Posts Tagged mg mystery

Why Writing Kid Constantine Was No Mystery for Ryan North

Mystery of the Meanest Teacher Cover

Mystery of the Meanest Teacher CoverRyan North, whose credits include an award-winning runs of Adventure Time, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl recently wrote a middle grade graphic novel featuring John Constantine, one of my favorite DC Comics characters, and I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about it.

MUF: I’m Mimi. I write for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, a blog for people who love middle-grade books (parents, teachers, librarians, kids, writers, etc.). It’s an honor to be able to interview you. (My husband is also a fan. He’s the one who introduced me to Dinosaur Comics).  And congratulations on the Eisner nomination this year.

Ryan North: Aw thank you, Mimi!  That’s very kind.  I’m excited about it!  And say hi to your husband for me. 🙂

 

MUF: So, tell us about The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher?

Ryan North: The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is a middle-grade graphic novel about a younger version of Constantine – Johnny Constantine, but he prefers you call him “Kid”.  Kid Constantine has to escape from the UK to the United States after one of his capers involving ghosts and demons goes wrong. When he arrives at his new boarding school in America, he discovers his spells don’t work as well as they used to, so he’s left scrambling, faking it till he makes it – but luckily he soon discovers he’s not the only magical kid there.  And he’s going to need all the help he can get when one of his new teachers seems to have it out for him personally, and might be a real-life witch…

It’s a stand-alone graphic novel, so you can read it knowing nothing of the character (or even DC Comics!) but if you do, there’s some fun little secrets you might pick up on.

 

MUF: I’ve gotta admit, Constantine is one of my favorite DC characters, but he’s not exactly kid-friendly, why did you choose Constantine for this project?

Ryan North: Right?  He’s basically the last DC character you’d ever expect to be in a middle grade graphic novel.  I was working with DC on another project that got bogged down unfortunately, and when they said “Hey, what about Kid Constantine?” I laughed at the idea – always a good sign!  And I quickly realized that he actually transforms into a 13-year-old version of himself very easily.  That idea of trying to cover for what you don’t know, trying to act like you’re super cool and in control even though you have no idea what’s going on – it’s something that I think feels pretty universal to most of us, and to both Adult and Kid Constantine.  So there weren’t actually a lot of changes I had to make!  The adult version has a lot of bad habits that we altered (instead of smoking, Kid has a lollipop sticking out of his mouth at the start of the book) but beyond that there really wasn’t a lot to change, to adapt for younger readers.  So I loved that the idea sounded so wild, and really wanted to see if we could pull it off.

 

MUF: You do a great job of capturing Constantine’s wit in a way that’s accessible for kids. Was writing young Johnny difficult?

Ryan North: No, it was actually pretty familiar!  Like I mentioned before, Constantine goes through some pretty relatable stuff, so all I had to do was remember what it felt like being the new kid, being somewhere where I don’t know anyone, and I could tap into that pretty easily for Constantine.  And while some of the fun is seeing him cover for what he doesn’t know, he’s also a really clever guy, and it’s always fun to write clever characters.  They get in the best zingers.

It’s funny – if you look at the Wikipedia article for John Constantine, there’s a section called “In real life“, where several (several!) of the authors who have written Constantine claim to have met him in real life.  I kept my eye out for any young kids in a trenchcoat while I was writing – it would’ve been way easier to write the book if I could just ask Kid Constantine what he’d say and do in particular situations! – but unfortunately I never spotted him. So far, anyway…

 

MUF: I love that you included Etrigan as a “young” demon and that his rhyming is forced. It’s such a cool nod to his lore. What other Easter eggs can eagle-eyed fans catch?Etrigan- A character in The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher

Ryan North: Haha, thank you!  Etrigan was the hardest character to write because he speaks in rhymes.  It would always slow me down when I got to him, until I finally started writing placeholder dialogue for him: it had what I wanted him to say, but didn’t rhyme, and then I got to go back and spend an afternoon composing poetry that said what I needed it to say.

