Every once in a while I have to break my “picture books only” rule to share a very special book. That’s the case with today’s graphic novel format Early Reader.
I “met” Mirka Hokkanen three years ago at a virtual SCBWI event and we’ve been close friends ever since. She is the author-illustrator of Kitty and Cat (and several other forth-coming titles), as well as the illustrator of several books for children. She won the SCBWI Narrative Art Award in 2019 and in case you missed it, she even designed the logo for StoryStorm this year! You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
MOSSY AND TWEED: CRAZY FOR COCONUTS is a really fun early reader made in the graphic novel format. I’ve got to say that I love this newly developing genre (as I’ve been reading more and more of them lately) and this book is a newly favorite addition. In this story, two gnomes find a coconut (that has fallen off a passing truck) and are determined to open it. Much chaos ensues, as does laughter and some incredibly fun world building that I hope to see more of. This is also Mirka’s author-illustrator debut (yay!) and only the first of many author-illustrator projects releasing out this year.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work? How did that bring you to writing and illustrating this book?
Mirka: I’ve always been creative and a maker. The tools and materials never really mattered, as long as I can make something with my hands. I knit, crochet, sew, do woodworking, paint, collage, draw, weave, mold things out of clay and cast them. I’m a printmaker, polish rocks, make candles, paper, and have made stained glass windows for a church. The opportunities to learn and the list of skills I’ve acquired over the years is long, and it gives me a wide base of experiences to draw from.
For picture book illustration, I was always interested in it, but it wasn’t until I had two kids of my own, and had really immersed myself in their world, and read lots of picture books, that I felt like I wanted to give that gift of good memories and connection to other families like mine.
Me: Can you talk about your art process? You have used watercolor, linocut, and digital mediums. What medium did you use for this project and what made you pick that?
Mirka: I start most of my projects now in Procreate on the iPad. I use a lot of mediums, because it keeps things interesting, but all my current projects are being illustrated digitally. For Mossy and Tweed, I did thumbnails and sketches in Procreate and then used Clip Studio Paint to make final art, and then did last polishes, like consolidating layers and checking colors, in Photoshop. All the programs serve a purpose and are useful in different ways for me. I like Procreate because it’s flexible to work anywhere, and drawing on it is nice. But Clip Studio Paint has really great tools for building pages for graphic novels. It has bubbles for dialogue, nice inkers, color fill tools and a lot of automatic functions that make creating graphic novels more efficient.
I did learn Clip Studio Paint specifically to work on Mossy and Tweed books. It was a bit of a learning curve, and I spent several days watching tutorials on YouTube, but once you get the hang of it, it is a great program to use.
Photoshop is an industry standard that I use to make sure my files are formatted properly, and colors look good before sending them in. The biggest drawback for Procreate is limitations on file size, and items getting fuzzy edges if you move them around a lot, so if I have more complicated editing I have to do, then I often move to Photoshop to complete that.
Me: Wow! That’s a lot of work! I love the idea of gnomes finding a stray coconut (and trying to open it). What gave you the idea to combine these two things into an early reader graphic novel?
Mirka: We are military and were living in Hawaii when I had the idea for this book. Coconut trees were all around, and we too, would bring coconuts we found on the beach home, and would try to peel and crack them in the backyard with the kids. It felt very absurd (and exciting), for a girl, who grew up in Finland on the opposite side of the world.
For the book idea, of an impossible to crack coconut, I tried to approach it from a new perspective, thinking about characters and settings that could potentially add lots of humor to the trope. As a Finn, I grew up half believing in forest gnomes, so the combination of Scandinavian culture and coconuts is most definitely autobiographical. Gnomes felt like a good fit because they are like people, so they could build stuff and be relatable, but their small size would offer lots of opportunities for humor. And a northern forest was a fun unexpected place to find a coconut.
Me: Did you decide that this story should be an early reader graphic novel, rather than a picture book? Or did your agent or editor think that was a better idea? How did you get into that market?
Mirka: I pitched it to my agent as a picture book and after reading the synopsis she asked if I had thought about making it into a graphic novel because there were so many plot points. I agreed it was a great idea and ran with it, but I had no experience in making graphic novels (aside from reading a bunch).
To learn how to make graphic novels I took Ken Lamug’s class on how to make graphic novels and I joined an online community (Kidlit GN) that I found a critique group through. I learned how to use Clip Studio Paint through YouTube (and practice), and took a webinar via SCBWI on how to put a graphic novel pitch together. So I spent several months building skills, networking and putting together resources from a lot of places. My agent also helped a lot by providing feedback and putting the final pitch together to submit to publishers.
It was helpful to have an end goal in mind, and then work towards that goal one step and skill at a time to achieve it.
Me: You are both the author and the illustrator of this wonderful story. What was harder, the writing or the illustrating of it? Why?
Mirka: I was surprised that writing was easier! I had no idea how to write a graphic novel script (it’s very much like a movie script), and how to organize my visual plot points into the length of the book. For a 32-page picture book, I keep mental tabs of how I want the final book to look visually, and make loose thumbnails, but for a graphic novel the visual information multiplies with paneling and it all felt very overwhelming to try to organize and keep track of.
Ken’s class saved me, by teaching how to do everything in order, starting from a story synopsis and expanding from there. For the illustrations, I expected it to be a lot of work but I had no idea how much! Just planning panels, and sketching took ages. Instead of one or two scenes per spread I was drawing up to 10 scenes with backgrounds and multiple characters. And I was learning a new program and a new style to illustrate in, on top of that. It took a lot of determination to finish the illustrations for the book, but I feel like it was worth it for the skills and lessons learned.
Me: Mossy and Tweed are such fun characters (as are the other characters in this story). Will there be any other books with these same characters? If yes, when can we expect to see them?
Mirka: I love Mossy and Tweed, and the sequel: Double Trouble is coming out in 2024! The second book features our favorite characters, and has us wondering if there is room for two unicorns in Gnome Woods…
Hopefully the first two books are well received and there will be book #3 news later this year.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Mirka: There is always so much I wish I had the room to say! One big thing that a lot of people seem to miss is they don’t actually read books in the genre they want to illustrate. Be a prolific reader. Visit libraries and bookstores. Read books published in the last 3-5 years, to get a sense of what is being published, and learn from authors and illustrators that you admire. Study your favorite books like they are training manuals for success.
There are endless ways to break down a book for study, but I’ll mention some things to think about:
For authors, type up a favorite book into a word document, and explore how the author of the book used language. What kinds of writing devices can you find, alliteration, rhyme, repeated elements, onomatopoeia and so on. How is the story structured (plot points)? What are the first and last sentences? Are they effective?
For illustrators, if you can, photograph the spreads and cut and paste them all onto one page so you can look at the book as a whole. Look at movement from one page to the next, how does the illustrator move your eye? How many full spreads, page, or vignette illustrations are there and how are they organized? What makes the book interesting to look at (color, point of view, light, value, lines of action, characters, etc)? Contrast the text to the illustrations: What did the illustrator add that was not in the text?
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Mirka.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! First, don’t miss out on these really fun handouts that Mirka made to go along with her book if you have littles (your own or even students) that need some extra activities to accompany a read aloud.
AND Mirka has also agreed to a Giveaway (US residents only) of one copy of her book. You can enter the rafflecopter here. Good luck!