Stephanie Cooke is a multi-medium creator; she’s an editor; a writer; participates and hosts podcasts; and runs Creator Resource, a vital website for other creators. She has one successful children's graphic book, OH MY GODS!, on the shelves and soon another with ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse (out July 13th). The Yeti invites her to talk about them and about being a writer for young readers.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Your beginnings are in comics, so why the shift into children’s literature books?
STEPHANIE COOKE: Well, I am still in comics but just for the book market. There are several markets for comics, really, including the traditional comic pubs (Marvel, DC, Image, etc.), small press pubs (Iron Circus, TO Comix, etc.), and the book pubs (Random House Graphix, Etch, Scholastic, etc.). The book market only recently in the last several years started to get in on the popularity of graphic novels and I came into the book market industry on that wave.
So I still make comics but more so standalone graphic novels for the publishers and imprints that are currently out there clamoring for them. One publishing method isn’t better than the other, it’s all about what you want to do and finding the right fit. Webcomic creators are also doing so many amazing things these days too and it all falls under the sequential storytelling umbrella.
Personally, my interest lies more in telling complete stories rather than serialized ones so graphic novels is the place for me! I’d love to dabble in serial storytelling sometime too, but for now, I’m enjoying what I do immensely.
CBY: When you were writing Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern did you have a specific age of reader in mind or do you consider them to be all-ages books?
"I wanted to do something set in a magical world and have that and other supernatural beings be commonplace there. I really loved the idea of having a “bad guy” in the bunnies that weren’t necessarily evil, just mischievous (like Stitch in Lilo & Stitch)."
SC: Originally when we pitched both books, I had a YA market in mind for them. But our editor asked if we would be okay with aging it down to middle-grade. In retrospect, it was the perfect decision. The stories work really well for that age range and were an absolute blast to write. You can have a lot more fun with stories and be more silly than you can be with an older audience. I do still think they’re “all-ages” and something that anyone can read though!
CBY: I have heard how stories can come from a great ending idea or one-liner or unique character name. Where did the inception for Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern come from?
SC: ParaNorthern was a mixture of a lot of things that I love; Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and shows like Gravity Falls and comics like Lumberjanes and Cucumber Quest. I don’t think there was any specific ONE MOMENT that sparked the creation of the story though. I wanted to do something set in a magical world and have that and other supernatural beings be commonplace there. I really loved the idea of having a “bad guy” in the bunnies that weren’t necessarily evil, just mischievous (like Stitch in Lilo & Stitch).
And Oh My Gods! came from Insha and I’s love of Greek mythology. We loved the idea of having someone ordinary go to school amongst Gods and Goddesses and what that would look like. Modernizing the characters and reimagining them for a middle-grade audience was something fun that we were both really into.
CBY: In ParaNorthern, you have a variety of characters (including some anthropomorphism and Veggie-morphic?). It's very clear that it is a world full of different races and beings. How did you decide what will be represented when you set out to write it?
SC: I definitely wanted the main character for this story to be a witch, but then aside from that, it was trying to figure out how to fill out the rest of the cast. I didn’t want this world to be populated by just humans or humanoid-type characters…if you have a magical supernatural world, why should it just be focused on them when you have this massive sandbox? So many other stories have exactly that so I wanted to make sure that our cast had more than that. I thought about what I could do and I settled on Gita (a wolfgirl), Silas (a pumpkinhead), and Hannah (a ghost). But I didn’t want ghosts to be dead so I played around more with the idea of portals and other dimensions. Hannah is a being from another dimension and our artist, Mari, felt that the character would be great as a Muslim or Latina and I just love how all of the designs came out.
CBY: Silas is a pumpkin-headed being (love his anti-pumpkin spiced drink stance) – where ideally did he come from? He is clearly a pumpkin and yet there is also a pumpkin patch. Does this dichotomy make for a disconnect that can confuse a young reader? Is this one of those Goofy can talk, yet Pluto can’t things?
SC: I don’t think so. Young people are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. You can put complex ideas and notions into the stories and kids understand. Kids might not necessarily drink Pumpkin Spice Lattes or whatever, but they’re very aware of the world around them in a bigger way than we sometimes think. Silas is extremely passionate about something that other people might not otherwise care about, which is a big thing that a lot of young people understand.
Telling young people that it’s okay to have a cause and to stick to them is something important, especially in this day and age.
CBY: I notice a strong fantasy element in Young Adult/Middle-Grade fiction, especially leaning towards witchcraft or magic with females. What is the attraction?
SC: I don’t think it’s specifically a “female” thing although there has been a big surge in those titles. I love The Okay Witch, Snapdragon, Witchlight, and The Witch Boy a lot. But there are always “waves” of titles that come out at any given time. This year and last has also been big for a resurgence in mythology. But we sold our book years ago! Creators, editors, and agents are always trying to fill the gaps in what is or isn’t out there.
But that being said, magic is a great way to explore complex themes in a way that is easily absorbed for younger audiences. There’s a lot to play around with and great metaphors that you can use, so it’s a popular way to tell more complicated issues like gender, sexuality, and more.
