We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.
The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.
Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.
TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?
CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.
TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?
CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!
TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?
CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.
TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.
CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.
TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?
CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.
TBD: What is your next project?
CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.
TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?
CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.
TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?
CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.
Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?
CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.
Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.
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The Book Doctors first met Cathy Camper at a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for Books) at one of our favorite book stores, Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. As soon as she pitched us her graphic novel, Low Riders in Outer Space”, we knew this was a great book waiting to happen. And now it has. So we thought we’d pick her brain on what it was like to go from talented amateur to professionally published author.
The Book Doctors: Did being a librarian influence your writing & your approach to publication?
Cathy Camper: In 2006, I moved to Portland, OR and was working as a youth services outreach librarian. I’d bring books to schools and I got really angry. I was seeing diverse groups of kids, but all the books were about white suburban children. As an Arab-American, I know what it’s like not to see yourself in books. Plus, so many books that feature kids of color are old, or not written for the world kids live in today, but for the past, their parents’ world. The 2050 census says one third of the U.S. will be English-Spanish speaking households – that’s our audience! I also wanted a book for boys, since boys literacy rate is dropping. And I love science, and there’s a big push to get more science in school curriculums. I aimed my book and my pitch at these big audiences, and told publishers why it they were important.
TBD: Tell us about your long & winding road to publication.
CC: First I wrote the book, from 2006 to 2009. Then I emailed Raul Gonzalez, the artist, who was working as a fine artist, and asked if he’d ever considered doing a kids’ book? He said, yes, and so I sent him the script. He wrote back, “This is the book I wanted to read as a kid, “ and within days, he was sending me sketches of the characters. It was just plain luck that we were so well matched; we have a similar sense of humor, similar sensibilities and the same work ethic. We put together a pitch. I found lists of agents who repped graphic novels online, and sent it out as cold calls. It was right as the recession was hitting, and no one wanted it. On the plus side, people loved the art and writing, so I knew that wasn’t the issue…but I’d hear things like “too marginal an audience,” or “not quite right (white enough?) for our audience.” Also I got lots of warnings that bringing in my own artist would be a problem; though it’s common in the world of comics, it’s not done in the children’s book world.
I reached the end of the list of agents, and was lying awake nights wondering what to do. Then I heard about the Book Doctors Pitchapalooza. It’s funny, but I never realized there was a prize, or maybe I thought you just won a free copy of a book or something. I entered thinking, wow, I can test how good my pitch really is, because I didn’t know the judges, the audience, no one. Ironically, the day I did my pitch, I’d just done book talks as a librarian for six classes. So I thought, why not do it for my own book? It wasn’t until the judges were actually conferring that it occurred to me I might actually win.
The Book Doctors were the ones who connected the book to Chronicle Books and to our agent Jennifer Laughran. They made it happen. I think all publishing is like this – part talent, part hard work, and part luck. All creators can control is honing the talent and doing the work. But it’s important to do, because when luck comes your way, you want to be ready.
TBD: Why did u decide to do a graphic novel?
CC: Actually the book could have been a picture book, or a floppy comic, but graphic novels felt like the best fit, so I tried that first. I love comics- how both text and pictures tell the story. Plus graphic novels are hot! When graphic novels first came out, libraries and books stores didn’t know what to do with them. But now there are so many good graphic novels for kids, and they’ve become so popular, I think they’re figuring it out. Both Raul and I love comics and the flexibility they allow – it’s like making a movie where anything can happen – on a budget of Bic pens!
TBD: What were some of the joys and challenges of blending your words with an artist’s images?
CC: When I start writing the script, I have to be very descriptive in the sense that the script is all there is for the artist, editors and art director to work with. So I work very hard to build a world, characters and pictures in their minds. When Raul draws the thumbnails, a lot of the words I’ve written (not just dialog, but description, innuendo, expressions etc.) are now part of the illustrations, and there’s no need to have them in the text. So lots of text gets cut because it’s redundant when the art is there. Raul and I were lucky that we had great freedom to riff off of each other’s ideas, like jazz musicians, and to take as many pages as we needed to make it work. On the downside, we sometimes struggled with not being able to work together in the same place, at the same time…email and different time zones create extra hurdles when you have unwieldy edits to do.
