The author of popular series starring Scaredy Squirrel and Chester the cat, Mélanie Watt showcases a considerably smaller creature in Bug in a Vacuum, due out next month from Tundra Books. The premise is not exactly standard picture-book fare: a bug’s life changes with a click of a switch when he flies through an open door and is sucked into a vacuum cleaner bag. Trapped in the darkness, he moves through denial, bargaining, anger, despair, and acceptance as he comes to terms with his uncertain fate.
The author hatched the story idea while spring-cleaning her Montreal home. “I realized I had vacuumed a few bugs, and I began trying to put myself in their place,” she recalled. “I figured they must still be alive in the bag and began wondering what was happening to them – and if they were upset in there. I ended up emptying that bag right away for sure!”
As authors are wont to do, Watt decided to turn that quotidian incident into a story – and was inspired to use Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief as a model. “I wanted to introduce those different emotions without being too dark, which was a real challenge for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to focus necessarily on grief or death, but to use the concept to make it relatable to kids, and show them how to deal with life’s challenges or surprises – like the bug who finds himself in a vacuum.”
“This is definitely a departure for me,” said Watt of her latest work. “It took me in a totally different direction.” That comment was echoed by Tara Walker, publisher of children’s books at Penguin Random House Canada (of which Tundra is an imprint), who has been Watt’s editor for some 15 years, initially at Kids Can Press. “Mélanie and I grew up in publishing together, and I know that she’s an author and illustrator who continually pushes the envelope,” she noted. “I know that with every book, she is going to do something she’s never done before, and that’s why I love working with her.”
Although Watt and Walker discussed the author’s idea for Bug in a Vacuum a decade ago, the project was put on the back burner when the author launched a series about the endearing worrywart Scaredy Squirrel in 2006. “This is a book with darker themes than Mélanie’s previous books,” observed the editor. “Yet it’s also hilarious, and is emotionally rich and clever. It is a really moving expression of the journey that we all undertake when life throws us something entirely unexpected.”
In what Walker called “Mélanie’s most artistically ambitious work yet,” Watt took her art in a new direction in Bug in a Vacuum, which she created with various media and assembled in Photoshop. “I like to challenge myself and do something visually different with each book or series,” she said. “My new book has a different look than the others, and is loaded with different textures. My files were so big that the project really strained my computer.”
Watt is gratified to see Bug in a Vacuum in print at last. “The actual making of this book took more than a year, but my initial idea for it dates back quite a long time,” she remarked. “When you have characters like Scaredy Squirrel and Chester that people want you to continue with, you tend to hold off on new kinds of books. But I’m very happy that this was the right time for me to do my bug book.”
Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt. Tundra Books, $21.99 Aug. 25 ISBN 978-1-77049-645-3