During a 2017 visit to his parents, who were still living in his childhood home, Andrew Arnold drew a doodle of a boy with black scribbles over his head, and the idea for What’s the Matter, Marlo? was born. It’s the story of a boy who is overwhelmed by grief and angrily rebuffs his best friend Coco’s attempts to find out what’s wrong. Arnold, whose “day job” is founder and editorial director of HarperAlley, HarperCollins Children’s Books’ graphic novel imprint, and is co-creator of the Adventures in Cartooning series, is now prepping for a new set of arrivals: a follow-up picture book about the anxiety of asking “stupid” questions, a new entry in the cartooning series on world-building, and, in March, his first child.

So, it all started with a doodle—what else can you tell us about it and the book’s backstory?

I liked the juxtaposition of the scribble over his head—there was something about the scribble that said so much without having to say a lot. The character’s expression, the way his shoulders were positioned—I started thinking about what it was like being a kid and talking about my feelings, how it’s hard to do: “Hey, you’re a guy, be a tough guy.”

And I thought about the friendships in the past that were there for me and helped me through those moments when I didn’t really know what I was feeling. When someone is angry and you don’t know what to do, it’s kind of scary. There’s this scene where Coco is in a sea of black. Ultimately, she resolves to stick with it and be there. She doesn’t solve the problem, she’s just there.

My mom was a guidance counselor in elementary school, and just having her in my life was important—she always wanted me to talk about my feelings: “Andrew, don’t keep it all bottled up, you have to talk about it.” But I always struggled with it. I think it was about admitting that the thing was real, that it was really happening.

I did show my mom a draft. There was something about the first version that she really wasn’t loving. She wanted there to be more substance. She was not afraid to tell me how she felt. That really did play a role in rethinking what it meant to be angry.

How is making a picture book by yourself different from your collaborative work with James Sturm and Alexis Frederick-Frost in the Adventures in Cartooning series?

I love collaboration—that’s one of the reasons I have a day job. But working on my own, I feel a different connection to the book, and it’s been awesome. I did share a draft with James and Alexis at different stages to get their feedback and criticism. So even though we weren’t working together, I was lucky to have their input.

The book does have graphic novel elements, in that there are panels and word balloons, but there aren’t four panels on the page. When you don’t have as much real estate, it’s a different way of thinking. The challenge is how can you fit everything into a satisfying story that will resonate with the reader. You really have to pare things down to the essentials.

How did your job as an editorial director impact your creative process? Did you have to compartmentalize?

It can be a good thing and a bad thing. I can’t help incorporating the things and knowledge I’ve gained—“What are sales and marketing going to think of this?” I did have to take a step back and think about what it means to me personally, putting aside what I think as an editor or art director.

It also means getting up very early and staying up very late. So there’s that, obviously.

2020 was a hard year for kids in so many ways. Based on what you learned from working on What’s the Matter, Marlo?, do you have any advice to help them hang in there until better times arrive?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep the lines of communication open with the youngest of kiddos. Keep the dialogue going about how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their heads. And give people space when they need it: I have a one-bedroom apartment with my wife, and we’ve felt pretty cooped up. I think it’s being mindful to say, “I need 10 minutes to take time for myself.”

I hope Marlo starts up the conversation about what it means to talk through these tough moments.

What’s the Matter, Marlo? by Andrew Arnold. Roaring Brook, $18.99 Jan. 26 ISBN 978-1-250-22323-4