Get ready for “Dragons Beware” with our interview with Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

A free flowing conversation with Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado about creativity, family, storytelling, and their popular books “Giants Beware” and “Dragons Beware.”

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado first teamed up at Ohio State, where they collaborated on many projects together. They’ve remained friends since their college days. Jorge is a writer and television producer, who has written for Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, and other networks. Rafael is a storyboard artist for Warner Brothers, Disney, and Cartoon Network. Both have been in the creative industry for over twenty years.

Their first graphic novel, Giants Beware, received dozens of rave reviews. The New York Times called it “a rollicking fun story.” It’s about a feisty aspiring slayer named Claudette, who teams up with a wannabe princess and an aspiring pastry chef to slay a giant. Claudette returns in a second graphic novel, Dragons Beware, on May 12.

 

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

Parent Co:  How did your experiences growing up contribute to you wanting to be involved in the creative industry?

Raf:  I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil, basically. My dad is an artist himself, even though he never did that as a living. He ended up working in the petrol chemical industry. There were other artists in my family too. My uncle is an artist, and art was always encouraged in my household.

When I was a kid, I saw a segment on Sesame Street where they were doing stop motion animation. I knew my dad had a great camera, and I was like, “Hey, I want to do this!” He helped me out, and it just kind of set me on that path. The drawing and the filmmaking both kind of came together because I work in animation for a living. So does Jorge.

Parent Co:  Jorge, what about you?

Jorge:  I’ve always liked stories, and my father always told me a lot of stories – Greek myths and those sorts of things on road trips. We took a lot of road trips.

I remember that there was one teacher in fifth grade who complimented my writing, and I guess it went to my head. I started thinking that I was a good writer. A couple of teachers along the way encouraged it too, but I think it was that one teacher. She told me I was a good writer, so I took it seriously.

Parent Co:  You’ve both done a lot of writing for television, film, and graphic novels for a younger audiences. What do you find most appealing and challenging about creating for younger audiences?

Jorge:  Raf might have a totally different opinion, but we talked about this before. We don’t actually write for a young audience. We sort of began writing in a way that would entertain each other. We just think like kids, I guess.

Raf:  Yeah. We’re trying to entertain ourselves first, I suppose. I feel like if you start writing for that audience in mind, for children in mind, you’ll start slipping into being a bit patronizing somehow. I don’t think that’s a good way to go. Basically we’re making stuff that we would enjoy ourselves, you know?

Parent Co:  Do you feel any limitations writing for a younger audience?

Jorge:  I think the only thing that limits us would be – we’ll go easy on the blood, and we don’t curse.

Raf:  That’s it exactly. That’s true.

Parent Co:  Do either of you have any children of your own?

Raf:  Yes, we both do.

Jorge:  I have an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old boy.

Raf:  I have two daughters. One is twelve and the other one will be nine in May.

Parent Co:  How do you balance being parents and also working in very creative and demanding fields?

Jorge:  That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t think I’m 100% successful. I try, and it’s really difficult. I think that’s all you can do. You just try to not fail at your work or fail at your family, you know?

Parent Co:  Yeah.

Jorge:  Both are equally important.

Raf:  Yeah. It’s hard trying to find the time to focus because doing this kind of work, it’s not like you can just pick it up for ten minutes, do something else, and come back to it. It’s almost…you have to get in the zone.

Having the pressure of day-to-day work, family, and finding that creative space – that’s a real challenge. It ends up being a lot of really early mornings before anybody gets up, and at night when everybody is in bed, and some weekends.

Parent Co:  I also have a daughter, a seven-year-old. I really love the idea of a strong female protagonist like Claudette to share with her since there aren’t enough out there. What inspired you to create your graphic novels Giants Beware and Dragons Beware?

Raf:  Jorge and I are old friends. We went to film school together at Ohio State. We did some projects together in film school, and then we kind of both went our separate ways. But we always knew that we wanted to do another project together at some point.

I had this idea…the character of Claudette was just this character that I kept sketching all the time. I sort of had the personality, but I wasn’t sure what the story was. I just knew that this little character deserved some kind of story.

