November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Graphic Novelist Katie O’Neill Talks Tea Dragons

Katie O’Neill’s all-ages graphic novel Princess, Princess Ever After (Oni, 2016) turned fairy-tale tropes on their head with a story of a princess who rescues another princess from a tower; together they go on adventures and fall in love. Now, O’Neill is back with The Tea Dragon Society (Oni, Oct. 31, 2017), about a girl who learns to care for very delicate and difficult dragons who, if tended properly, produce magical teas. O’Neill lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, but SLJ “Good Comics for Kids” editor Brigid Alverson caught up with her at this year’s BookExpo America.

Princess, Princess gained a following on Tumblr before it was published by Oni Press. What was the first comic you posted on Tumblr?
It was called Counting Stars. It’s about this girl who, every time she feels lonely or alone in the world, makes a paper star and puts it into a jar. [She believes] that if you make a thousand stars, you’ll get a wish that will come true. She makes all these stars, and a man appears to grant her wish, and he says, “I’ll take you away. I’ll take you to this place where you won’t be alone any more, and there will be lots of people,” and she says “Actually, do you want to just come inside? Because all I really wanted this whole time is a friend.” It was only eight pages long.

Is it a children’s story?
A child could definitely read it. I feel like it’s had quite a wide audience. I actually made it for a contest that was run by Auckland University, which it didn’t win. It didn’t even get shortlisted, so at the time I was like, “Oh man, I must not be very good at comics!” But I posted it online anyway, and it had an absolutely incredible response. This was years and years ago, and I still get people messaging me about it.

Did you read comics when you were growing up?
I read a lot of manga, because libraries in New Zealand are really well funded by the government, and it means they can buy books, basically on demand of the patrons. So growing up, I was able to request comic books, and people in my school did, too, so the libraries in my hometown always had stacks and stacks of manga.

What was the spark for Princess, Princess?
It came from the content that I wanted from the media. Adventure Time was first becoming very popular online, and [there were these Adventure Time] characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum. I was like, “That would make a really good couple. I should make a story that has some of those elements in it, because I know that’s what I want from my media and I’m pretty sure other people want that, too.” So that’s where it started.

Princess, Princess ends with a wedding scene that I don’t remember seeing on Tumblr. Did you add that just for the book?
It was for the book. I wanted to have a little bit extra as an incentive to buy a published copy.

In a Book Expo panel about The Tea Dragon Society, you said you loved Pokémon as a child. Tell me about the evolution of that story.
I just love coming up with taxonomy, basically. In my Twitter bio at the moment I’m “Fantasy Taxonomist,” and that’s the best description of what I’m interested in and what I like to do.

How did you come up with the idea of a dragon who produces tea?
I love tea, I love cute things, and I just put them together. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment ideas, and again, I posted it and got a really amazing response.

Did you post the whole comic all at once or in pieces?
I just posted an image. I posted a wee picture of the three main dragons, and it just took off. People were like, “I’d love to see more about this, can you tell me more?”

What’s next?
It’s another graphic novel about little creatures; this time they are kind of like sea horses, but they’ve got little unicorn horns. The whole thing is set by the beach, and it draws on my experiences going through a natural disaster, because my hometown was hit by two really large earthquakes about five years ago.

It was only a few months before the Japanese earthquakes. Ours were much smaller in scale but still locally very devastating. We lost half of our city, and people were very traumatized. This story is not a natural disaster narrative, but it’s kind of a community survival narrative, an emotional survival narrative.

Does it have a title yet?
No, because the title I picked is apparently going to be used for a movie that’s coming out.

Going forward, do you think you will continue working on these kinds of books?
I think so. I think continuing to make middle grade graphic novels really suits me, and I’d also like to branch into children’s illustration.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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