Jennifer and Matthew Holm have been collaborating for years now on two series of graphic novels for kids, Babymouse and Squish. The two have also made board books and a picture book together, and separately worked on other projects. Matt co-wrote and drew the recent Marvin and the Moths and Jennifer is also a Newbury Honor winning author of prose novels like The Fourteenth Goldfish and Turtle in Paradise.
In 2015, Scholastic’s Graphix imprint published Sunny Side Up, a stand-alone graphic novel about girl spending the summer with her grandfather in Florida. Sunny is back in a new book Swing It, Sunny, which picks up where the first book left off with Sunny facing middle school. I reached out to the duo by e-mail and we spoke about the book’s autobiographical elements, how they work together and what the heck swing flag is.
We certainly hoped there would be more than one book. But, of course, you never know. Luckily, Sunny Side Up enjoyed a great reception from kids and grown-ups.
You wrote a little about how the first Sunny book had some autobiographical elements, has that continued in this book?
Well, the main autobiographical element in this Sunny book is Sunny learning how to use a swing flag. Jenni did swing flag in marching band. (See attached glamorous pic!)
A swing flag is basically a flag attached to a twirling baton. So, you twirl it like a baton. It’s actually a lot of fun. When Jenni was learning swing flag it was considered a training step to becoming a real twirler – which is way harder than it looks.
Our process is pretty much the same for all of them, except that for the picture book, Jenni wrote with a very specific page count in mind (since there are so few pages).
In general, our process involves a lot of trading back and forth. We always start with the story. Jenni writes a draft, then Matt goes through and revises. After our editor gets a crack at it, Matt makes thumbnail sketches with pencil—basically, very rough drawings of every single cartoon panel (or variations on them)—and then sends those to Jenni. She then figures out the page layouts, picking and choosing the drawings she likes and arranging them to best effect, and sends those layouts back to Matt, who inks them. The biggest difference for Sunny—other than the fact that those books are so much longer—is that Matt then hands the inks off to Lark Pien for coloring, rather than doing the color himself.
Matthew, could you walk us through how you work?
The first thing—and the biggest change from Babymouse and Squish—is I do a lot of historical photo research after reading the manuscript. Jenni and I both lived through the 1970s, but it’s astonishing what you don’t remember. Like, everyone talks about the leisure suits, but what about the plaid pants? There were so many plaid pants, and everyone—men, women, children—were wearing them every single day, not just at the disco. But in addition to the flavor of the era, I really need to do photo research and fact-checking on date-specific things, like which models of cars came out which years, and what airports and shopping malls looked like in 1976 and 1977. Also, little things, like: how was milk packaged? (Surprisingly, it was pretty much just like today, in large numbers of plastic gallon jugs. I went in expecting more glass bottles and more paper cartons.) I amass hundreds of reference photos, which I then pass on to poor Lark, who has to wade through them when she does her colors.
When I actually draw, I follow the process we outlined above, where the artwork goes from very rough pencils to layouts to inks. I don’t do fine pencil sketches like many cartoonists do—I find that they make my final inks look too stiff. So I keep the sketches quite loose and vague right up to the point where I’m (digitally) inking them, in the hopes that I capture as much life and verve as possible.
The palette Lark chose completely captured the era: the muddy browns and mustard yellows. Her coloring brings you into that wood-paneled, shag-carpeted family room alongside Sunny and her friends and family. She’s phenomenal.
This year you’re making this Sunny book and after 20 books you have Babymouse enter middle school. Matthew, last year you had Marvin and the Moths. Jennifer, The Fourteenth Goldfish touched on this a few years ago. Is there a reason you’re suddenly writing about middle school so much, or is it an odd coincidence that they all happened at once?
It’s probably just an odd coincidence. For Babymouse, we had done 20 books and our audience has been growing up with our character. We are always asked by fans what happens to Babymouse in middle school, so we decided that we wanted to find out as well!
Jennifer besides being a Newbery Honor winning writer of prose novels, you’re also on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and what has that been like?
It’s been really fun being involved with the CBLDF. I’ve tried to bring a “kid” focus to the CBLDF and that has involved helping to educate parents that comic books are good for kids. It’s sadly something that is a never-ending issue.
The Sunny books are set in the 1970’s and Jennifer you write a lot of historical fiction but as a period you both lived through when you’re working on the book or adding in background details, is there anything that makes you laugh or shocks you about the period looking back on it?
The most shocking thing about the 1970s in retrospect is the freedom kids were afforded. We were basically running wild all day. Even my ten-year-old daughter says that the 1970s sounded like the “funnest” time ever. And, in a way, it was. Kids had a ton of independence back then. We walked ourselves to school. We played in dangerous places. We used fireworks – I still have all my fingers.
Are there plans for more of Sunny?
We have an idea that we are toying with, so fingers crossed!
So what’s next for both of you? What else are you working on?
Jenni just turned in the sequel to The Fourteenth Goldfish! It will be out fall 2018. And we’re wrapping up book 2 in the Babymouse: Tales from the Locker series, which comes out summer 2018.