CBY: How closely did you work with the artists? Did they ever turn it around and have you change the dialogue because they did something great artwise?
SC: With the book market, you can change things after the fact but typically you’re handing an artist a final script, so you don’t want to tamper around with it too much. That being said, for ParaNorthern, I didn’t work super closely with Mari. We talked initially for the character creation and concept designs but then our book designer and editor took over the back and forth and guiding the direction of the art. I trust my editor wholeheartedly to get the best possible version of the story onto the page so I was happy to let her lead the charge on that.
"I didn’t want this world to be populated by just humans or humanoid type characters…if you have a magical supernatural world, why should it just be focused on them when you have this massive sandbox?"
CBY: What’s your favorite moment from either book?
SC: That being said, for ParaNorthern, one of my favourite moments happens early on in the book (and you touched on it previously!); Abby helps her mom run a café and while she’s serving a line of customers, her pumpkinhead friend Silas, comes in and makes a bit of a scene about a Pumpkin Spice Latte. Mari really nailed the expressions and the comedic timing and I just love it.
CBY: In comics, you can clearly see when a creator is tapping into their influences. What are your influences in writing a YA-MG book?
SC: I mean, I am still writing comics. Just because they’re not serialized doesn’t mean that they’re not comics. Sequential storytelling has many different forms and can be told in countless ways. That being said, Lumberjanes, Cucumber Quest, Fake Blood, The Okay Witch, and other graphic novels are big influences. Noelle Stevenson, Raina Telgemeier, Whitney Gardner, Gigi DG, and more are all people I admire greatly! I also watch a lot of animated TV and have loved Gravity Falls, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Amphibia.
I consume a lot of different media across numerous mediums to constantly find new inspiration and things that bring me joy.
CBY: So keeping some of your childhood is the biggest influence? ☺
SC: Yes! I suppose so! I don’t think it’s always a conscious decision to keep up with content aimed towards a younger audience, I just happen to like those stories a lot. It’s a happy coincidence that I write for that age range though so I guess I can call it “research.”
CBY: Most people have a basic sense of how to pitch a comic book idea: a plot or summary along with a few sample art pages. How do you pitch a book like Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern?
SC: It’s a similar process. Editors in the comic book industry and the book market still need for you to be able to show that you have a solid story, know the direction of where it’s all going, have characters with emotional arcs, and more. Plus sample scripts, concept art (if you have it) and chapter breakdowns help to really sell your story. But unlike in the comic industry, I have an agent that advocates for me and puts my works in front of an editor.
I developed this Pitch Outline Template for Creator Resource and it’s based on what I more or less use for my own pitches: https://www.creatorresource.com/pitching-your-comic-book-pitch-outline-template/
CBY: So you have an agent. Does the rest of your creative team? Do you all share an agent or do they “hitch a ride” with your agent?
SC: Yes, typically to work in the book market, you need an agent to negotiate your contracts and deals. You can sometimes get a book or work there without one, but it’s definitely not in your best interest to try to navigate it without an advocate who knows the ins and outs.
Agents work off of a percentage of what they negotiate for you. It’s never in an agent’s best interest to let someone “hitch a ride.” Agents bring on clients that they feel are able to get steady work, have the drive to get their projects done, and to seek out more work after. Juliana Moon and Insha Fitzpatrick are both also signed with my agent which started from our Oh My Gods! deal. But they both have a plethora of their own ideas and projects that they bring to the table and our agent helps them with those too. In the same way that she helps me with my projects.
I pitch as a solo writer from time to time when I don’t have a specific artist in mind for a project, and if it gets picked up, the publisher will pair me up with an artist. That artist usually has their own representation that helps them negotiate and navigate their contracts.
CBY: I know you have a second book for Oh My Gods! coming soon, can you give us a sliver of what it’s about and what else we can expect in 2021?
SC: Sure! The second OMGs hits shelves in April 2022. It starts right where the first book leaves off and Karen and her newfound friends find a maze in the basement of Mt. Olympus Junior High. They set off to find a missing person that could be trapped within…and they hope to discover the mysterious figure that resides at the center of the maze who has been crashing a video game that Karen has been playing with her friends back home.
It’s a lot of fun and we got to add in some characters that we decided to hold off on in the first book. So there are familiar faces but new ones too!
So currently in 2021, the first Oh My Gods! came out, and now ParaNorthern. But I also have a project called LIFE that just wrapped up on Kickstarter. If you missed it, you can check out tocomix.com to learn more, but it’s David Attenborough’s Planet Earth meets James Cameron’s Avatar. It was a series of short silent comics that Megan Huang and I did as back-ups in Tartarus at Image Comics. We collected them into a graphic novel and Kickstarted it with the help of TO Comix.
CBY: Some people never grow up. For Stephanie Cooke, her connection to her inner child is paying off. But she isn’t all young reader graphic novels, she’s been known to “adult” as well. She is always hopping with new projects. You can check either side of her through the links below.
A place for all creatives: https://twitter.com/CreatorResource
A podcast on well-known and little-known movie heists: https://twitter.com/CaperCastPod