Beyond the lollipop visual reference I mentioned earlier, there’s also elements in what Constantine and his new friend Anna wear that references the costumes they wear as adults.  The artist of the book, Derek Charm, told me that the challenge in designing the characters was that we wanted them to look like their adult versions, but still look credible as kids: their outfits had to be something a 13-year-old would wear.  Constantine wants to look cool all the time, so it’s no surprise to me that he’d have a t-shirt printed with a design that makes it looks like he’s wearing a tie.  I wanted a shirt like that when I was a kid.  Still do, really!

 

MUF:  Also, was it hard coming up with all of those rhymes and/or was it difficult to make them sound stilted?

Ryan North: Hah – well, the secret is that it’s never hard to make a rhyme sound stilted, so that was good at least!  As hard as Young Etrigan was to write, Adult Etrigan would be even harder, because there he’s got his rhymes down pat.  I tried to use iambic pentameter for his rhymes at the start until I realized Etrigan is speaking a second language here, and he’s definitely not as good at it as his adult version is, so that became a bit less precise in his speech.  But honestly, I just went for walks and tried to think of different ways to say what he wanted to say until I came up with one that worked!  I like to think out loud when doing character voice writing, so my Secret Writing Technique is to wear a headset with a mic on it when I’m walking.  That way, passers-by think I’m a very important businessperson on a very important call and not a random guy trying to make a demon in his head have better rhymes.

Kid Constantine in The Mystery of the Meanest TeacherMUF: In the book, Constantine and Anna have a few tricks up their sleeve, what do you wish that you had a magic spell for?

Ryan North: Kid Constantine mentions at one point having an anti-blushing spell, and for most of my life before 20 I would’ve loved to have that power.  But these days I’d love a spell that would let me learn faster.  Every time I try something new there’s such a gulf between what you want and what you can accomplish, and yes it just takes practice, but that means you make a lot of just okay cookies before you unlock the really good stuff.  So that’s a shortcut I’d gladly take, thanks magic!

 

MUF: And similarly, if you were able to sneak into an otherworldly candy shop, what would be your go-to snack?

My favourite food is ice cream, so if I could find a ghost who’s spent their entire afterlife perfecting the art and craft of ice cream production, unlocking levels of flavour and delight that simply aren’t reachable or teachable within a standard-issue human lifetime… I would be there in a heartbeat.

MUF: I read in your bio that you studied Computer Science. How do you go from Computer Science major to creating award-winning graphic novels?

Ryan North: I always kinda did both at the same time!  I started my webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, in 2003, when I was in undergrad. (It’s still running today – you can read it at qwantz.com!)  Then I kept up the comic through grad school (I studied computational linguistics) and then when I graduated I faced a choice: keep doing comics, or get a real job.  And it was really easy to keep doing comics, because all I had to do was fail to get a real job!  Super easy.  So since then I’ve used my CS knowledge to develop different services that help comic creators, and get to live the best of both worlds.  It’s an unusual career path but it’s one that I recommend!  All of us have lots of interests and I don’t think you should have to pigeonhole yourself so early in your life – do different things!  If you can, do different things simultaneously! 

MUF: What were your favorite books and/or comics as a kid? Who were your influences?

Ryan North: The earliest book I can remember loving is The Monster At The End of This Book

The Monster at the End of this Book Cover

by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin. If you haven’t read it, it’s a great Little Golden Book where the fourth wall doesn’t exist, and Grover is afraid because he knows there’s a monster at the end of the book.  He does all he can to stop you from turning the pages of the book – building walls that you smash through with your mighty page-turning strength, and so on, until you reach the end, and he finds out the monster… is him, loveable ol’ Grover!  And then he’s really embarrassed.  It just blew my mind that books could do that, that you could have this object in your hands that was physically like all the other books but told a story in a different way.  I still love that, and lots of my projects involve playing with the potential of the form like that.  That’s actually one of the things I love about comics: it’s still a young medium and there’s still discoveries about the basic form being made.  You can do things in comics that haven’t been done before, and I think that’s really incredible!

 

MUF: What advice do you have for someone wanting to write comics or videogames or basically just be like you?