I think I was on a long family car trip to the beach, 12-hour car ride kind of thing, and things started percolating in my head. I wrote an outline for the basic story, and then I brought it to Jorge with some sketches. I said, “Is this something you’d be interested in?”

He looked at it, and then he went off on his own and totally fleshed out the world and came up with this really rich environment. We just took it from there.

Giants Beware

Parent Co:  The medieval settings and quirky characters are really engaging for parents and kids. What about schools? What role do you see for graphic novels playing in the classroom?

Jorge:  Well, I think they’re really great motivators for reading books. If you have a reluctant reader, it’s a really good introduction for that. I found that my seven-year-old son flips pretty quickly between graphic novels and regular books, and non-form fiction, and nonfiction as well. I feel like, they just help kind of tap into the imagination, and it does keep him reading.

Raf:  Almost like a good gateway into reading chapter books or fiction. I’ve heard this first-hand from a lot of parents and teachers, because I’ve been doing a lot of school visits for the last couple of years. Like Jorge said, the reluctant readers find this easier to tackle. If they’re having difficulty with reading, it helps. It’s a good step towards that direction. Then you end up reading regular fiction or what have you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from parents and teachers. It’s really good for those kids that are having trouble getting it. That makes me feel great.

Parent Co: It’s true. I teach ninth graders, and even at that age, using graphic novels makes reading and language more accessible for struggling or resistant readers. They’re also great for English language learners because they can access the illustrations to makes sense of what is happening.

Raf:  I grew up in Puerto Rico, and I learned a lot of my vocabulary just from reading comic books in English as a kid. I read in Spanish too, but I started getting English comic books because it would take them a year to get translated into Spanish, so I started buying them in English. It helped me certainly as a kid. When I moved to the states I had a bigger vocabulary and that came in handy.

Parent Co:  Very cool! Do you have any advice for kids and teenagers who are interested in becoming writers or illustrators?

Raf:  Sure. Certainly draw as much as you can. I always tell kids, “If you like to sketch, just make sure you keep a sketchbook or two or three are in the house, and jot down any idea you might have because it might come in handy later on.” You have to put them down, or they’ll disappear. It’s nice to have those sketchbooks to go back to.

And practice all the time. Practice as much as you can. I tell kids, “Just like learning to play an instrument or getting good at sports, it’s the same with drawing. You just have to be dedicated, practice, and always aim to get better.”

As far as your own comics, all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil to make a comic. It’s such an inexpensive art form. You know?

Parent Co:  Totally! 

Jorge:  Yeah. I would say something similar to writing as well. To become a good writer, you just have to write. And you have to show it to people. You should be able to listen, to take criticism – but pick which criticism to take and which not to take. You have to write a lot.

Parent Co:  I know that Dragons Beware comes out May 12. What’s next for Claudette? Are you working on a third installment in the Chronicles of Claudette?

Jorge:  Yeah. It’ll be another Beware. We’re not sure if we should say who she’s supposed to be with in the next book, or who should beware Claudette. The script is written and Raf is drawing as fast as he can. And it’s looking really good.

Raf:  I’m about two-thirds into the roughs.

Parent Co:  So happy to hear that. Claudette is such a fun and lovable character. Thanks for taking the time to speak with Parent Co. Do you have any questions for us?

Jorge:  Yeah. How far are you from the Ben and Jerry’s factory?

Parent Co:  Ha! We’re in Burlington, so we’re about 30 minutes away. Close, but not dangerously close.

Jorge:  I toured there once. I loved it.

 

Cartoonist George O’Connor: Bringing History to Life through Comics

 

George O’ Connor is a New York Times bestselling author of several children’s books, including Kapow, Sally and the Some-Thing, and Uncle Bigfoot. His first graphic novel, Journey Into Mohawk Country, uses the journal of 17th century Dutch trader Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert as its sole text. This journal is one of the earliest accounts of the Iroquois people in the area of what is now known as New York.

O’ Connor’s current project is The Olympians, a New York Times Bestselling series of graphic novels retelling classic Greek myths in graphic novel form. We reviewed them here.


