Welcome 2021, and welcome Stephanie Cooke, co-author of Oh My Gods!, (HMH Kids/ETCH) the first in a new middle-grade graphic novel series. Stephanie stops by MUF to talk about the new book, her process with her collaborators, and what other artists and writers inspire her. PLUS we’ve got a free copy of Oh My Gods! to give away; enter at the bottom of the interview!
Mixed Up Files: Stephanie, welcome to the blog, and can you give us a little bit of your background and how you found your way into the #kidlit world?
Stephanie Cooke: Absolutely! I’m a comic book writer and editor from Toronto, Canada and I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember. I love books in all mediums and eventually knew I wanted to try my hand at writing my own. I’ve felt that for a number of years that the kidlit market was seriously underserved in the comics industry and wanted to help change that. Both Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern (out in July 2021) were originally pitched for a younger teen audience, but were picked up and aged down into the middle-grade market, and I have to say that I’m so glad they were. Writing for kids has truly been such a joy and allows me to have so much fun with the story, characters, and puns (which I love beyond all reason).
MUF: Talk to us about your new graphic novel and how it came to be. You worked on this with other collaborators. Whose idea was it? And how did you all find each other to work on this together? Are you IRL friends/coworkers, or were you new to each other at the start of this?
SC: Oh My Gods! has been a passion project for a number of years now and came into existence during a conversation between Insha Fitzpatrick and myself. Insha and I have been friends for ages – we used to run an entertainment website together and also did a podcast! We were talking about Greek Mythology excitedly and then the start of Oh My Gods! started bubbling out of our talk, and before we knew it, we were putting together notes, story ideas, character concepts, and more into shared docs. We began refining the idea and narrowing things down, and realized that it wasn’t a concept that was going away…we had to work on this! So we kept at, until it was ready for an artist.
I was hiring an artist for a short story on a completely different project and Juliana Moon sent in her portfolio to us. She wasn’t the right fit for the project I had been scouting for but I could see so much potential in her character designs in how expressive they were and how much fun she clearly had with her art. I showed her art to Insha and she loved it! We had a conversation with Juliana, and that was that. We’ve been a team ever since, but it’s truly hard to imagine a time when Juliana wasn’t there; we all get along amazingly and have the same energy that always hypes each of us up. Whitney Cogar came on board via HMH / Etch to do the colours for the story, and we’ve absolutely adored what she’s brought to the book!
MUF: What was the process like working on this? Can you explain a bit about the actual nuts and bolts of writing and illustrating? And how long from “let’s do this!” to pub date was your journey?
SC: Creating a comic book is such a fun experience. The collaboration makes it a truly unique and fantastic storytelling medium! For the writing portion of things, Insha and I spent a lot of time building up a really detailed outline together that was essentially a bullet-point version of the story. We collaborate on that until we’re happy, and then I go in and create a loose script based off of what we created (which includes the art direction for Juliana as well as placeholder dialogue). Insha refined characters and really fleshed them out, making them feel as real as we possibly could (seriously…she made them all Spotify playlists, Pinterest mood boards, and more!)
Once we’re ready to move forward with the characters and the script, we go through it and refine it. Insha is amazing with dialogue for that younger audience so she’d go in and adjust things and help it feel more unique and fitting for each character. We refined, refined, refined until we had a story that we were happy with!
Then it goes off to Juliana for the art. There’s a few different stages for that process where you have to submit thumbnails (rough art for the pages), pencils/inks (more refined art), and the final black and white line art which then goes over to Whitney to be coloured. Then of course, we have to add in the dialogue and captions which is handled by our book designer, Andrea Miller.
It’s hard to say how long it all took. We initially were going to pitch to comic book publishers to release the book in a serialized monthly format, and then I had another book picked up by HMH Kids (and my wonderful editor Lily) called ParaNorthern (which is out July 2021). That was actually the first graphic novel that I sold! I worked on that for a while, finished up writing duties on it, and then HMH asked for more of my work. We presented them with Oh My Gods! which they loved and fast-tracked for publication. So realistically from inception to publication, the turnaround specifically for Oh My Gods! was probably 4+ years!
MUF: How many books in the series can readers look forward to?
SC: So far we have two books coming out in the series! Insha, Juliana, and I have so many more ideas that we would love to write though, so we’re really hoping that we get an opportunity to explore those. Greek Mythology has so many interesting figures and stories, and we really want to play in that sandbox more!
MUF: Your publisher says that the book “reads as if Raina Telgemeier and Rick Riordan teamed up to write a comic.” Are you fans of those two creators? Who else inspires your work?
SC: I am absolutely a fan of them both. I’ve admittedly not read the Percy Jackson books, which might be blasphemy as a big Greek Mythology fan but I have seen the Broadway play! Not that that’s the same, but I have huge respect for the franchise Riordan has built and the way he’s integrating other writers and mythology into it. That’s the dream, really! I would love to have this take off in a way that we can bring in other creators to the table to share their voices and stories. And being compared to Raina Telgemeier is beyond intimidating! I’m in awe of the career she’s built for herself and firmly believe she’s one of the best creators out there. The way she integrates feelings and real-life scenarios that kids may not know how to cope with otherwise while also telling an extraordinary story? She’s a master at what she does.
I think another inspiration would be Noelle Stevenson too. I love her sense of humour and her style; Nimona and Lumberjanes are absolute favourites for me! And then specifically for Oh My Gods!, I think that the TV show Clone High was a huge inspiration. That was done by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Bill Lawrence; Lord went on to write Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as well as The LEGO Movie, which both have so much heart, wit, and cleverness imbued in them.
MUF: Can you suggest a few other new(ish) middle grade graphic novels you think readers might enjoy reading?
SC: YES!!! I live for recommendations. These are some of my faves that I’ve enjoyed over the last little bit:
- Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner (Whitney also has a new graphic novel coming out shortly called Long Distance)
- The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner
- Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
- Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
ANNNND, this is a completely selfish recommendation but please also check out my upcoming graphic novel ParaNorthern which is out on July 6, 2021 with art by Mari Costa.
MUF: And since MUF is all about middle grade books, what made you decide to make your book a MG one, vs. say, for younger, early chapter reader kids or older, YA readers? What is it about this age reader that you felt fit best with your ideas and story?
SC: I think I jumped the gun a bit by mentioning this a tad earlier but initially we had pitched Oh My Gods! as a book for a slightly older audience and then we aged it down to middle-grade, and I’m so glad we did!
I just finished writing my first YA graphic novel and while I love it so much (I love all my book children!!) it’s very different to write for that audience, and I’m so happy we made Oh My Gods! for a younger audience. You’re able to include a lot more silliness with that audience, and it really does feel like the best extension of who we are as a team! We put so much of ourselves into the characters and story and this (to me) feels like a great representation of us.
MUF: How do we find you online? List any website/social media URLs you’d like us to share.