Brothers Jarrett (l.) and Jerome Pumphrey have collaborated on a number of picture books, including their 2020 debut as author-illustrators, The Old Truck, which earned them a Flying Start from PW. Their new book, Heroes by a Hair, launches their first middle grade series, Link + Hud, starring two brothers with what grown-ups call “active imaginations.” The series blends prose and graphic novel elements as it follows the boys’ shenanigans. We asked the Pumphreys to discuss their creative process and the autobiographical elements in their new book.
Jarrett Pumphrey: So let’s talk Link + Hud. Did you ever think we’d write a book about two brothers?
Jerome Pumphrey: Not until Simon [Simon Boughton, our editor] mentioned it.
Jarrett: Me neither. After he asked us, though, it was like, “Duh, we’re brothers and we make books together. Of course we should make a book about brothers together!”
Jerome: Yeah, Simon is smart.
Jarrett: He is. This book is a lot of firsts for us: our first novel, our first graphic novel, our first hybrid book, our first long-form project, our first middle grade, our first series debut. Seeing as neither of us had any idea what we were doing, when did you actually believe we could pull it off? Because I still feel like I’m winging it a little bit. LOL.
Jerome: Haha. I know what you mean. It felt like we had it figured out when we finally landed on a format. I remember us talking a lot about how we wanted to make the book. Would we each write a brother? Maybe alternate chapters? How would we make the art? Printmaking, like our picture books, or some other way? Would it be straight prose? Graphic novel? Something else? We answered some of those questions faster than others, but eventually landed on you doing the writing and me doing the drawing. We’d do a mix of comic panels and illustrated prose based on some strict rules we put in place: panels would always be the brothers’ shared imagined world, prose would always be the real world. And we’d pull heavily from our own childhood for the story.
Jarrett: Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s when things started to fall into place. I remember we fleshed out the first few chapters—one graphic novel chapter and a couple prose chapters—to show Simon how we thought the book could work, how the graphic novel chapters would transition to the prose chapters, how the boys’ imaginations would collide with reality. He really liked it. I remember he said, “There’s a picture book sensibility to it.” I think that’s when I knew we were at least on the right track. We just had to do that, like, 10 more times and we’d have a finished book!
By the way, did you get your finished copies yet?
Jerome: They just arrived. The book turned out great.
Jarrett: Isn’t it awesome? The team at Norton did an amazing job. Let’s talk a little bit about the story in the book. Link and Hud Dupré are brothers, like us. They have active imaginations that tend to spill over into the real world, also like us. Their parents are trying to run two businesses and raise a family, so they hire various young babysitters from the neighborhood to watch the boys, just like our parents did. But the boys are too much for these sitters to handle, just like we were. So their parents bring in someone more seasoned: Ms. Joyce, old school and no-nonsense, just like the real Ms. Joyce was. The boys don’t like her or her rules, so they set out to get her fired. Just like we—wait, did we write an autobiography? LOL.
Jerome: Haha. Sounds like it when you lay it out like that, but we did change a few things. Dad was a dentist, not a podiatrist like Dr. Dupré. He was just as much the serial entrepreneur, though. He really did invent a Black hair-care line called Au Salon that he never could sell. And though Ms. Joyce was very real, we never called her “Goldtooth” like Link and Hud do.
Jarrett: But she really did have a gold tooth (I think she got it from Dad, LOL), and she really was our arch nemesis.
Jerome: Yeah, she was. For a little while, anyway. I hated those timeouts in the bathroom.
Jarrett: Those were rough. And what about all those soap operas she’d make us watch? Torture.
Jerome: Oh, she knew what she was doing. She couldn’t enjoy them by herself if she had to worry about what we were up to.
Jarrett: Well, we grew to love Ms. Joyce—
Jerome: Link and Hud definitely aren’t there yet. Haha.
Jarrett: Definitely not. Ms. Joyce is their worst enemy. They like to think they’re heroes, but they’ve never faced a “bad guy” like her before. They’re in for a big surprise.
Jerome: Speaking of heroes, Link and Hud get to be a lot of different types of heroes throughout the book. If you could be one, which would you pick?
Jarrett: It kept changing as we made the book, but I think I’ve settled on a favorite. I’d be a miner for Boomer Bros. Mining Co. in the video game chapter. I love how you simulated the 8-bit graphics in the art, and I think the game we made up would be a ton of fun to exist in. What about you?
Jerome: Archeologist. The mummy chapter was a favorite to draw. Plus, I love researching ancient civilizations.
Jarrett: One great thing about making this book the way we did is we didn’t have to pick. We got to put it all in there. So many of the heroes we dreamed of being as kids made it in there. We even got Wonder Willis in there.
Jerome: Right. So for everyone who isn’t a Pumphrey brother and won’t get the reference: in the book, Wonder Willis is a fictional superhero in Hud’s favorite comic book. In real life, Wonder Willis is the fictional superhero we made up and wrote stories about as kids when we were about Link and Hud’s ages.
Jarrett: It was our first collab! Brought it full circle.
Jerome: Yeah, it’s a fun detail, even if we’re the only ones who know about it.
Jarrett: Well, now a lot more people know about it. Any other details you want people to know about? How about how you made the art? You mentioned earlier that we talked about different approaches. Which approach did you take?
Jerome: I started by designing all the characters and how they look doing all these different activities we had in mind for them. Then it was just a matter of designing all the environments you described in the text and then populating it with them. Most of the story takes place in their house, but since the story relies on the visual transition from panels to prose, we had to design the house as we designed all these other worlds to make sure they were all in agreement. Another note, although we normally make the art in our books with printmaking, we decided I’d just draw it with line art due to how much art there is and so it would better match the style of the book.
Jarrett: I know it was a lot of drawing. You did a great job. I think it suits the text perfectly. So what do you hope readers get out of the book?
Jerome: I hope kids enjoy it and want more Link and Hud. How about you?
Jarrett: Same. Also, on a more serious note, I hope they get the deeper message of the book: that it’s okay to wear underwear on your head if you want. It’s heroic, even. Just make sure it’s your underwear and not your brother’s!
Heroes by a Hair (Link + Hud #1) by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey. Norton Young Readers, $16.95 Mar. 7 ISBN 978-1-324-01609-0