Friday, May 23, 2014

"Zita the Spacegirl" Author/Artist Ben Hatke Wows the Crowd

Graphic novelist Ben Hatke is a sprite of a man, and sprightly too, constantly in motion as he talks and shares his love of comics with young fans. He certainly wowed the crowd of 75-plus kids and adults who came to my library the other night to hear him talk about the latest book in his best-selling Zita the Spacegirl series. (We're lucky to have a partnership with Politics & Prose, the well-known Washington, D.C. independent bookstore; the partnership allows us to host well-known authors and artists like Hatke a our library, while P&P gets to sell books at the events to anyone who wishes to purchase them).

Hatke clearly revels in speaking to kids about comics and drawing and making stories. He began by giving the excited crowd a short, dynamic lesson in the mechanics of comics, and why he loves them. It was a bit like taking Scott McLeod's masterful teen/adult book Understanding Comics, pulling out the key tenets, and then presenting them in a way that was both entertaining and educational for school-age kids. Kids listened intently as Hatke drew and talked about things like the way comics "play on things our brain likes to do, like making connections" as we move from one panel to the next.  Everyone laughed as Hatke illustrated the way comics show time; he drew three panels, the first showing a bunny whistling as she sets out at sunrise one day, the second showing her sweating in the heat of the noonday sun beating down on her, and the third showing her totally spent under the light of the moon.
Hatke draws for the crowd.

Kids also got a real kick out of the way Hatke detailed his love for using body language to carry parts of his stories. To show what he meant, Hatke drew a character who looked mildly grumpy and who had a thought bubble over his head that read "I am angry!" Then Hatke drew a second character who entire body was contorted with rage and whose thought bubble read "Who stepped on my cheeseburger?!" As Hatke noted: "I use the idea of body language to show as much as I can of how the characters feel. It's a way to make the words and the pictures really work together."

Hatke said he's always been drawing, and always been interested in stories, "all kinds of stories -- chapter books, picture books and, of course, comics." Interestingly, Hatke said it was his wife who had the initial idea for the Zita books: Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and the just-published The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (First Second, $17.99 hardback, $12.99 paperback, ages 5-12). "When I was in college, I met a really cute girl" who had created the character of Zita the spacegirl, Hatke said. "I thought I'd try to impress her by developing the character. It worked -- she married me!"

Some young fans at my library pose with Zita the Spacegirl.

Asked by a young audience member why he chose to make the main character a girl, Hatke said that while "I don't really think a lot about that, I do have four daughters and I grew up with two sisters. So I've been around girls having adventures." Of course, audience members wanted to know whether Hatke plans more Zita books. "Probably. But right now I'm working on some other books." Hatke added that "Zita will be older when we next see her," noting that he's thinking of have her "age in real time," so that if the next Zita book comes out five years from now, she'll be five years older. The final sketch in The Return of Zita the Spacegirl gives a hint of that, contrasting a teen-age Zita with the familiar younger version.

Meanwhile, Hatke is having fun trying out something new -- a picture book. Using our library's ELMO (a type of overhead projector), Hatke gave the crowd an early look at Julia's House for Lost Creatures (ages 4-8), which will be published by First Second in early September. Hatke's whimsy works well in the picture book form, as he tells the story of a girl who lives in a "walking house" and welcomes all kinds of creatures who need a home. As more and more creatures pile into the house, however, things get chaotic until Julia figures out a solution that works for everyone. Hatke also previewed the book he's working on now ("Maybe the best thing I've ever done") about a "little girl and a robot and a friendship that develops over the summer").


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