Transcript from an interview with Jarrett Krosoczka

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jarrett Krosoczka. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Jarrett Krosoczka, author and illustrator

I'm Jarrett Krosoczka. I'm the author and illustrator of picture books like Baghead and Punk Farm, and also the Lunch Lady graphic novel series.

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Follow your path

When I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, I was raised by my grandparents, Joseph and Shirley, and they always supported and fostered my creative efforts when I was a kid. So they always made sure I had pads of paper with pencils if we were on long car trips. If they wanted to have a nice meal out at a restaurant and they were bringing me, they made sure I had a pad of paper to draw with. And when I was in the sixth grade, public funding all but eliminated the art education program in the public schools.

So my grandfather enrolled me in classes at the Worcester Art Museum. So from sixth through twelfth grade, I was able to supplement my art education by taking weekly classes at the Worcester Art Museum, and it was just amazing to be surrounded by other kids who loved to draw and who were passionate about art.

So, one of the teachers I had at the Worcester Art Museum was Mark Lynch. And he always encouraged me to follow my own path. When he learned that I had read a book, a how-to-draw book, that encouraged me to draw just like they did in the comic books that you would find in the magazine racks, he was just horrified, he said, forget everything you learned and just do what you're doing.

So as a child, when I took these classes at the Worcester Art Museum, one of the most brilliant things that this program does is they get the kids to come in and take a cartooning class. But then that cartooning class then goes through the museum's collection. So that was my introduction to an art museum. And even when I was a kid, I thought, "I just want to draw cartoons, why am I coming to look at these Greek sculptures?" It just really opens your mind to all of these other avenues and the way things can aesthetically look.

And of course it inspired Lunch Lady and the Field Trip Fiasco, I mean, the art museum in that book really does look like the art museum I grew up in, because… and not that I was looking at photos from the art museum, but I think illustrators always just internalize what they know from their youth, and whether they mean to do this or not, when they're creating their artwork, there's something there that looks like what they knew as a kid.

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Creative time

I think the best thing educators and parents can do for their kids is to just provide opportunities for their children's creative outlets. And if you don't have art classes nearby, all you need is a paper and pens and pencils. I mean, kids these days are also very lucky that they have all of these great videos online where they can go into the artists' studios and see them working.

And the bottom line is to just create, you know, just to allow that time for them to foster their creativity, you know, to make sure they have downtime where it's okay to draw. I was also very lucky that I had a lot of teachers who would allow me to use my ability to draw for some of the other projects that they would have.

So I remember when I was a sophomore in high school, we had to do a book report as a team, we had to do this big project, and instead of taking the typical route, I actually made this short little animated cartoon of Stephen King's Misery for the project. And how cool of the teacher to allow me to make a cartoon for that.

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Everything I know about bookmaking I learned in third grade

The first time that I ever wrote and illustrated a book, cover to cover, bound it up as a book, is when I was in the third grade. And we were studying Greek mythology, and we were to write our own Greek myths. And I remember the teacher teaching us about brainstorming and jotting down all of our ideas, and laying out the story, and using a story mountain to map out the story, and making a rough draft, and making final drafts, and… Every lesson that I learned in third grade on how to create a book, I use now in my professional career.

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Revise, then revise again

I did learn early on that you can't just write something once and be done with it, because every time you rewrite a story, it gets a little bit better. So when you rewrite the story a lot of times, it gets a lot better. With every revision that you make, the story grows stronger, and it can just be rearranging a sentence, adding a word, subtracting a word, to make that sentence as powerful as it could be.

And now, in my career, if the editor approves the second draft, I sometimes wonder, no, there must be something else wrong with the story. Like I should probably do at least five more drafts. I've done as few as two or three drafts, and I've done as many as nine or ten drafts, before we went on to the final artwork for the book.

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Words and pictures

I feel very lucky that I get to be both the author and the illustrator. Because from the ground up, I get to decide what part of the story will be told with the words, and what part of the story will be told with the pictures. And they're teammates, words and pictures. They complement one another. And so there might be something that you're telling with the pictures that you don't need to tell in the words, because in a sense you'd be repeating yourself. You can create moments in the story that are quiet moments that are just told with the pictures.

There are ways that you can express emotion with words, using adjectives and adverbs, that you can't fully communicate with the pictures. So it's a balance of trying to decide what part of the story you want to tell with the words and what part of the story you want to tell with the pictures. And you can begin the story with the pictures, you know, as you have the title page and the copyright page and the dedication page; as the illustrator, you can start the story with the pictures before the words of the story appear.

