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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We became aware of S.K. Ali from our good friend Ayesha Mattu, author of Love, InshAllah fame. When we found out about the amazing work she’s doing, we decided to get her two cents on Muslim voices, books, and gummies.
The Book Doctors: Why did you start #MuslimShelfSpace?
S.K. Ali: In early December, I tweeted a picture of my shelf of works by Muslim authors in response to the news of a book that “parodied” classic children’s book covers using extremely racist imagery of marginalized communities. My shelf of Muslim authors offered narratives that stared down the awful stereotypes of Muslims included in the “parodied” covers.
Friends wanted to post their own shelf pictures and we discussed how important it was that Muslim #ownvoices narratives be centered in order to counter all the Islamophobia the U.S. election season had brought to the fore, and voila, #MuslimShelfSpace was born. We launched the hashtag on January 1, 2017 and it garnered a lot of support from people committing to making space for Muslim authors on their shelves.
TBD: Why is it so important to hear our “own voices”?
SKA: Islam and Muslims are often, well, almost relentlessly, discussed in public spheres such as the media and politics, but Muslims who claim the identity are rarely involved in the conversations. The focus is on Muslims — without Muslim voices. When we have that happening — people of a certain identity talked about, talked of, talked for but never or very rarely DOING the actual talking — we can quickly slide onto the dangerous terrain of othering to the point of denying people’s humanity. And then we begin to see policies like the Muslim Ban moving into place.
If that itself is not enough of an important reason to hear own voice narratives, what if I said they were immensely more entertaining than the faked stuff? Because authenticity — of the rarely seen variety — offers fresh takes and whoa, you’ll be taken to places/spaces you might not have visited before. Fun!
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
SKA: I have too many! Because my debut novel is Young Adult, I can tell you some of my YA/MG favorites:
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness — breathtakingly ambitious and unique. The setting of the series is so out-of-this-world, yet familiar and the conflicts and issues explored are relevant to our point in time. It’s such an important series.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead — crucial to me as a writer because it wasn’t afraid to be what it was: unconstrained. As writers, it’s important to go back to that space when you first discovered the thrill of creativity, before it became fenced (in your mind) by the mores of those who’ve already shaped the literary landscape(s). This book helped remind me to just be and write free.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart — I love girl power stories and this one was really well done, with a writing style that’s bare and upfront. It traces the moment of a girl waking up to the realities of gender inequity and proceeding to take the reigns of power into her own hands, all set to a backdrop of an old-money, private school.
TBD: What are your feelings regarding the Muslim ban imposed by the current administration?
SKA: The only feelings to be had on hearing such a vile thing: how does hate get to dictate the policies of a country with such a constitution, “We the People..”?
TBD: As a Canadian, how did you react to the Canadian terrorist attack by a white man on Muslims?
SKA: Utter sadness. And the remembrance that Canada is not immune to the Islamophobia sweeping many parts of the world.
TBD: How did you become an author?
SKA: Since I was 12, I’ve known that I wanted to tell stories. I proceeded to get my degree in creative writing and then set the dream aside when I embarked on motherhood and pursuing a career as a teacher. It was only recently — ten years ago recently — that I picked the dream up again. That meant writing, learning, rewriting, and repeating until I got a literary agent and sold my book last year.
TBD: Tell us about your book Saints & Misfits.
SKA: It’s about a Muslim fifteen-year-old, Janna Yusuf, who finds her voice in the midst of something painful. It’s also about the diverse communities, plural, she moves in — her high school, neighborhood, the Muslim community. I’m honored that Saints & Misfits will be the first YA novel published by a major publisher, featuring an American-Muslim in hijab, set in an American-Muslim community. The book also looks at relationships in various forms, including Janna’s friendship with an elderly Hindu neighbor.
“S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits follows Janna Yusuf, a geeky, hijabi Arab-Indian-American girl, as she navigates high school and the possibility of first love—even though Muslim girls aren’t supposed to date, right? She’s trying to figure herself out, along with her place in the world, especially if that means revealing a shattering secret that just might send ripples through her tight-knit Muslim community.” -Sona Charaipotra, “11 of Our Most Anticipated #OwnVoices Reads of 2017”
TBD: Is it true that there are halal gummy bears in the book?
SKA: Yes, definitely. And halal marshmallows. (Cue screams from the creeping-sharia-alert crowd.)
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and citizens who’d like to see more diverse books on the world’s shelves?
SKA: My advice for writers from marginalized communities is to write the stories you want to see. Don’t limit yourself with the thought that nobody wants them — because that’s NOT TRUE. I point to the multi-billion dollar Islamic fashion industry that now major corporate brands are wanting to break into. Muslims who couldn’t find the clothes they wanted made the clothes they wanted and customers found them and bought from them. Same thing with writers and other artists: make what you want to see/read/write and your audience will find you. Don’t be constrained by the canon that came before because that canon didn’t include you. (And, psst, another bit of advice: don’t delve on the why-it-didn’t-include-you thought too long because that’s how your writing won’t get done.)
People who’d like to see more diversity in literature can support own voice narratives by boosting authors writing from within their identities. [This is where I’d like to say, thanks, David!]
One thing not to do: PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T WRITE OUR STORIES FOR US. It’s really hard, impossible, even, to get it right and even the best-intentioned ones have a way of harming more than helping. And trust me, over the years, we’ve seen Muslim characters who, at their best, we don’t recognize and, at their worst, hurt us to the core with the way they’re depicted. For young readers especially, this kind of pain affects their understanding of their place in the world and that’s just too sad.
S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family includes Muslim scholars consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. S.K. Ali’s debut YA novel is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.
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Hi Arielle and David, thank you so very much for referring me to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The Houston Conference was this weekend and it was amazing!
I’ve met more agents and editors at this conference than I’ve met in 14 years of my writing career. And, they were nice, friendly and have all agreed to receive queries and manuscript samples from all of the authors who attended the conference.
In addition, I want to thank you for informing me about the “We Need Diverse Books” organization. I am following them on Twitter, one of my fellow SCBWI members provided them with insightful information and they have a contest open for diverse authors.
Without your help, I would have never known about these resources that can help me to further my writing career and to actually get a real book deal.
I’m so grateful. Thanks for all that you do and best wishes to you in your pursuits to help others.
Have an awesome week!