A book-loving boy from the small Oklahoma town of Americus grapples with the travails of high school and takes a stand when it looks as though his favorite fantasy series, starring a young sorceress who hunts monsters and tyrants, might be banned from the local library. That’s the storyline of Americus, written by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill, due from Roaring Brook’s First Second Books in fall 2011. This graphic novel is making an earlier, serialized appearance on the Web, where new installments have been posted three times a week since early June. Given the theme of the book, the publisher plans an online promotion to tie in with Banned Books Week, which this year takes place September 25-October 2. Here’s how the book—and the serialization—came to be.
The inspiration for the story came to MK Reed, who is a comics artist as well as a writer, in the mid-2000s. “I had been reading stories about all these challenged books—including Harry Potter—and the idea of trying to stop kids from getting into reading just seemed so ridiculous to me,” she recalls. “So Americus took off from there.” Her own adolescence also came into play. “I remembered how my own high-school experience was super awful—not necessarily traumatic, but difficult at the time—and how I escaped through books as a way of getting through it.”
Reed pitched her story idea to Greg Means, whose Tugboat Press publishes the Papercutter series of paperback anthologies showcasing the work of comic book artists. Means, who is also a librarian, liked what he heard, and suggested Hill as a possible illustrator. The author says that she “fell in love with Jonathan’s artwork immediately—it was perfect. Greg and I whipped the script into shape and then Jonathan just went with it and nailed it at each point.” The first chapter of Americus made its debut in Papercutter #7 in 2008 and received the comics industry’s Ignatz Award.
That chapter caught the eye of First Second editor Calista Brill, who was pleased to learn that Reed was interested in expanding the story into a graphic novel. “I was impressed with how charming the story was, and also with MK’s personable tone,” she says. “As a writer of teenage characters she is spot-on and has a way of capturing the tiny agonies and triumphs that seem so enormous when kids are 14.”
The editor deemed Hill’s art an ideal match for Americus’s plot. “The book is cartoony enough to be accessible yet sophisticated in terms of its emotional storytelling, which is a great combination,” she observes (see below for an excerpt). She also was drawn to the dual nature of the novel’s art, which portrays the teen’s tale as well as portions of his beloved series, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde: The Huntress Wytch. “The sophisticated comics reader in me loves the story of the boy and other Americus residents mobilizing against censorship, and the fantasy nerd in me loves the Chronicles of Apathea portions, which Jonathan did in a very different, high-fantasy cartooning style,” Brill notes.
The online serialization of Americus, which will wrap up shortly before the book’s publication, is part of an initiative that the publisher has launched this year, beginning in January with Web installments of Sailor Twain: Or the Mermaid in the Hudson, a graphic novel for adults by First Second’s editorial director Mark Siegel, which will be released in book format in 2012.
“Our expectation is that these Web comics will create significant readership for and awareness of a book in advance of publication,” says Brill. “We have not jumped into this precipitously, but we will select books, perhaps one a season or one a year, to serialize on the Web that we believe will flourish in this format. We’ve watched the Web comics world develop at an incredible clip and Americus is perfect for it, since it is a fun story that has a lot to say about literacy, censorship, and the importance of books for teens.”
First Second is currently finalizing plans for the content it will post on the Americus Web site tying into Banned Books Week. “We are looking to line up some heavy hitters—perhaps authors and literacy advocates—to do guest blog posts, and we’ll have book giveaways and some other events,” Brill says. “We want to spread the word about Banned Books Week and modern censorship issues. I think that often the perception of the broader reading public is that censorship is a problem of the past, but it still happens all the time. We want to build as much awareness about banned books as we can.”
It is a cause Reed is happy to support. “I am really excited about bringing attention to Banned Book Week through the Web site,” she says. “Americus is more political than anything else I’ve ever written, which definitely makes it very rewarding.”
And might she and Hill collaborate on another project in the future? “Maybe. I just have to write another book for him to illustrate,” the author says with a laugh. “That’s all!”