance.)
FLR: Are there any future collaborations planned that don't involve Babymouse?
JLH: We’re working together on another Babymouse-like graphic novel series that is aimed squarely at boys. And I promise there won’t be ANY pink in it.
MH: You mean, “lightish red!”
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