When a lightbulb goes up and I have an idea for something, the first thing that I do is I take out my sketchbook and I draw what I think that character looks like. I mean, sometimes maybe the first thing that I do is jot down a few words, not even a sentence, maybe a phrase. But I really get to know the characters visually, and as I keep drawing the characters, suddenly I'll jot down a few more words.

Maybe I'll jot down a phrase that they would say or a description of action. And it's just character design, notes, character design notes, and then eventually I'll get to the point where I'll think, I think I'm ready to attempt to work on a story mountain. Can I take this character and give them an adventure that has a strong beginning, middle, and end? And so I have all of these ideas that are in my sketchbook that are constantly jockeying to be the next in line, the next in line to be the next book that I'm going to really focus my attention on and be channeled into that pipeline to get it published.

As a kid, art was my entry into becoming a writer and becoming a reader, because everything that I drew had a story. So I would be drawing a cartoon character, and I would want to write a story for that character. So unknowingly I was becoming a writer, because I just loved to draw.

And through that, my love of cartoons led me to a love of fine art painting. My love of creating these cartoons led me to a love of reading longer graphic novels, chapter books. And… yeah, I mean, my love of art and drawing was just a gateway to so many more avenues of learning.

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Picture books vs. graphic novels

I would compare the experience of writing and illustrating picture books to the experience of writing and illustrating graphic novels as comparing green apples to red apples. Because I'm still telling a story with words and pictures, so I still need to find the balance of what story will be told with the, what part of the story will be told with the words, what part of the story will be told with the pictures. I need to focus on the art of the page turn, which is creating little mini cliffhangers at the bottom right-hand side of the page, so that when you turn the page, there's the reveal.

So a character's about to open the door, you turn the page, you see what's behind the door. The Punk Farm band members are backstage, you turn the page, and now the show is on. However, I'm dealing with 40 pages for a picture book, vs. 96 pages for the Lunch Lady graphic novels. And with the graphic novels, there is more to the story, there are more characters, there's more of a three-act structure than you could typically get with a picture book.

So I'm having to balance a lot more. Characters, a lot more action, many more subplots than with the picture books.

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I've always embraced technology as a way to expand upon the experience of reading my books. So when my books were getting published, I realized that the people coming to my website were educators and parents and kids, and I wanted to create a hub that would be an outlet for them to dig deeper into the story.

So I really look at my website as the sort of DVD extras. So when you get a DVD, there's the movie, but then there's the making-of and there's all this great extra stuff that just enhances your experience. So I really wanted to create a place where teachers could go and show kids videos of me painting, or a place where kids could go and play video games that were based on the books. Anything to get them more excited about the reading experience.

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Through a child's eyes

Well, for six summers, I worked at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which is a camp for kids who are critically ill, and after my six years as a full summer staff member, I would volunteer another four summers off and on, and it was during those summers that I would be sending my work out to publishers, getting them rejected, writing stories. And the kids that I got to know really reconnected me with what it was like to be a kid and what is important to a child.

Now, I have a daughter, and she definitely reminds me of things that I had just completely forgot about, like small moments like how much she loves her pajamas. How devastating it is to lose your balloon. Like these small moments of childhood are just coming back to me through my child.

The irony is that all of the picture books that I had written, I wrote well before I ever had kids. I mean, Good Night, Monkey Boy I wrote when I was 21 years old. And now that I have a daughter and a family of my own, it's just sparked this new wave of creativity in me. So when I was getting married, people would ask, "I wonder how family life will change your work." And "Ollie the Purple Elephant" is my first new picture book in a while, and I think that book is very different from my other books, and definitely inspired by family life and this new life that I have that's filled with so much joy and chaos.

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Connecting with kids

So, in 2010, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute was up for a Children's Choice Book Award for the third to fourth grade book of the year. And to be nominated for an award is just astronomically awesome, because the nominees are selected by kids themselves. But when it was announced that I had won the award, I was just, I couldn't believe it, to think that so many kids cast their vote for my book was and is just phenomenal, and I keep the trophy in my studio just as a reminder of who exactly I work for.

Not as a, oh, look at all of these accolades, but these kids like my work and… 'Cause you have plenty of days where you are so insecure. All authors go through it. And I can just look up there and think, okay, they like my work. I can keep going. And then to win the next year, in 2011, for "Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown", I couldn't believe that either. So it's a thrill to think that kids are connecting to my work.

