The garbage dump may seem like an unlikely setting for adventure—but in Wes Hargis’s Down in the Dumps series of illustrated chapter books, a landfill offers a whole world of possibility. And the characters, which include a rotten banana and a broken tea kettle, could not be more appropriate for the circumstances. The middle grade series, part of the HarperChapters line of early chapter books, kicks off with The Mystery Box. In the first book, a teddy bear still wrapped in his gift box arrives at the dump, and the residents of the landfill must work together to get him back to his rightful owner.
What was the inspiration behind the Down in the Dumps series? How would you describe your characters?
I worked with my editor to develop characters who live in a place we hardly think about, the local landfill. We all have one. It’s a very very nasty place that you avoid as much as you can. But we all add little pieces to it every day. I saw it had so much potential for stories and fun characters. Who lives there? What’s their morning routine like? What do kinds of trash do with their trash? The idea seemed so fun to explore.
The main characters are Nana, a dried-up banana, and her friends Ms. Kettle, a broken toy tea kettle, and Moreland, a blob of goo. Their uniqueness starts with them being thrown away. What's it like to be trash? They don’t feel that way at all. Their home is now the dump and they are swimming in it. It’s been a pleasure to write for them because their perspective comes from such an interesting place... a small world of goopyness that is far away from our tidy, manicured perspectives.
Can you talk about designing the characters? How many drafts does it typically take before you know you got them “just right”?
Good question. I go through a few days drawing multiple versions of the characters until something “sticks.” Sometimes it’s just the eyes or an expression. I then delete everything except that piece and fill up the page using those items as references. I do this over and over. I then send the character drawings to my editors, who might see something I don’t. For example, I was drawing the tea lid on Ms. Kettle so big that she began to look like a pelican!
From your perspective, how do HarperChapters titles set readers up for success?
I think they are fantastic for encouraging new readers to take a step into the "scary" bigger chapter books that kids see their older brothers and sisters reading. Words of encouragement remind young readers all the way along that they are really doing it. They are reading! See, it’s not that hard... and it’s fun! I’ve had so much great writing support to help me keep that in mind.
How do you think you so successfully tap into what makes young readers laugh?
I always try to “draw funny." I know it’s a simple idea, but if I can see the scene in my head and it makes me giggle, I start there. The absurdity of the dump writes itself sometimes, so that helps tremendously.
What do you hope readers ultimately take away from reading the Down in the Dumps series?
Even though the story takes place in a dump, there are universal themes of friendship, loyalty, and character. These assist me, with the help of Nana and her friends, to invite young readers into an engaging place they'll want to visit. Nana is a fighter. She’s a positive thinker who makes the best of her impossibly dirty little world, and I hope readers will root for her and her friends.