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'My First Comics' Creators Take Family Business to a Whole New Level

Jennifer L. Holm, mother of two and author of the "Babymouse" children's book series, admits that she always enjoyed the comics her brother Matthew Holm drew as a child — some of which appeared in birthday cards and letters to her. So it was no surprise when the two began working together professionally as an author-illustrator team.

In addition to collaborating on "Babymouse," "Squish" and others, the duo most recently paired up on new book series "My First Comics." Hitting bookshelves on January 26, the emotions-focused board books are targeted to preschoolers and feature fun characters like Grumpy Cloud, Sunny, Tizzy Tornado and Chilly.

We chatted with Jennifer and Matthew over email about their new series, the comic-book appeal for both boys and girls, and how involved Jennifer's kids are in her creative process.

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When did you two discover that you worked well as a children's book writing-illustrating team?

MH: We first collaborated on Jenni's book "Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf" (2007). The book is an unconventional one, where the story is told through glimpses at the stuff in the protagonist's life — like report cards, notes from her mom, receipts, etc. The collaboration between us went so smoothly that Jenni started thinking about what else we could work on together … which led to "Babymouse!"

Parents tend to love it when their children spend time together. Are your parents over the moon that you two collaborate?

MH: I think they were just glad that we figured out a way to feed ourselves and pay the bills! But, yes, our mom is definitely glad to hear when the two of us meet up at a library conference, especially since all of the siblings (five of us!) live pretty far apart.

Jennifer, you have two kids. Do you involve them in your creative process?

JH: My kids are now 8 and 12. Generally speaking, they haven't been all that interested in my process, but in the past few years, my son has become a bit more opinionated.

He actually asked me to write a prequel to my novel "Turtle in Paradise," from the point of view of his favorite character — a boy named Beans. The novel, "Full of Beans," will be published by Random House Children's Books in August this year. (Hmm … I wonder if I will have to cut him in on my royalties?)

What inspired the two of you to create comics for early readers? And more broadly, how do you two work together?

MH: The "My First Comics" board books grew directly out of experiences Jenni had when she was doing author visits at schools. We're used to doing presentations for students in kindergarten and up, but every now and then we're also asked to talk with the pre-K kids — who haven't (and realistically, can't) read our books yet. But Jenni realized that even the youngest children can understand an emotional story when it's told through simple comics. So she started drawing three-panel comics with the kids, and the stories featured a happy little sun and a grumpy little cloud!

As for how we work together, usually the two of us will brainstorm about a story idea, and Jenni will go write the manuscript using a storyboard (a technique for planning stories that she picked up during her years working in TV advertising production). Then she'll email the storyboards to me — we don't actually live in the same town, or even the same state — and I'll fill a sketchbook with pencil thumbnail sketches of all of the scenes from the story. I scan those sketches and send them to Jenni, and she figures out the page layouts. She sends the layouts back to me, and I use them as a template so I can draw the final art.

The process is a little different for the "My First Comics" books. Since the stories are shorter, we can actually sit down together to figure out the stories and layouts, usually in just a couple of hours.

These days, the number of boys and girls who read our books (and most graphic novels by other creators) is pretty much equal, which is awesome.

Comics aren't just for boys. Was creating a book series that appealed to both girls and boys high on your creative list?

MH: Jenni first came up with the idea for "Babymouse" back in the days when the only time you saw female characters in comics, they were superheroes running around in outfits that looked like underwear! She wanted to make a girl comic character that real girls could identify with. But when the books came out, we were amazed at how much the boys loved "Babymouse," too!

These days, the number of boys and girls who read our books (and most graphic novels by other creators) is pretty much equal, which is awesome. And it tells us, as creators, not to worry so much about the whole issue of appealing specifically to boys or girls. If you tell a good story, everyone will want to read it.

What's a day in the life like for you as a mom who is also an author?

JH: It's a little crazy. My husband gets them off to school, and then I try to batten down the hatches and get to work. If I'm lucky, I have until about 2:45 p.m. to write. But, of course, if there's a sick kid or minimum school day or anything else, it falls on me as I work at home. Because of this unpredictability, I usually end up working most weekends. It's just part of the deal now.

When did you two first feel successful as a writer and illustrator?

MH: Probably the moment we first saw our books on the shelf in a bookstore. Up until that point, you spend years working — usually in a room by yourself — on a project that's totally hypothetical. It only becomes real when someone can hold the book in their hands.

Who's your favorite character in the "I'm Grumpy" / "I'm Sunny" series?

MH: Tizzy the Tornado is a lot of fun because, let's face it, everybody knows at least one kid who is amped up and out of control like that. But Grumpy Cloud is probably our favorite. We all have days when we feel just like Grumpy Cloud!

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Photo credit: Jodie Otte

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