'Cause I'm in my studio, my editor's looking at the work, my wife will read the stuff too, but to think that beyond just my small circle, that it gets out there.

My first book was published in 2001, and it was Good Night, Monkey Boy, and two months or three months after that book was published, I received a letter in the mail. And it was from a mother whose son loved the book so much he wanted his birthday party to be a Monkey Boy birthday.

And there was a photo of this two-year-old boy blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, and the cake was like a recreation of my cover, but in frosting. And that, to me, just blew my mind to think, 'cause especially back then, I just thought it was, oh, I create something and I show it to my friends and I show it to my family, but to think that my work was getting out there in a way that was beyond my comprehension was just mind-blowing.

So actually, that picture is framed and up with the Children's Choice Book Awards, because to me, that is as important as those awards. 'Cause for a kid, you're going to have your birthday party pictures in your photo album for all of life. I mean, that's like a tattoo for a toddler, what you're going to have on your birthday cake, it's huge.

'Cause when you're a kid, of course Batman was there, and of course Mouse and the Motorcycle was there. When I was a kid, I thought, didn't "Mouse and the Motorcycle" always exist? I didn't really as much think, oh, there is a woman named Beverly Cleary who lives somewhere in a house with a family, and she had to take the time to write that.

Maybe the Internet helps break down some of that mystique, in the best way possible, but I still am. I'm still… if a kid, when I'm at a book signing, a kid says, "This is my most favorite book ever," or a librarian says, "These books don't stay on the shelf," I still think, that doesn't make any sense. It's just me in my studio coming up with these ideas, entertaining myself.

And I think also, when there's content on an author's website, and the student sees all that content, and they maybe watch videos that are available, they are still so excited to meet you, in fact, I think, more excited, because then they recognize the author and they kind of know a little bit more about the author, and there's more of a connection between the author and the reader.

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Finding the right book

When I was a kid, I loved reading the comics in the daily newspaper. And I would cut out the comic strips and I would collect them in photo albums. I also would go to my comic book shop every month and pick up copies of Batman and Spider-Man, and my favorite chapter books when I was a kid, I still have my childhood copies in my studio, and they were James and the Giant Peach, Bunnicula, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. And The Mouse and the Motorcycle, I still have such a strong feeling of adoration for that book.

While I was a reader, I think if the term "reluctant reader" existed when I was a kid, I probably would have followed, probably one foot would have fallen into that category, and I think it just comes down to young readers who haven't connected with the right book. Who haven't found the non-fiction book or the action-adventure book or the humorous book that they connect with.

And so I don't… what would I call them, being "reluctant readers" or "dragging-their-feet readers" or "I-don't-wanna readers"… In this day and age, there are so many other bells and whistles surrounding kids, it's really difficult for me to pinpoint what exactly the problem might be, but I would really just think that they haven't found what's right for them. They haven't found the right shoe to put on and feel comfortable with.

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Origins of a crime-fighting lunch lady

I feel so lucky to have been part of the Guys Read program, and John Scieszka, aside from that, before that, was just someone that I always looked up to, and still do, and to be involved in creating some short stories for Guys Read has been really cool. In fact, Lunch Lady wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Guys Write for Guys Read book, because when John asked me to be a part of that, the parameters were to reflect on your relationship with reading or creativity from when you were a kid to now.

And that point, I had a bunch of picture books published, and I had this Lunch Lady idea, a lunch lady who would fight crime, but I knew it wasn't a picture book. I had been trying to write it as a chapter book, and that wasn't working. And so for this Guys Read book, I wanted to reillustrate something I created as a kid. So I was really lucky my grandfather every year would give me a big Tupperware bin, and he'd say, "Okay, save all of the artwork that you want to save, and then let's clean out your room and throw out all the junk."

So I have this amazing archive of artwork going back from when I was in preschool, all the way through elementary school and high school and college. And when I was looking through all this old artwork trying to find some piece to redraw or a character to revisit, I realized about 65 to 70% of everything I had ever made as a kid was a comic. But when my picture book career took off, I stopped making comics. So this comic that I wrote in the fifth grade called "Lightning Man", who ironically had yellow gloves. [laughs]

I continued this story, redrawing the character the way I would draw as a grown-up vs. a kid. And I just fell back in love with that format of comics, and I thought, this is perfect for this story I've been working on about a lunch lady who fights crime. So if it weren't for the Guys Read program, Lunch Lady wouldn't exist. As a comic, I mean, I had the idea, I just didn't know what format it was meant to take.