Ryan North: The greatest advice I have for someone looking to do writing is to start doing it, keep doing it, and put that work online.  This has two benefits: it makes your commitment public, so now you have to keep writing to keep that commitment up (this is why a webcomic works so well: if you say you’re going to every day, you’ve got to do it!) and of course the more you write the better you get at it, even if you’re not trying to improve.  There’s no way you can spend a few years writing a comic and not get better at writing comics, it’s just how our brains work.  The other thing putting your work online can get you is an audience: people who like your work and want to support it.  This helps you in a bunch of ways, but one of the first things it does is make you realize you’re not alone and people are interested in hearing what you have to say.  For an early writer, that was really big for me.  It made me feel like there was a purpose to it, that it wasn’t just me talking to myself!  And of course, when your work is online people can see it and maybe, on day, say “hey, I really like the writing that person did, I wonder if I could hire them to write for me?” and that’s literally how I went from writing a webcomic for free to being paid to write comics for other people too.

Ryan North Comic Books

 

MUF: What would fans be surprised to find out about you?

Ryan North: I’m really tall, but also, taller than you think even if you think I’m really tall.  I’m that tall.  Other than that I don’t think I have that many secrets!  Unless of course this is a ruse to get people off the trail of my many startling secrets!

 

MUF: What are you working on now?

Ryan North: I’m working on a few unannounced projects I can’t really talk about, but I will say that Derek Charm and I have been trying to do more books together for a while and hopefully some of those will bear fruit soon!  I’m also working on something that’s sort of a spiritual successor to my first nonfiction book, which was called “How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller”.  (That book has also found a lot of middle-grade readers: turns out we’re all kinda interested in seeing if we can rebuild civilization from scratch if we ever get sent back in time!)

MUF: How can people follow you on social media?

Ryan North and Noam Chompsy

 

Ryan North: I’m not really active anywhere but Twitter, where I’m @ryanqnorth !  I’m also @qwantz on Instagram, where I sometimes post pictures of my dog, Noam Chompsky.

MUF: And, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for your time, and the opportunity to interview you.

Ryan North: Thanks Mimi!  These were really thoughtful questions – I appreciate it!

 

The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is out now! And I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who is interested in spooky, mysterious adventure comics with smart, sarcastic heroes, as well as anyone who is a fan of the grown-up Constantine comics.

Writing Bingeable Books

What makes a TV show “bingeable”? What makes you click ‘next episode’ on your streaming service or faithfully plop on the couch when your favorite shSecrets of Sulphur Springs Splash Pageow comes? It’s something that I think about when I watch TV, and I watch a lot of TV. One show that I recently binged was The Secrets of Sulphur Springs on Disney+. In it, a 12 year old boy and his family move into a run-down and supposedly haunted hotel. As strange events occur, they boy and his best friend try to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of the young girl who they believe is haunting them. It’s the kind of spooky, mysterious, and slightly science-fiction story that is guaranteed to pique my interest.

But after binging all 11 episodes of the first season, I started to realize what kept pulling me in hour after hour. Each episode is a puzzle onto itself, and its resolution would provide small clues to the overarching mystery of the series. These clues were tiny, just enough to get me to continue watching until the next episode.

It made me start looking at my own stories, and how I plot them. How can we, as writers, create bingeable books? I think that it’s by giving our characters a goal and making sure that the resolution of that goal contributes to the larger story just enough to make the reader want to turn the page and see what happens next.

Our namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a great example of this, and more mysteries can be found on the following booklists:

From the Mixed Up Files Cover

Mysteries in Bookstores and Libraries, at Book Fairs and Festivals, in Literary Landmarks, and Other Literary Places

Middle-Grade Mysteries, Spy, & Sci-fi stories featuring South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Sheela Chari

Diversity in MG lit #19 August 2020 Mysteries

But a book doesn’t need to be a mystery to be “bingeable”. What are some MG books that you couldn’t put down?

Middle Grade Author Michele Weber Hurwitz tackles an environmental mystery in her latest book, Hello from Renn Lake

I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.

Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)

In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.

When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?

I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.

I wasn’t that familiar with the potential toxicity of algal blooms in lakes. How did you first get interested in them? What sort of research did you do?

A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.

In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?

One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.

I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?

My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!

There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?

In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.

I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?

Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊

This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?

While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.

In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.

Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?

My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!

I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”

Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.

Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?

Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.

In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!

I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.

Did you learn something from this novel that was new in terms of writing?

I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?

I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.