Jennifer and Matt Holm, the brother-sister team behind the wildly popular “Babymouse” and “Squish” graphic novel series, recently collaborated on a series of board books. The “My First Comics” series, including I’m Sunny and I’m Grumpy, are brilliant for introducing basic visual literacy skills—with both art and text that is ideal for struggling readers.
Their latest series, though seemingly a departure from their previous work, spotlights the incredible versatility and range of these two creators. The siblings spoke with SLJ recently about their new board books, the current state of graphic novels, and breaking down gender barriers in literature for young readers. (Responses are from both Jennifer and Matt Holm, unless otherwise noted.)
As a librarian, one of my frustrations with graphic novels is that my students do not always read the words; they just look at the pictures. When I saw your board books, I was struck that reading graphic novels requires different skills that we aren’t necessarily teaching children. When working on your board books, what sort of skills did you hope to introduce?
Comics do a great job of teaching the building blocks of reading in a visual way. At a very basic level, learning how to read pictures is the first step to reading words. Children can learn inference by studying the pictures. They learn about dialogue because they can “see” it in a speech bubble. They learn to navigate left to right on the page. They start to understand human emotions visually.
Even though Babymouse and Squish are for younger elementary readers, my struggling sixth grade readers love them. Do you keep this in mind when writing the stories? Do you also try to include jokes that are appealing to adult readers as well?
That’s so great to hear and that mirrors our own reading experience. We read and re-read comics and comic strip collections (Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County, Prince Valiant) all through our childhood and still do today. And we definitely try to amuse our grown-up selves. If we’re not laughing, no one is.
Comics have always been one of those things that adults try to limit for children, and I still have parents complain that their child isn’t reading “real books” when they bring home graphic novels. What can educators say to parents in this situation?
Graphic novels are confidence boosters! Even though they tend to be on the lengthy side (Babymouse and Squish are both 96 pages), kids fly through them pretty quickly. Children will read a graphic novel and feel like they’ve climbed Mount Everest. This will boost their confidence to keep reading… and turn them into lifelong readers.
Do you think that adult censure of this material makes it even more appealing to children?
That’s hard to say. We didn’t experience that at all growing up. We had a large family (five kids) and our parents were very laissez-faire about what we read and books were handed up and down the generations.
Many of the “Babymouse” books have pink covers, yet most boys, even in middle school, don’t mind picking them up. There’s been a lot of discussion recently about “books for girls” and “books for boys”. When you started Babymouse and Squish, did you have particular genders in mind? Do you think that since you started these series, the reading habits of children have changed concerning gender?
We were originally inspired to create Babymouse for girls. This was because when Jenni was growing up in the olden days (the 1970s!) there weren’t a lot of super heroines, and in the early 2000s, there seemed to be a constant mantra that “comics weren’t for girls.” She wanted a girl comic-book character that she—and other girls—could relate to. But it’s been 10 years since the first “Babymouse” book hit the shelves. Along the way, Babymouse has become a rather gender-bending mouse. (For example, she imagines herself as Peter Pan and [her male friend] Wilson as Wendy). As you pointed out, we have a ton of boy fans and they don’t seem to mind the pink. We’re thrilled that everyone has embraced Babymouse. (Maybe pink is the new black?)
Shannon Hale had a well-publicized criticism of schools that invited her to speak, but only to girls, because her books are about princesses. Have you had similar problems? Your board books seem very gender-neutral, sort of like buying yellow sleepers—was that intentional?
We have not had that experience, thankfully. We did have a parent get upset with us that Babymouse was a mouse… because mice carry disease and are filthy. Sigh. (Typical.)
For the “My First Comics” board books, the natural colors of the weather icons (and the personalities of certain kids we know who MAY have inspired the characters…) dictated the gender of the characters. Also, Matt was overjoyed to be working in a palette besides pink and green!
Jenni, you started out writing longer fiction. Do you think you have more novels up your sleeve, or are you embracing having such a tremendous hold of the graphic novel niche?
JH: Thank you so much! I have a new middle-grade novel coming out from Random House in August. It’s a stand-alone prequel to Turtle in Paradise called Full of Beans. It’s from the point of view of Turtle’s cousin, Beans, and is the origin story for the Diaper Gang.
Matt, since you draw the pictures AND Jenni is your older sister, how much do you usually get to contribute to the stories? Do you have some ideas of your own that you would like to pursue individually?
MH: Ha! Like most younger brothers, I’m always looking for a chance to get my own way about SOMETHING!
But, in reality, our work process is highly intertwined. It’s true that Jenni writes the first draft and I draw the final art, but there’s a long stretch in the middle where we both work on the story and the art—that’s why our books don’t have a “Written by…” or “Illustrated by…” credit—it’s more complicated than that. So I contribute a fair bit to the manuscript, and also end up taking the story in new directions once I start drawing.
I actually worked as a writer first before we started Babymouse (I’m an English major), so I definitely have ideas for stories that I want to write myself. In fact, I have a new middle-grade novel coming out in the fall from Scholastic called Marvin and the Moths. It’s about a boy who discovers giant, superintelligent mutant moths in his attic, and has to learn to live with them—and uncover what the mysterious company that runs his hometown is really up to.
Sunny Side Up was one of the few graphic novels recently that felt solidly middle grade to me. The text was the right level, and the story felt more like one that would lend itself to a novel format. Was this a story you had considered telling without the illustrations? And will there be more like this one?
Sunny Side Up began as an idea for one of Jenni’s novels, but it just wasn’t coming out right. That’s when it occurred to her that it might work better as a graphic novel, so we teamed up. It was a very work-intensive book to create… but it was a labor of love. We would definitely like to do more books like this. Time for us to put our thinking caps on!
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