 

Parent Co: How did you first get involved with comics?

George O’Connor: Both of my parents were very comic-friendly, so I grew up with a lot of comics in the house. There were a lot of Marvel comics and a lot of Archie, stuff like that. Comic strips were also huge in my family. We were really into Calvin and Hobbes.

Love Calvin and Hobbes! You’re working on The Olympians graphic novel series right now. What inspired you to recreate Greek myths in graphic novel format?

When I was in third grade we studied Greek mythology for the first time, and I really, really got into Greek mythology. I read everything I could find in the library that was age appropriate at that point.

I moved into other mythologies, and then when I was in about sixth grade I was home sick from school one day. My mom, as she would often do when I was sick, bought me a comic book to read. She bought me Mighty Thor by Marvel. It was during this one particular run by this guy Walt Simonson that was really very mythologically influenced, and that was one of the first comics where I was like, “Oh, check this out! This is mythology and comics all together!”

I think I drew my first comic then, which is actually a retelling of Ragnarok, the death of the Norse gods.

That’s awesome!

Some of it’s online, but I did a comic called the Thunderers, which was like Viking superheroes back in the day. But I was always more of a Greek mythology fan than Norse fan, so I eventually switched over to being a Greek mythology guy again.

The illustrations from The Olympians graphic novel series are incredible. Are you inspired by any classical art when you’re creating them, or is it all from your imagination?

I decided early on I wanted Olympians to be very…to have a lot of educational value. You’re always going to come up with something better than what you could do with just your pure imagination if you do a bit of research. I kind of like that collective knowledge of everything that came before you.

I would read immense amounts when I was starting the series, but for each book I’ll read every myth I can find. It has to be an original myth. It has to be something by somebody who was Greek or Roman, or otherwise believed in these gods. I try not to read other people’s retellings because everybody puts a spin on it.

I purposely put spins on the stories too, but I don’t want to accidentally steal somebody else’s spin. I’ll read everything. I’ll make notes about any detail they would give about the appearance of the gods in the stories, which they’re actually pretty loathe to do for the most part. It makes sense. They’re shape-shifters.

True! Good point!

I’ll build off of those descriptions. Like in my Poseidon book I think a lot of people think of Poseidon as having a fishtail, white hair, and a beard. But he doesn’t have a fishtail in any of the myths, and it’s mentioned often that he has dark hair. They say it even looks like seaweed, so my Poseidon is a young hero looking guy. He’s got seaweed hair, and he’s got eyes the color of the sea because that’s another detail they give about him.

He doesn’t have a long beard because I discovered drawing the long seaweed beard on a guy makes him look gross. He’s like a zombie one of the Duck Dynasty guys or something. Instead he just got this long seaweed mustache. He’s a proud god. He likes the way he looks. He wouldn’t have seaweed hanging off his face.

Ha! It seems a lot of your work like the Journey into Mohawk Country and the Olympians connect really well with social studies curriculum in middle schools and high schools. What role do you think graphic novels have in the classroom these days?

Man, I wouldn’t have the career I have if it weren’t for the fact that teachers have become enormously accepting of graphic novels, and librarians too. It’s amazing. When I got out of college, I went into kids’ books first because I didn’t want to spend my life drawing superhero comics. I wanted to be able to tell my stories, but there really wasn’t a market yet. But schools and libraries have turned around, and they’ve realized what a valuable tool graphic novels can be.

My first big graphic novel was Journey into Mohawk Country. I’d read this book by Russell Shorto called Island at the Center of the World about Dutch Manhattan, or Dutch New York rather. It was really cool, and in the notes they have this bit about the journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, the guy who wrote Journey into Mohawk Country. So I read that, and I’m like this is such a cool first person document that is out there, has been out there for years, and nobody knows about it! I’m like, but if I do this as a graphic novel I think people would be tricked into reading it!

Yeah, absolutely! Do you think it makes some historical material more accessible to younger audiences when done in a graphic novel form?

