This month for Novel Novice Junior, I’m excited to share an exclusive Q&A with Matt Holm, the illustrator and co-creator of the best-selling Babymouse series and Squish series. Plus, we’ve got a great giveaway in store for you, too – so be sure to keep reading!
You’ve been writing Babymouse with your sister for quite a while now. How did you guys get started?
I started working with Jenni as a copyeditor/fact-checker on her Boston Jane novels. Some nitpicky readers had given her grief over an inaccuracy in her first novel, Our Only May Amelia (Jenni had written a scene where the characters, who live in southwest Washington state, watch fireflies at night—but, unfortunately, there really aren’t any fireflies on the West coast), and she wanted to head that sort of thing off at the pass. I was working as an editor and writer at Country Living Magazine at the time, so I was used to that sort of task.
Jenni then started working on a book that eventually became Middle School Is Worse than Meatloaf. The book doesn’t follow a traditional narrative: It’s a year in the character’s life, told through her “stuff.” You see the notes her mom leaves her, the grades she gets on tests at school, receipts for things she buys, etc. Jenni wanted the main character to have an older brother who would draw her little comic strips, so she had me draw the comics as the brother. That was our first collaboration in the world of comics, and it went so smoothly that Jenni immediately started thinking about what else we could work on together.
She came to me with the initial concept for Babymouse in 2001, and we started working up a pitch. It wasn’t a fully fleshed out story like the books are now, it was more of a “day in the life” of Babymouse—little scenes of her fighting with her locker, of dreaming that math class was like prison, of imagining dodgeball in gym class was like war, etc. She wrote out a simple storyboard, and I sketched a smattering of pages throughout the story to give people a feel for what it might look like.
Jenni and our agent shopped that around for almost three years before we got any interest. It seems surprising now that no publishers would pick it up before then, but at the time, there were literally no graphic novels for kids. That whole market segment didn’t exist. Nearly all the comics, from the DC/Marvel side of things as well as the traditional book publishing side, were for adults (superheroes on the one side, and serious memoir on the other side).
Finally, in January 2004, Jenni did one last round of pitches around the New York publishing houses. (Her husband got a job in Maryland, so they were leaving the city.) This time around, Jenni had interest from several publishers, but Random House had the most enthusiasm. They picked us up, and we immediately hit the ground running to try to create a series. The first five books came out in a single year, and we’ve hardly let up on that pace since!
Babymouse recently made her debut as a costumed character. What’s that feel like, to see this character you created come to life off the page?
Very exciting, and very strange. The life of an author is kind of weird, since you spend months and years working alone on your ideas, forgetting that they’ll eventually go out into the world and be shared by other people. So it’s already sort of a shock just seeing your books out in the real world. But seeing this thing that existed in your head actually walking around and interacting with people … ? It’s pretty surreal.
I’m sure you hear from young fans all the time. What’s the best fan feedback you’ve ever gotten?
We’ve heard many, many stories from kids, parents, and teachers that Babymouse is the book that got a particular kid to start reading on his/her own. That’s really mind-blowing, and, honestly, not something I ever expected to hear when we started doing this. I just thought we were telling some fun stories! But I guess you never know what kind of impact your work is going to have on people.
Tell us about the origins of Squish. How did that series come about?
We had been working on Babymouse for a couple of years, and were thinking we might like to branch out into another series. We figured it should be another anthropomorphic animal of some sort (animals are more interesting than people, in my opinion), but we couldn’t decide which type of animal. We also recognized some of the strengths of the Babymouse format, like the daydream interludes and the way the books encouraged reading and introduced bits and pieces of classic literature, and wanted to make sure that we brought that to the new series, too.
We finally lighted on amoebas and other microbes—inspired, probably, by our doctor and nurse dad and mom, and way too many dinner table conversations about the types of infections they were seeing in the office. Not only were amoebas under-served in literature (!), but it gave us a way to add some real science content to the books, without being too preachy/didactic.
The idea of Squish and his friend Pod came together quickly, but we spent almost two years trying to figure out the framing story for everything. Originally, Squish was going to live on the damp towel in someone’s bathroom, take trips to the puddle on the floor (as if it was the ocean), go on adventures looking for mythical moldy sandwiches lost behind the refrigerator, and so on. But we inevitably got sidetracked into questions about the people who lived in the house—who were they, how could Squish interact with them, etc. But the people seemed far less interesting to us than the microbes, and we came up with the idea of putting the action out of the house and into a pond, where they could have their own little self-contained world. We also decided Squish would like to read comic books, and that gave us a way to interject some fantasy interludes into the book (in the form of scenes from the comic books Squish is reading), much the same way Babymouse is interspersed with her daydreams.
You’ve had a pretty intense publishing schedule the last few years. How have you and Jennifer managed?
Lots of caffeine, little sleep, and occasional nervous breakdowns. We had been doing three to four books a year for a long time, which is kind of unsustainable. When Squish was launching, I actually turned in five books that year, which was completely crazy—especially because we travel a lot, and each often do upwards of thirty school visits a year.
Last year we had a “Babymouse summit meeting” with Random House to take stock of where things stood and what our strategy in the future would be. One of the decisions we made was to trim things down to only two books a year: a Babymouse in the spring, and a Squish in the fall. That would lead to a more manageable schedule, and a way to let each book shine a bit more when it was released (instead of getting lost in the continuous flood of new work).
What are you guys working on next?
I’m wrapping up final art on Babymouse: Bad Babysitter (#19) and will be preparing to work on sketches for Squish #7. We’re also collaborating with Jarrett Krosoczka (who makes the Lunch Lady graphic novels) as editors on an anthology series called COMICS SQUAD. The first volume, COMICS SQUAD: RECESS! comes out on July 8th (the same day that SQUISH: FEAR THE AMOEBA hits shelves!), and it has 8 short comic-book stories by awesome kids-comics creators, including Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Gene Yang (American Born Chinese), Dan Santat (Sidekicks) and Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants), among others. There will also, of course, be a Babymouse story. We’re putting together the lineup for volumes 2 and 3 now, so stay tuned…
The 1980s? Any decade with two Star Wars movies in it is a hit with me.
Must-have writing snack? (Or in your case, must-have snack while drawing?)
I don’t snack that much while working (I actually force myself to take breaks to eat), but I do consume very large amounts of Diet Dr Pepper.
Favorite Disney movie?
Aladdin. Great songs, really funny, and two equally strong lead characters.
The beach or the mountains?
Mountains. Especially here in Oregon, where the mountains are usually warmer than the coast, even in the middle of summer.
Song that can always get you dancing?
The “This Is Babymouse” song we wrote with Marty Beller for the launch of Babymouse: The Musical!
Name 5 things currently on your desk (or in your writing/drawing space)
- Babymouse dolls in 2 sizes
- An original Bloom County comic strip by Berke Breathed
- A sketch of the Mystery Solving Teens by Kate Beaton
- A picture of my dog looking tortured (we made her wear a winter parka); here also is a pic of the original, tortured (hardly) dog
- A poster of the original cover of Babymouse: Monster Mash, which was rejected (not for being too scary, but because the editors were worried that she didn’t look enough like Babymouse; I guess it’s the suit?)
Thanks again for stopping by, Matt!
Now here’s your chance to win a copy of Squish #6: Fear the Amoeba and Comics Squad: Recess! Thanks to Matt for offering up today’s contest prize!
Comment below to tell us about YOUR favorite comic book, then fill out the Rafflecopter form here for your chance to win. The contest runs through midnight (PT) on Monday, July 14th.