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The Shelf Care Interview: Mike Curato, John Patrick Green, Natalie Riess, and Sara Goetter

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, a special installment in celebration of Booklist‘s Graphic Novels in Libraries Month extravaganza, Books for Youth editor Sarah Hunter speaks with Mike Curato, about his debut graphic novel Flamer; John Patrick Green, creator of the InvestiGators series; and Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, creators of the fantasy adventure Dungeon Critters.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. For excerpts from these conversations, please see below.

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John Patrick Green on InvestiGators

SARAH HUNTER: We’re here with John Patrick Green who is a human with the human job of making books about animals with human jobs such as Hippopotamister, Kitten Construction Company and The Investigators. John is definitely not just a bunch of animals wearing a human suit pretending to have a human job. He is also the artist and cocreator of the graphic novel series Teen Boat with writer Dave Roman. John lives in Brooklyn in an apartment that doesn’t allow animals other than the ones living in his head. Thank you so much for being here today, John, it’s a pleasure to talk to you . . . Tell us a little bit about InvestiGators. 

JOHN PATRICK GREEN: Well, InvestiGators is a chapter book graphic novel [series] about two alligators named Mango and Brash who solve crimes wearing vests. But these vests aren’t just normal vests, they’re V. E. S. T. s, which stands for “Very Exciting Spy Technology,” and the vests help disguise the alligators so they can go undercover in all kinds of different jobs. And they’re sort of like Batman’s utility belt where they’ll have all sorts of gadgets and equipment that can pop out. And Mango and Brash, they work for an organization called Suit, S. U. I. T., which stands for “Special Undercover Investigation Teams,” and they get called in for more unusual types of mysteries, such as dealing with a supervillain called Crackerdile, who was also once an agent before he fell into a vat of radioactive saltine dough. And basically, I think that kind of sums it up.

What are some of your inspirations for the series?

Well, so it’s funny; it’s a little bit of everything. Like when I’m making each individual book, my influences kind of come from everywhere. But I’ll say for the creation of this series—not so much an inspiration but more of a motivating factor in its creation—was, after doing Hippopotamister and the Two Kitten Construction Company books, which were both like early-reader books, my publisher asked if I had any ideas for a silly, wacky chapter book graphic novel series. And they deliberately wanted a series. And that made me dig out all the comics that I drew when I was a little kid when I was like 10 or 11-years-old. Because I knew that with a chapter book, it’s a little different than an early reader in terms of the the audience, to a degree, because with early reader books, it’s usually the parents and the guardians and the grandparents who are going to be looking at these and deciding that they want to read those books to their children. And with chapter books, you’re kind of aiming more for the actual kid to be the one to decide that, yes, this is something they want to read.

So I was thinking, I need to connect with kids on a little bit of a different level, in a way,  so I dug out all the comics that I was making when I was the age group for the target audience. And looking at them reminded me not so much of what inspired me to create comics, but what the result of that inspiration was. For instance, when I was a kid I loved Star Wars and X-Men and G.I. Joe and Spider-Man—I was, you know, a product of the ’80s. And those things inspired me, but they didn’t really inspire me to make Star Wars comics or to make Spider-Man comics. Instead, I would take all those things—the toys and the movies—and I would mash them up with my own sensibilities. And I would draw comics that would be a mix-up of, say, a James Bond spy story that’s drawn in the style of Garfield with a bad guy who is my own version of Jason from Friday the 13th. So as this little kid, I absorbed mainstream media like a sponge, and all you had to do is squeeze me and it would come out as me just drawing some comics. And I made those to basically just make myself laugh or make my brother laugh or other friends laugh. And so for InvestiGators, a big part of forming what the series is was just kind of recapturing that attitude I had as a kid. And instead of taking something like Star Wars and saying, Okay, I’m going to make a science-fiction story, I just mashed up everything that I liked, just creating in a sort of flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of way.

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Mike Curato on Flamer

SARAH HUNTER: Next, I’m here with Mike Curato. He’s the author and illustrator of the Little Elliot series and has illustrated a number of other books for children, including Worm Loves Worm. Flamer is Mike’s first graphic novel and that’s what we’re going to talk about here today. So Mike, tell us a little bit about Flamer.

MIKE CURATO: Well, Flamer is the story of Aiden, a chubby teenage Filipino-white mixed kid who is away at scout camp the summer before his first year of high school, and the year is 1995, and Aiden has to navigate friendships, bullying, racism, body image, all while confronting his sexual identity.

You’re really well known for your picture books, notably the Little Elliot series about the adorable little elephant and this is a big departure from that. How did this book come about? And how was working on it different from your other books?

Yeah, it is very different. There are no cute elephants or cupcakes in this book! There is some levity, but it’s very serious also. But basically, this was a story that, first of all, is very personal to me because a lot of it is based on my personal experience. And growing up, I never saw myself in a book or on a screen. And I was constantly bullied for who I was. And that’s a story that’s important to share. Because, you know, after being bullied for so long and not seeing myself in the world, I started to wonder if I belonged in this world. And that is a big component of this book. You know, facing who you are and ultimately learning to love who you are despite other people telling you that you’re not worthy of that love.

Right now, the way things are in our country, LGBTQIA youth are at a way higher risk of suicide, self-harm, homelessness, than their straight peers. So this wasn’t just a book for me—I mean, it is a book for me, and I did work through a lot of, I guess, unresolved pain in some ways—but it’s more for the kids out there who don’t feel safe in their own skin. I’ve come a long way and I feel happy with the person I am, and I want my readers to know that they are valued and that they do belong here. And it’s also important for people who don’t have that experience to be able to have a peek at what it’s like for someone who is queer identified or, you know, just not part of mainstream culture to be able to understand how difficult that journey can be. So that hopefully there’s more compassion in the world.

