Q. Most of the graphic novels I've read are written for an older age group. It's nice to see the Benny and Penny books written for younger readers. What made you decide to write these stories in a graphic novel format?
A. Comic books have always been my first love. I like sequential storytelling. However, back when I started writing children's books, comics were frowned upon as a lower form of literature, so there wasn't a market for them. I didn't want to draw Super Hero comics. I wanted to do what I enjoyed as a child -- what were called "Funny Animal" comics. When I was growing up comics books, as opposed to newspaper strips, were almost exclusively for children. That all started to change around 1970 when comics grew increasingly more adult. It got to the point where there were no longer comics (or what are now called Graphic Novels) for kids, especially young kids. I felt there should be and that perhaps I was the one to do it. Around this time, Francoise Mouly had the same idea. She contacted me about working with her on a line of readers in comic book form. These ultimately became TOON BOOKS.
Q. When working on the story do you illustrate each panel as you write, or write the entire story first and do the illustrations last? And do you have any advice for kids who like to write comic style books?
A. My method of working varies. Often, I start with the first panel and simply proceed, letting the story tell itself. In the case of "Benny and Penny" I wrote the story initially as a regular picture book, so the text came first. It didn't really work that way and I turned it into a comic.
My advice to children wishing to write comics is to start out telling a simple sequence. Often, feeling one has to come up with an entire story can be daunting. But we are all familiar with sequences: going from point A. to point B. For example -- I woke up in the morning. I got dressed. I ate my breakfast. I brushed my teeth. Then, I went back to bed. Think of it as a story you might tell a friend. An even simpler sequence might be leaving your house, crossing the street and ringing the doorbell of your friend's house. Try to make all the actions as clear as possible. Longer stories are just a collection of sequences, after all.
Q. Benny and Penny are such endearing characters, where did the idea come from to make them mice?
A. When I first began illustrating I drew a lot of mice, but one day it occured to me that I hadn't drawn any mice characters in a long time. I started sketching. One of my sketches showed a little mouse pushing his baby sister into a laundry hamper. That gave me the idea to do a story about a little boy mouse who is trying to get away from his sister. The initial version was set indoors and he did hide her in a laundry hamper; but when I changed to an outdoor setting I replaced the laundry hamper with a small shed. Originally the mice were called Tyler and Bella. We decided that these names might be a little difficult for beginning readers so they were changed to Benny and Penny.
Q. You have a great way of tackling issues between siblings, as in Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, do you draw on your own life experiences for inspiration?
A. No, I don't necessarily draw on my own experiences. I just have a natural sense of how kids behave with each other. I sort of "become" them as I write. I also observe young kids as much as I can -- the way they move, sit, react, etc. And I do remember what it felt like to be a child.
Q. Congratulations on Benny and Penny in Just Pretend making Book Lists Top Ten Graphic Novels for youth 2009. Will there be more Benny and Penny adventures coming soon?
A. Yes. I have a second Benny and Penny adventure called, "Benny and Penny in the Big No-No." The official pub date is May, but it is available to order now.