It's pretty cool. Ironic, because so many people are telling me now that Lunch Lady is getting their guys to read for the first time. And I'm getting guys to read about a superhero who's a woman, and they have no idea.

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More origins of a crime-fighting lunch lady

So when my first book was published, I went back to my old elementary school to talk to the kids there about writing and having that book published, and there was a cafetorium, you know, half auditorium, half cafeteria, and as I was setting up, I looked across the room, and there she was. I hadn't seen her in years, but my childhood lunch lady. And I thought, oh my gosh, she's still here, still workin' it.

And I went up to her to say hello, and I said, "Hi, Jeannie!" And she looked at me, and I could tell the gears were spinning, and she said, "Steven Krosoczka"? And Steven's my uncle, who's 20 years older than I am. So I was amazed that she knew I was a Krosoczka, 'cause there are only so many of us. But she had had my uncle 20 years before me, and here we were, it was like 12 years after I had left the school in 8th grade.

So she started just talking to me, and I quickly realized I have never had a conversation with my lunch lady that didn't revolve around tater tots or French fries. And so she started telling me about her grandkids. And I thought, what? No! No, I thought you live back there with the packets of ketchup. You don't go home and have a family. So this image of my lunch lady as the matriarch of this family at the holiday party for this big family and these grandkids who loved her, I'd never thought about that before.

So I went home and I started thinking about what a lunch lady would do when she wasn't serving food. And one thing led to another, and I came to the conclusion that she would fight crime.

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Fried pudding

When I was in the fourth grade, I wrote this book called Nightmare on Eat Street, and that was book that I just wrote on my own, as I often would do, I'd come home from school and just take out pieces of paper, fold them in half, staple them together, and replicate the process of making a book that I had learned in school. And I had these characters that were just food characters, they lived in a refrigerator, there was an egg and a tomato and a head of lettuce, and they were just best friends.

And there were these bad guys, there was a blender and a toaster and a microwave, and they'd always try to mess with them. And so I had all these different adventures, I did comic strips for them, I did little animations for them, and I did a book called Nightmare on Eat Street, which has survived over these years, which I have now as a PDF on my website. But that's pretty disconnected to Lunch Lady. But when I was in college, I wrote a comic strip for my school paper called Pudding, about a kid who got mutated by the cafeteria pudding and he got all of these superpowers he didn't want.

So I guess ironically, two projects that involve lunch ladies, and so when I had a chance to be a part of Guys Read Thriller, I thought it would be fun to revisit another old comic. So I wanted to revisit pudding, but I didn't want to use the idea of the cafeteria workers being evil, 'cause I thought that was just too conflicting to the Lunch Lady series, but also it was great 'cause it pushed me to think of other creative ways to how this kid could get the radioactive pudding and eat it.

And I had visited the Texas state fair, and they fry everything down there. I mean, the fried butter, friend peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried cheesecake, fried cookie dough, and I thought, oh, that's perfect. He'll eat fried pudding, and the idea of it taking place at a carnival just makes it seem all the more evil and scary. No offense to all of you carnival workers out there watching this video, I apologize. I respect what you do.

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Punk Farm

I love music. I don't know, I can't say enough about how much I love music and how much sometimes those rhythms can get into the artwork that I create. Especially with Punk Farm. I listened to a lot of loud music when I was working on Punk Farm. And especially those explosive scenes where they're having their grand finale. And it was concerts, I would go to concerts and I would see how they lit the stage with these beautiful colors, and I take photographs whenever I go to a concert, and I bring that into the illustrations for the Punk Farm books.

I had written a book about a pig who didn't like to get dirty. And my editor read it, and she thought it didn't stand out from other farm animal books, and she turned the book down and she encouraged me to keep writing. And at the time, I just thought it was so disappointing. But really it was the best thing that could have happened, because it eventually led to Punk Farm. Because what happened was, I was writing a book about a rock star, completely separate from the farm animal book, one singular rock star.