Oh, definitely. Yeah, and not just younger audiences. Any audience, but especially younger audiences. One of the things that I love too about writing for young audiences with graphic novels is you don’t have to speak down to them at all. I make no effort to simplify my language or anything like that because graphic novels are words and pictures working together in tandem.

You’re really free to go pretty sophisticated in language because there will be so many clues in the artwork that a reader can pick up on. There’s pretty sophisticated vocabulary in all of my books. My editorial team and I’ve never made any efforts to “kid it down” because there’s just no need to.

If anything I feel like kids have a greater natural ability to understand polysyllabic names at that age. Kids are so much better at rattling off the Greek names or dinosaur names than adults are. It’s something about that at that age they can really glom onto.

Totally. I’ve often wondered why the Greek names aren’t more popular in modern culture. Why we don’t see more people named after these characters?

I meet quite a few at my signings. I guess it’s just those type of people who will be the ones more interested. I wish I had a name like that. George is so boring. I would like Dionysus.

Yes! My daughter’s actually named after a character from Greek mythology. Her name is Nephele.

Nephele?

She was a cloud nymph who was made by Zeus from a cloud in the likeness of Hera.

Oh, yeah! The ones to fool Ixion!

She’s really into comics and a challenge for me has been able to find comics that are age-appropriate because sometimes something looks like it might be, and then you really dig into it and it’s a little bit above her age-level. I know you published some bestselling picture books like Kapow and Uncle Bigfoot. What was it like trying to write for a really young audience in a comic format?

Honestly in a way that is harder for me. Picture books, they have to be…a lot of people don’t realize this, but virtually every picture book is thirty-two pages, including the front and back cover.

They could go up in increments of eight pages because of paper signatures, but essentially you have to tell an entire story, make it have an arc, make it interesting, and make it age-appropriate in thirty-two pages.

And you don’t really have thirty-two pages. At most you have thirty pages. It’s really hard. Also the age with which kids read picture books, adults have been steadily shrinking that for years, because there’s kind of a badge of honor in having your kid read harder books. “My eight-year-old read Harry Potter!” There’s such a short period of time where they can enjoy picture books.

You’re creating these picture books and you’re competing with some real stellar classics that have been out there forever. Picture books, in general, is just a very tricky art form. It’s very related to comics. It’s the only other one that is really such a close synthesis of words and pictures.

True.

They’re remarkably sophisticated. To really do it well is a really hard thing. I’ve got to say I think I have an easier time writing the graphic novels for older kids where there’s not quite so many limitations. I’m able to go off into little digressions and have a little bit more room to breathe, whereas with a picture book – every word and every word line has to count.

What kind of advice would you give to kids or teenagers who are interested in writing comics and graphic novels?

Oh, I’ve got a lot of advice. One thing is to get a dedicated sketch book to draw in. Don’t just draw in your math notebook or your writing notebook. Get a dedicated comics notebook and write or draw in it everyday, even if it’s only for a few minutes just so you never go cold.

Never be embarrassed about what’s in it. I really want to emphasize it’s a sketchbook and not a “perfect work of art book”. Draw in it, write in it, jot down anything. Draw it quickly and if you screw it up, just draw it quickly again because you’ll do better the second time. Never be embarrassed or pressured about your work, especially when you’re in high school because you’re still learning.

My sketchbook is a hot mess. I’ll draw the same drawing six times sometimes before I get it to the point where I will like it. That would be my biggest advice. Carry something with you to draw in, do it every day, and never be embarrassed to make a mistake or share with people because that’s just the way you’re going to learn.

Earlier you mentioned how the market changed when teachers and librarians really started bringing comics and graphic novels into the classroom. Where do you see the comic book industry heading next?

The subject matter of it is just going to keep expanding outwards and outwards. If you go back fifteen years ago there wasn’t nearly as wide a breadth of different subjects being covered in comics. Every year there’s just more and more different subjects being covered, and there’s so much room for it to grow still. For so many years, the comic industry was just superheroes. Now it’s so much more than that.

Another thing that you’re already seeing happening is there are more and more female creators. Comics were very much a boy’s club for many years, again superhero ages, but I used to teach comics. Right from the beginning I had as many female students as male students, and at the end I had way more female students than male students. Women have come into the industry in a huge way, and that’s going to transform it even further.

