Australian author and illustrator Remy Lai has previously published two illustrated novels, Pie in the Sky and Fly on the Wall. Her first graphic novel, Pawcasso, is about an inquisitive girl who decides to follow a photogenic dog carrying a basket into town and is mistaken for the dog’s owner. The incident sets off a series of misunderstandings and offers a lesson in allowing people into our hearts. PW spoke with Lai about writing relatable young characters, her experience as an Australian author writing for an American audience, and the inspiration behind her poop-rolling canine character.
Each of your books so far has traced an emotional journey about coming into one’s own. There’s also a lot of heart that grounds the comedy and thoughtfully captures the perspectives of younger children. What’s your secret to writing such fleshed-out characters?
It’s easy for me to get into the mindset of a kid. I can remember very vividly the feelings and thoughts I had as a child. Maybe because I was a rather introspective child, and I kept journals from time to time, writing something down helps to imprint it in my mind. Years later, I still remember many things my childhood friends have long forgotten.
And despite the fact that I now occasionally do adulting like paying my taxes and eating broccoli, I think a big part of me never really grew up, and I can be astonishingly immature. I never outgrew kids' shows and books—SpongeBob SquarePants, Bluey, and Dog Man are some of my favorites. Immersing yourself in kids' media can only help an author in capturing the world of a child.
How has your experience as an Australian author impacted your work in the U.S.? Are there any challenges you didn’t realize you had to overcome?
The rest of the world generally keeps up with American news headlines, because what happens there affects many countries, and I’ve been paying closer attention since I got published there. But as a third—or fourth—culture kid, I’ve always consumed books and films from many countries, including a lot of American media. Regarding things specific to publishing, I trust my American editor Brian [Geffen] to guide me if there’s something I need to re-think for an American audience. I also try to keep up with the conversations about publishing in America.
You give a shout-out at the end of the book to your dog, Poop Roller, who was the inspiration for Pawcasso. Were there any other inspirations or funny quirks that you enjoyed putting into the book, or any that didn’t make the final cut?
Pawcasso is heavily inspired by my dog, Poop Roller, whose special skill is rolling in poop. The day I find out why dogs love to roll in poop so much… well, my work here is done [laughs]. Some say it’s to hide their scent from prey or predator, but I suspect my dog secretly loves the attention he gets from a bath and blow-dry. And that made it into the book, when Pawcasso prances around after his bubbly spaw session.
Pawcasso’s su-paw-model talent is my dog’s. Poop Roller is just gorgeous and ridiculously photogenic. Strangers compliment him all the time, including that statement in the opening chapter when someone calls Pawcasso a “painted dog.”
Pawcasso is also similar to my dog in the way that he’s friendly to everyone but isn’t one of those dogs who get overly excited with stranger—unless they have food.
And Poop Roller often sleeps on his back, exactly the way Pawcasso does in the book. When my friend, also a dog owner, saw Poop Roller like this for the first time, they thought he was dead.
I especially enjoyed drawing the panels where Pawcasso’s face looks a bit wonky because his snout is smushed on one side after sleeping on that side, or when his lip is caught in his teeth.
A scene I loved that ended up on the cutting floor is when Jo tries to find out who Pawcasso’s owner is. She ties a bag of bread crumbs to his collar à la Hansel and Gretel. She follows the trail, only to meet Pawcasso backtracking and hoovering up that very trail. Pawcasso and my dog are gluttons.
Are you working on any more middle grade graphic novels? Or have you thought about trying your hand at a different genre altogether?
My young reader graphic novel series Surviving the Wild comes out in 2022. There are three books, and they’re about animals trying to survive after their environments have been altered by humans. I also have a contemporary fantasy middle grade graphic novel coming out in 2023.
I’m very lucky that my editor and publisher support these different projects that allow me to grow as an author and illustrator. I’d love to try my hand at other formats, but for now, I really want to explore all the different genres in the graphic novel format.
Pawcasso by Remy Lai. Henry Holt, $21.99 May 25 ISBN 978-1-250-77448-4