Author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka is best known for his picture books, including Punk Farm and Max for President. His latest books are a bit of a departure, and are his first foray into the comic/graphic novel format. Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute and Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians will be published simultaneously by Knopf. Bookshelf caught up with Krosoczka to find out about his latest projects, and whether or not he has a “thing” for any lunch ladies in particular.
According to the several fake bios on your Web site, you are a former child-actor, a rock star in Japan and a super secret agent spy. Does your ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes help you at all as an illustrator?
It does, I’ll keep them at bay for this interview though. What’s funny is that an old Web site of mine just had one fake bio, and everyone went crazy for it. So when I made the new Web site, I thought I just need to make this one even more absurd. But now kids will ask questions in regards to these fake bios, and I have to stop and think, “What did I say?”
Maybe we’ll stick to your real bio, just to make things easier.
That’s probably a good idea.
You’ve described yourself as “a goofy kid who liked to draw.” What were some of your influences as a kid?
I loved Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday comics. I loved The Smurfs—I was such a fan. I would cut out my favorite comic strips, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, and I would literally cut and paste them in an album. I also loved books like The Mouse and the Motorcycle and James and the Giant Peach. I loved that absurdist goofy humor, and I wanted to create stories in the vein. I was raised by my grandparents and they always made sure that I had a pencil and some paper, whether we were in the car or at a restaurant. While they were enjoying a nice meal, I would be sitting there drawing funny pictures of the waitress.
How did you decide to focus on children’s books? What drew you to picture books specifically?
When I was in sixth grade, they slashed the budgets for all of our school art programs, so my grandparents enrolled me in art classes at Worcester Art Museum, which I attended from sixthto 12th grade. At the time, I was all about being an animator. In eighth grade I actually pitched a comic to a national syndicate and was rejected. I was also the cartoonist for school newspaper. Then, one day, my art teacher brought in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer. I just fell in love with those books.
I had never looked at picture books as an artistic endeavor. But I realized that these books are cool, and can sit on bookshelf in a kid’s room and be passed down for generations. The comics I had been working on were, for lack of a better word, disposable. So I signed up for every writing class at the Rhode Island School of Design, including a picture book class. It was the class I’d been waiting for. I wrote something in that class called “Hello, Said the Slug,” which later became my book My Buddy, Slug.
Your new books have a “lunch lady” as the main character. Are there any memorable lunch ladies in your past?
In November 2001, I visited my old elementary school to talk to the kids about getting my book published. While I was there I ran into our old lunch lady, Jeannie. Everyone loved Jeannie, but I had no expectations she would have any idea who I was. She looked me up and down for the minute, and then said “Stephen Krosoczka?” So first of all I was amazed that she even knew that I was a Krosoczka, and amazed even more because she thought I was my Uncle Stephen, who was at that school a good 20 years before I was! We started talking and she mentioned her grandkids, and I was just suddenly shocked that she had a life. I really had to take a step back and process this new information.
You realized she wasn’t just a lunch lady…
Exactly. I suddenly had this image of her at home opening birthday presents and having kids call her Grandma. From there, I started writing a picture book about kids who wonder what their lunch lady does when she’s not a lunch lady. I had them imagining various occupations, one of which was fighting crime. It slowly became apparent that the crime fighting was the most interesting story, but didn’t fit into a picture book.
So you began writing Lunch Lady as a graphic novel? How did you decide to work in that format?
Well, I actually started writing it as a chapter book. But after writing one chapter, I realized that a lot of the humor comes from the images, so I scrapped the chapter book idea. Then I was approached by a television producer who asked if I had any ideas for a cartoon series. I brought Lunch Lady back out and wrote a sort of “show bible” for it. The television show didn’t end up happening, but the process taught me several things about the story—it really defined what the rules would be. It also helped me introduce the three students who would be privy to Lunch Lady’s secret, and I think they are just so important to the story.
How did it end up as a graphic novel?
Around that time I was also working on a project, the anthology Guys Write for Guys Read, which called for me to rediscover what types of art I had enjoyed as a child. I went through my mother’s attic and found the artwork I had done, pretty much from preschool all the way through college, and realized that most of it was in comic book format. That was really all I had ever wanted to do. So I put together a pitch with Lunch Lady as a graphic novel and sent it to Michelle Frey at Knopf, and she loved it. Professionally, this is a new endeavor, but creatively, it’s really getting back to my roots.
Will the Lunch Lady books be a series? Did you know that would be the case when you were writing?
It was my hope and my publisher’s idea to make the books a series. The first two titles were picked up at the same time. Just as I was finishing up the first book, they picked up the third and fourth books. The third title will be released on December 22, which is my birthday. What are the chances?!
It's six months early, but happy birthday!
This lunch lady has her own Twitter account. How did that come about?
Yes, she is tweeting. I have always embraced technology, not just to promote my books, but to enhance the reading. When Punk Farm came out, there was this new thing called MySpace. At the time, late 2004, MySpace was still a lot of indie bands, which I thought was perfect for Punk Farm. Now, with this new thing called Twitter, here’s something where Lunch Lady can throw out quips in 140 characters or less. A lot of the humor in the books comes from her bizarre sayings. Now people can eavesdrop on her grumblings about what’s for lunch today. She also might be tweeting about certain adventures in the books as the books are released.
In your book Punk Farm, the animal characters sing a punk-rock version of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” You’ve recorded a version of the song and have it available for free download on your Web site. What kind of feedback have you had?
Awesome feedback. When I was finishing the artwork for Punk Farm, I approached the editor about the possibility of the book coming with a CD. But when a book comes with a CD, it costs more money, and no one wanted to take the risk of the book failing because it was more expensive. Instead, I produced a song with some friends, and we put the song online for download. What I wasn’t expecting was how many people would go from song to book instead of the other way around. Educators and librarians can use the song as tool to bring deeper understand of the story to kids. They can play the song to get kids hyped up. It’s funny, if you go to YouTube, you can see videos of kids’ fan tributes to Punk Farm, like little kids in bathrobes and air guitars.
Speaking of Punk Farm, a few years ago DreamWorks Animation announced that it would adapt Punk Farm into a film. What is the progress on that?
What happened was that DreamWorks acquired the rights to Punk Farm in March 2006. Then, in early 2007, their entire business model shifted toward 3D. They didn’t see Punk Farm as a 3D film, so they passed on the project. Luckily, the turnaround time is coming up and we have a few different producers who might be interested.
What projects are next for you?
I’m so excited to finally be able to talk about this because it was just made public, but Universal just optioned Lunch Ladywith Amy Poehler. I’m a client of the Gotham Group, and Eddie Gamarra along with Ellen Goldsmith-Vein asked me to make a wish-list of actresses to play the lunch lady. Amy Poehler was at the top of that list. Amy read the book on a Tuesday night and called Wednesday morning and asked, “How do we make this happen?” She is also going to be an executive producer on the film.
How involved will you be in the movie?
I am a co-producer, so I’ll read the scripts that come along. I would really like to be part of the whole process. This is such a group effort, needless to say. I have very high hopes for the movie. Everyone in the Krosoczka household has been bouncing off the walls.
Any plans for upcoming books?
I have plenty of ideas for more Lunch Lady books, but I’m also not forgetting my career as a picture book author and illustrator. I would like “picture book” Jarrett and “comic book” Jarrett to be on parallel tracks. I have signed a contract for my next picture book, and I’m eager to work on that.
Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf, $5.99 ISBN 978-0-375-84683-0
Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf, $5.99 ISBN 978-0-375-84684-7