And I thought about this story for about a year or so, I didn't know where to take it. And then I was a counselor at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, and I had these five campers, and to get them out on the front porch to go to the activity, I would play loud punk music, and they came out, and the front porch became their stage, and they'd lip sync and they'd play air guitar, and they made up this fake band, and by the end of the week the guitarist was threatening to go solo, the drummer had an emotional breakdown. And I realized I had been focusing on one rock star, but that's just one character.

But when you have five characters, you have these five different personalities that are so unique and distinct, and when they interact with one another and they clash, humor is born. That's where the funny comes from. And so I went home and I found that original painting of that pig, and I said, oh, this book needs to be about a band and they need to be farm animals. And that's where Punk Farm came from.

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Ollie the Purple Elephant

I'm so excited to have a new picture book coming out, because it took a few years to get the Lunch Lady books up and running, and now that I have the series on a roll, I am dipping back into my career as a picture book author-illustrator. So my wife and I were married and we had a wonderful honeymoon in Maui, and on the flight home, the long flight home, I had my sketchbook, and I opened to a blank page, and I turned to Gina, and I asked, "What should I draw?"

And she said, "I don't know, draw an elephant." So I drew an elephant, and Ollie was born. So it became a story about an elephant who was lost with no place to call his own, and there was a dad who had promised his kids that should they ever find a purple elephant, they could keep him. And one day they meet Ollie, and Ollie is indeed purple, and the kids keep their dad to his promise, and they live in a city, you know, a city where there are very small, cramped apartments.

And so Ollie just becomes a part of the family, and he just dives right into their traditions, and one of their greatest traditions is that they have dance parties after dinner. So it's because of these dance parties the downstairs neighbor, Mr. Puddlebottom, does not like the new tenant upstairs. He has a strong disdain for Ollie, as does the family's cat, because Ollie sleeps on the fold-out couch, and the cat liked to sleep on the couch, so the cat has been displaced.

So one day the cat goes clawing at Mr. Puddlebottom's door, and they conspire to get rid of Ollie.

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Jarrett Krosoczka reads an excerpt from Ollie the Purple Elephant

Hi, I'm Jarrett Krosoczka, and I want to read from my newest book, Ollie the Purple Elephant.

"Mr. McLaughlin had always told his children that should they ever come across a purple elephant, they could keep him. Peter and Shelby so wanted and elephant to call their own.

One day, on a stroll through the park, Shelby tugged at her father's shirt and said, 'Look, Daddy!' Sure enough, there in the flower garden sat a purple elephant. He was lost and had no place to call home. Mr. and Mrs. McLaughlin looked at each other in disbelief.

'Well, a promise is a promise,' said Mr. McLaughlin.
'Mr. Elephant!' said Peter. 'Would you like to come live with us?'
'That would be nice," said the elephant, 'but please, call me Ollie.'

And that is how Ollie came to live with the McLaughlin family. Mr. and Mrs. McLaughlin gave Ollie the rules of the house.

'Be nice to one another.
No running with scissors.
And help with the chores.'

Ollie was agreeable to these. The children made up a bed on the fold-out couch in the living room. Ollie didn't have a room to call his own, but he didn't mind. He was happy.

Ollie quickly involved himself in the children's lives. He enjoyed hopscotch, though he needed some practice. You would think him a natural at soccer, but he preferred Shelby's ballet lessons. He also enjoyed kickball, but he was too strong a kicker for his own good. Ollie was especially popular on hot days, when the kids needed relief from the heat.

After dinner, the McLaughlin family had impromptu dance parties. Oh, the dance parties they would have! Ollie loved to dance! But Ginger, the McLaughlins' cat, didn't much care for dancing. She didn't much care for Ollie, for that matter, either. He had taken her favorite spot on the couch at night. Mr. Puddlebottom, the McLaughlins' downstairs neighbor, certainly wasn't happy with the new tenant at all.

Over the months, Ginger's disdain for Ollie grew and grew. Finally, she came up with a devious plan. One evening, Ginger scratched at Mr. Puddlebottom's door. He was particularly cranky, as the dance party upstairs was particularly lively. His foul mood aside, he invited Ginger in for a saucer of milk. She laid out her scheme, and Mr. Puddlebottom's scowl gave way to a wide grin.

'It's brilliant!' he said. 'My famous cousin would be delighted to have an extra animal for his show.'

And with that, the conspirators shook hands.

That night, when the McLaughlins were all tucked in their beds, Ginger cozied up to Ollie. 'You know, the McLaughlin family regrets ever taking you in.'

That night, when the

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." — Groucho Marx