Any future projects on the horizon?

Work continues on Olympians. I’m just finishing up the last bit of coloring on the eighth volume, which is about Apollo. That one’s really fun. It’s a bunch of short stories about Apollo telling different aspects of his personality, different myths. Each of them is narrated by one of the nine muses, and it’s narrated in the form of art associated with that muse. One story’s written in iambic pentameter, one story’s acted out in mime. It’s a real mind bender for me to get behind, but I’m having a lot of fun with this story.

Sounds awesome!

And after that I’m working on Artemis, his twin sister.

I’m so glad I came across The Olympians. They’re perfect for the middle school classroom and could be used at the high school level for teachers using Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey. I find that the graphic novels are also great for English Language Learners. They often don’t study Greek mythology or ancient Greece in their earlier education, so I find that graphic novels can really help them to have that background information and get the allusions when we jump into The Odyssey in ninth grade. I’m so excited to come across your work.

That’s really cool. I didn’t even mention that, but when I first started working on this series I moved to Italy for a little bit and I didn’t speak Italian at all, but I taught myself to read Italian by reading Italian comic books.

Cool!

Comics are such a great tool in America for ELL students because there are so many cues in the artwork about what’s going on, that you can really piece it together. If there are words you don’t know, you can figure out through context much easier than you could just through text.

Well, this was so fun to nerd out on Greek mythology. I don’t get to do that very often with other adults.

I feel like I nerded out pretty hard. I hope you can use some of my jibber jabber.

This is why comic books are awesome for kids

WE’RE CELEBRATING COMIC BOOKS for kids (and grownups) this month at Parent Co!

We’re interviewing prominent comic book writers and illustrators. We’ll show you how your kids can make their own print and digital comics at home and in school. We’ll recommend great comic book titles. And we have some awesome contests and giveaways for indie comics and comic-inspired tee shirts.

Follow the latest updates here.

Reading and making comic books is an enriching experience for kids. They:

– increase inference:  Claudia McVicker, Ph.D., professor of language and literacy at the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, studied how comics boost inference skills for elementary-school readers. Inference is critical to comprehension.

– sharpen reading skills: Several studies show that comic book readers read above grade level. The compressed language used in comic panels is surprisingly advanced. And comics and graphic novels often use literary themes, with all the elements of storytelling: protagonist, antagonist, story arc, resolution.

Claudia McVicker says: “And if you really consider how the pictures and words work together to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.”

– expand vocabulary: My 7-year old constantly asks the meaning of works she’s encountered in comic books. She also constantly asks us how to spell words that she’s using in her own comic book stories.

– spark reluctant readers: many kids that don’t like to read enjoy comics. This seems especially true for boys, who tend to be more reluctant to enjoy read than girls.

–  inspire a shared / social reading experience:  Many kids like to pass comics around, sharing them and discussing their stories. Their serialized plots and bold characters inspire discussion.

– improve visual literacy:  this is the ability to integrate text and visuals simultaneously. It’s worthwhile to skill to impart early in our screen and graphics-driven culture.

– diversify reading: most kids enjoy reading comic books along with picture books, chapter books and prose-based stories and novels.

– inspire kids to draw: Kids love to draw their own versions of the comics they’re reading. They also learn how to draw from studying comic panels.

– teach kids about continuity and frames of reference

When my 7-year old is working on a comic, she’s really also practicing writing, drawing, creating and thinking. (It’s complicated to create a story that works panel-to-panel, even when it’s about a detective that’s also a dog.)

Superheros are awesome, but there are also many other types of comic book stories. They range from funny to sad, fantastic to realistic, historical or far-flung.

Likewise, there are many types of comics: strips, editorial and gag cartoons, manga, graphic novels (or “graphic books” as the New York Times bestseller list calls them) as well as online webcomics.

Stay tuned as explore this universe all month.

Comic books are enriching for kids, but let’s not forget that they’re also FUN. Kids love them. That’s because comic books are awesome.