Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series has engaged reluctant readers with its hybrid of text and illustrations since the first book was released in 2012. The author-illustrator has stayed plenty busy since then, releasing 10 volumes with an 11th coming this winter (The Frozen Menace, Jan. 2016). Vernon also has a new series debuting this month, Hamster Princess, starting with Harriet the Invincible, and her first standalone novel, Castle Hangnail, pubbed this past April. PW spoke with Vernon from her North Carolina home about her creative process, her forthcoming tour, where she'll be joined by fellow middle grade fairy tale retellers M.A. Larson and Rob Harrell, and what her preferred noble steed would be.
What inspired the jump from dragons to hamsters?
I’ve been an artist for many years, and one thing I doodle a lot is hamsters. Originally I doodled lizards, which turned into dragons. But I knew that since I’d have to draw 150 per book, I knew I could draw hamsters rapidly and wouldn’t get sick of them right away.
Harriet the Invincible is a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but one with a stronger female protagonist. Did you feel this fairy tale in particular needed a new angle on it?
Yes. Sleeping Beauty takes the cake for absolutely nothing going on for the female protagonist. I’ve seen arguments that the heroes are the fairy godmothers, but I wanted to do something with the story, and something about the joke of the spinning wheel and the hamster wheel appealed to me. I thought it would be cute to see.
In your book, hamsters are particularly good at fractions and checkers, and princesses are supposed to be good at looking ethereal and sighing a lot. Do you have any special skills beyond writing and illustrating books?
I’m good at identifying moths that come to the porch light. I’m not that good at it, but it’s a hobby. I garden a lot, I’m not that good but I like it.
The preferred steed of hamsters in Harriet the Invincible is a quail. What would yours be?
There’s a lot to be said for quail. I used to live in the Southwest, and they’re so adorable with their little top knots. I would not turn down a battle quail.
Do you have plans to address other fairy tales in future volumes?
Absolutely. The second one is done, [a retelling of] The Twelve Dancing Princesses, who are going to be 12 dancing mouse princesses. First, Harriet has to determine if they want the curse broken, because she liked her curse, and then the mouse king shows up, and it gets a little stranger after that….
You’ve mostly done comics and highly illustrated novels. How did your middle grade novel Castle Hangnail come about?
Honestly, my drawing hand needed a break. I’d been having ideas for longer things, [and] I sat down and hammered out the first 5,000 words and sent it in. They liked it, so I kept going. There’s a lot you can do with pictures that you can’t do with words, but words are faster – you can write a description much faster than you can draw it.
What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Do you write first and draw later? Or vice versa? Was the process different for the Dragonbreath and Princess Hamster books than for Castle Hangnail?
I always write first and draw later; if the story changes and the editor comes back saying, “No, no, this won’t work,” you don’t want to waste drawings. I produce a script that’s almost like a screenplay. I add notes like “illustration here.” The editor, art director, and I have been getting good at reading each other’s shorthand. I live in fear of them getting another job. I outline a little but it’s more like I write a synopsis – I aim myself in that direction and keep going. What usually saves me is a breadcrumb I dropped that later becomes useful.
It then goes to my editor, who says “This works, this doesn’t work, no I’m not letting you get away with that,” and I create a reasonably finished script that’s copyedited before I get drawing. I’ve got it down now, I know that by 10,000 words, I need to be getting to the climax, and by 15,000 I need to start wrapping it up. When I see a lot of text, I know I need to add an illustration here. Generally I’m a seat of the pants kind of writer, and I hope I can pull it all together at the end.
You have a lot of projects in the works right now. How do you keep it all straight?
I just finished the 11th Dragonbreath book. I’m working on another novel like Castle Hangnail; the working title is Illuminations. It’s a different sort of world – there are talking crows, paintings coming to life. I’m having fun with it. And I’m working on the next Hamster Princess. I have a lot of irons in the fire; I open one file, write 500 words, open the next file, write 500 words. I need to do 1,000 words a day and two illustrations or the whole system collapses.
Kids love the comic hybrids. I get fan mail every week saying, “My kids won’t read, but they read Dragonbreath, please write more!” They are a lot of work, though. I like the standalones because they’re different, and they’re a different sort of challenge. But I don’t think I could ever abandon the hybrids because they help a lot of people.
Can you talk a bit about your fall group tour?
All the authors who are going all write about fairy tales, so we’re trying to put together a presentation on writing fairy tales and where they come from. You can usually get the kids telling you what their favorite fairy tales are. When I do a book tour, it’s usually about storytelling; we do an interactive story activity – I’ll ask “what’s your favorite monster?” Then the monster comes to the school, and kids being kids, they usually destroy the school, then the valiant librarian comes in and saves the day. They’re very high-energy presentations.
How did you get started writing for kids?
I always thought I couldn’t write for them. I have a weird sense of humor. But I had been doing a lot of art and weird little stories, and my agent saw a painting of mine and said: “This looks likes a children’s book, can you do one?” So I went away and wrote one and she sold it. So it worked out.
I love writing for children, there are lots of things you can’t do in an adult book. They’d look at you and go, “What are you thinking?”
Many of your books are aimed at middle-grade readers. What draws you to write for this age range? Do you have plans for projects for different age ranges in the future?
It’s where my voice naturally falls, and that has occasionally gotten me in trouble, when the subject matter I write is a bit older than the voice. Part of me is a bit of a frustrated horror writer. I do write for adults under a pen name.
Hamster Princess #1: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon. Dial, $12.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-8037-3983-3