TBD: From the first we heard your title Low Rides in Outer Space we loved it. How’d you come up with it?
CC: I don’t remember the exact moment it hit me, but it was very early on. I think it was a natural extension of the concept, which was that these characters would have a lowrider that got detailed by outer space. It’s only recently that a friend pointed out the cool little twist inherent in the title, the idea of a car designed to go low – that blasts into the highest place there is – space!!
TBD: How did you come up with the idea for the book?
CC: Daydreams. I’m a prolific daydreamer, and all my books start with stories I tell myself. That’s how the story came about. I also noted as a librarian that books on lowriders were super popular, but we only had three or four of them for kids, all nonfiction. I tried to find a book like mine, but when I saw it didn’t exist I thought, well, I’ll have to try to write it myself.
TBD: There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in publishing. What’s your take on that?
CC: We need more diverse kids books, and I’m so glad there’s pressure to change things. At Multnomah County Library where I work, we recently made a booklist of good picture books for African American kids. There wasn’t one set on the West Coast – from these books you’d think African Americans only live in brownstones in Brooklyn! Way too many were dire historical stories about slavery or hard times – where are the books about kids of color building forts, playing make believe, just doing things that kids do?
We need this book primarily so kids of color see themselves in books, but also so white culture isn’t always primary. If a book is about a generic kid, why is that kid always white? It’s important that white readers see kids of color too. I sometimes joke – when a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid is about a girl wearing hijab – you’ll know things are changing!
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
CC: On my Arab side, my dad and uncle were writers, and so I grew up with the idea that writing was cool, something I’d want to do. So I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I carried a notebook around, took classes, went to conferences, was involved in writing groups and recently participated in VONA/VOICES writing workshops for people of color. But it was always self-driven, I never got an MFA, in part because I think it changes a writers voice, and also because, as Junot Diaz recently pointed out, MFA programs aren’t that supportive of writers of color.
TBD: What’s your advice for writers, both as a writer & a librarian?
CC: One crucial tip I’ll pass on is that so much of the quirky DIY stuff I did for many years for free ended up being what led to this book. For example, for decades I’ve written reviews of books for School Library Journal, Kirkus and Lambda Literary. I’ve also written and published zines and supported them as a zine librarian. I didn’t see it until now, but those things not only honed my writing skills, they created two huge support networks of people who knew my work. The adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met via DIY vs. mainstream connections are equal. Don’t underestimate the value of what you do just because it’s not mainstream.
Also, as a librarian, I’d tell writers, don’t write in a bubble. Be aware of the market your book will fall into, its audience, and the reason why people will read it. If you’re going to spend time writing a book, do research, talk to librarians and bookstore folk about what people are reading, read other books in your category so you’ll know who your competition is. Think about what would make a publisher sink time and money to back your work. Your book may fall in a large category everyone already reads or it might be the first to fulfill a long-felt need, but that should to be part of your pitch, and an intrinsic part of the book you write.
TBD: Has Robert Rodriguez called yet?
CC: Wouldn’t that be great? I hear he loves lowriders, and Raul and I are huge fans of his movies, and how he funded them in early days, from the ground up. We love that he made Spy Kids, and that he knows how important it is for kids of color to have and be in good films too. I hope he reads our comic, it’s seems like it’d be something he’d like
Cathy Camper is the creator of Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her work has also been featured in Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, by Amy Sedaris, as well as in Wired, Cricket, Cicada, Primavera, Women’s Review of Books, Utne Reader, and Giant Robot. She is a graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California. She reviews graphic novels online for Lambda Literary and is a librarian for Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Raúl the Third’s work is drawing much acclaim and was featured in four recent exhibits: The Community Arts Initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Carroll and Sons Art Gallery; the Fitchburg Art Museum; and his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire. He teaches classes on drawing and comics for kids at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Maud Morgan Arts community arts center in Cambridge; and Young Audiences of Massachusetts. Influenced by his youth in the border town of El Paso-Juarez, Raúl’s artwork recalls the old Mercado Cuauhtemoc and its many booths filled with old curiosities, etchings by José Guadalupe Posada, and the ballpoint pen–detailed fan art found in issues of Lowrider magazine. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).