Tell me a little bit about libraries have impacted your reading or writing life.

Well, since we’re talking about being a teenager, I have to give a shout-out to my high-school librarian, Mrs. Avery (if you’re out there listening!). So my safe spaces at high school were the periodical room, which was Mrs. Avery’s in the library, and the art room, which was Mrs. Nichols. So those were my places that I could be and feel safe. And I’m pretty sure Mrs. Avery’s retired now, so I’m going to come out and say: she would occasionally let me even sneak lunch in there. But she and some of my friends and I would just talk, you know, I’d just go in there and talk and do homework and whatever. So I love libraries because they are alternative spaces for teens, and I love seeing on tour the last few years more and more libraries creating a specific room for teens, which I love, and I hope more libraries get into that. But it’s like, their own space. Because you know, there’s just such a lack of places for teens to go. So there’s that.

Now as a grown up, a boring grown-up, I still rely on libraries for doing a lot of researchnot just like taking out books for funsiesbut I do a lot of research, and I do get help from librarians. For the picture books, especially Little Elliot, because it’s a period piece, I do a lot of digging in archives. I remember being in the Schwartzman Library in New York City, with like a mountain of books on a table. I was like that person feverishly flipping through books, and I spent the better part of a day just trying to find what the fence along the water down at Battery Park used to look like in 1939. “Happy Tuesday,” you know? I’m sure the librarians sort of thought I was insane, but nothing out of the ordinary though, right? So, yes, so I’m very grateful for libraries for helping my mad pursuits.

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Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter on Dungeon Critters

SARAH HUNTER: I am here with Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, creators of Dungeon Critters. Natalie Riess is a cartoonist from Pennsylvania. She now lives in Austin, Texas, where she makes comics with her girlfriend and gets yelled at by their beautiful cat. She loves to draw food, nature, and horrible plant monsters. Her previous titles include Space Battle Lunchtime and Snarlbear. And we’re also joined by Sara Goetter. Sarah is a Pennsylvania-born, currently Austin-based cartoonist, where she draws comics with her girlfriend. She specializes in drawing goofy faces and dumb jokes and cries whenever she thinks about frogs too much. And we’re here to talk about Dungeon Critters, which is delightful. I’m very excited to talk to you about it today. So Natalie and Sarah, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Dungeon Critters?

SARA GOETTER: Sure. So our book is a middle-grade fantasy adventure story about a group of animal adventurers . . . It starts out and they have to perform a heist, but it turns into like a larger, noble conspiracy kind of thing.

NATALIE RIESS: Yeah, it’s like your typical goofy sword-and-sorcery story. There’s conspiracies, there’s evil plants, there’s lots of fun high jinks.

GOETTER:  Yeah, you know, that normal fantasy thing where there’s evil plants.

RIESS: Well, basically what happens is: they start out investigating something small, and they have to do a little heist to investigate, and then they uncover this greater plot about this evil plan and this plot to kill the royal family. Read it; you’ll like it!

I was really impressed by your page layouts in this book—you shift around panels and lay your visual narrative elements really deftly and it makes such an interesting impact on the storytelling, it makes it really tight. I’m curious about how you landed on that particular visual style and how it affected your overall process for writing and drawing the book together.

RIESS: The short answer is we love comics and think it’s the most powerful medium there is. But the longer answer is . . .

GOETTER: The longer answer is that I get really heated about the medium of comics and the things that you can only do in the medium of a comic. And I really like to play around with panel layouts. Like, the thing with writing and drawing this book is that we don’t write scripts, or at least like traditional text scripts, we always go straight to comics thumbnails.

RIESS: That’s what happens before you draw a comic page; typically, what you’ll do is draw a very tiny version of it, a very simple little sketch so you can know what’s going to happen on the page. And I feel like the typical way to handle a comic is you write the script and then you do the thumbnail and then you do the final. But we are writing and doing that tiny sketch at the same time because, I guess it just makes sense—the drawings are the writing, because the way you tell the story. So that’s a very integral to how we write.

GOETTER: So the way that we collaborate is that we don’t have a strict role, like Natalie writes and I draw—we both co-write it. So typically Natalie does a first pass of it, like a thumbnail, and then sends it over to me. And then I take it and I do my pass, and then I send it back to her. And then we both have a final pass on it, which sounds like it takes a super long time.

RIESS: I don’t know; we manage it. The thumbnails are quick to draw.

GOETTER: So basically, that was a very long way to say that I’m just always thinking about how the panels will tell the story . . . like from the very beginning. I’m constantly thinking about it.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

GOETTER : I’m hoping that how fun it is and the inclusive aspects and just the general inviting vibe will make them want to . . .  keep re-reading. Because I feel like we also put in a lot of background jokes that lend themselves to re-reading. I just want [readers] to have a fun little, I don’t know, world.

RIESS:  Yeah, I want it to be a nice place that you can go, if that makes sense?

GOETTER: That sounds very weird for a comic, but the way that we set up the book is very . . . like, the world-building is there, but it’s also very vague, kind of intentionally. So you can imagine other adventures that are happening in there . . . I just hope kids have a nice place to return to.


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About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as editor of the Books for Youth and Graphic Novels sections at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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