Caldecott Honoree and Eisner Award winner Vera Brosgol upends “The Little Mermaid” and sets it against a Dickensian backdrop in the fantasy middle grade work Plain Jane and the Mermaid, her first solo graphic novel since Be Prepared. When Jane Brown’s parents are killed in a runaway fish cart accident, Jane’s only hope for stability is to secure her dowry through marriage. But her proposal to “the most beautiful boy” in town is disrupted when a mermaid kidnaps him. Now, Jane must venture to the ocean floor and narrowly escape death from poisoning, a water demon, and a mermaid’s murderous rage if she hopes to save her almost-fiancé. In a conversation with PW, Brosgol talked about her love of fairy tales, her creative process, and the importance of collaboration.

What compelled you to use “The Little Mermaid” as the framework for Plain Jane and the Mermaid?

Definitely my love of fairy tales. My mom read my brother and me a lot of fairy tales growing up in Russia, instead of just your kind of “normal” picture books. And we’ve seen lots of fairy tales in America basically mainlined into Disney movies. I think those stories have been how kids have learned about the world, so I wanted to make my own, first of all, just for fun, but also to explore the kinds of messaging that’s in contemporary fairy tales about beauty and romance and how they impact how we think about ourselves and how we think about each other.

Is wanting to create your own fairy tale what led to setting Plain Jane and the Mermaid in a Dickensian time period?

I think so. Jane’s troubles didn’t feel like present-day dilemmas. This was also the time period that people got lost at sea, and typically where stories about mermaid encounters originated.

Jane’s love interest is “the most beautiful boy” she’s ever seen, and he knows it. How did his character come about?

He’s been around since the inception of the story. I liked the idea of Jane really going out of her way to rescue someone who’s kind of terrible. It’s something I haven’t really seen before, and he seemed like a very good foil to Jane’s insecurity, as someone with the opposite problem. The main mermaid is also very similar to him, and through her, you can see the harm of putting all your work into what you look like, into something that’s very temporary and shallow. It also highlighted Jane’s perceptions of him because she’s as superficial as any of these characters. She’s valuing him for nothing that he’s saying or doing and only for what he looks like. That way of thinking is something that I wanted to be another layer of her journey—recognizing that the way she treated him wasn’t great either.

I wanted to explore the kinds of messaging that's in contemporary fairy tales about beauty and romance and how they impact how we think about ourselves.

One of the central themes in Plain Jane and the Mermaid is cultivating a sense of self-worth. Can you elaborate on that?

Throughout the story, Jane is struggling with her feelings of self-worth, which she just wasn’t in tune with. She’s got the self-preservation to find a solution to her problem, of course. She’s not just giving up and leaving her house—she’s trying to fix it, she’s trying to take care of herself. She thinks she deserves a better future, even though her parents told her that she doesn’t. And that’s what she keeps repeating to herself the whole way. Something in her gut is saying, “Keep going, you know what to do.” She’s being steered by something deep inside herself. And as she meets these challenges, she slowly wakes up and realizes, “I know what I’m doing. I’m a good person for what’s outside and also for what’s inside.”

She just wants to be happy.

You’ve published picture books and graphic novels. How does your creative process differ for each kind of project?

Each one is excruciatingly difficult, but picture books are especially hard for me, I think, because the idea has to be so precise, so simple. A graphic novel has so much more breathing room that I can use to explore a bunch of different ideas in one story. I can really spread out and move into this big house, instead of living in this little, tiny shack. It’s also difficult getting into the headspace of a very young child, which is necessary for picture books. I can do it, but I’m not around a lot of six-year-old kids, so it’s tricky to transport my mind back to that age, compared to being in middle school or high school, which is much more accessible for me.

In addition to being a graphic novelist, you work in animation. Are there any major challenges in creating books that you haven’t encountered in your film career?

An obvious one is that there are hundreds of people working on these movies, and everybody is incredibly good at whatever their thing is, whether it’s storyboarding or animating or making puppets or stop motion. But with graphic novels, it’s just me and the colorist. And we’re great at what we do, but we’re carrying a much bigger load per person. I’m so grateful for my colorist, though I would have loved to have somebody to hand even more work off to.

Even just having someone to talk to about the story is so helpful. While working on films, you’re all in a room together, throwing ideas around and questioning what you’ve done. And if you feel like you’re starting to doubt yourself, there’s someone to assist you. When working on graphic novels, you’re very alone in your head. I have to remind myself that I have resources and I can call a friend, I can call my editor [Mark Siegel] and get some of the same support that I got in animation. It’s just harder to get it; I can’t just look across the room and have someone there. I have to stand up and find a person who’s maybe across the country.

Is that how “the story trust,” which you reference in your acknowledgments, came about?

For sure. Mark was inspired by the process at Pixar, where a bunch of directors get together and help each other out with whatever film they’re chewing on in whatever stages it’s in. He wanted to try and create something similar with graphic novelists he knew who had big projects they were working on. So, we [Gene Yang, Ben Hatke, Jo Rioux, Echo Wu, Matt Rockefeller] would all get together and read each other’s work and talk about it. If it’s your project, you have to listen to them talk about your story for half an hour without saying a word, which is fascinating, but also really, really, really challenging. For the second half-hour, you get to ask questions. It’s just a way to get your first audience, to see how people are reading your work when coming in fresh. It’s so, so valuable when you’re maybe, like, a year into an idea—so, the opposite of fresh, you’re a very stale piece of bread at this point.

Just getting that perspective and support from this group of people who are there to reassure you that you’re doing good work gives you energy for the next leg of your marathon—especially with this whole working remotely thing. It’s been nice to have some kind of built-in support. Group time is so important, and I wish I had it more frequently than once every project.

Can you talk about what you’re working on next?

I’m just finishing up a middle grade novel, which I’ve never done before. It’s called Return to Sender, and it’s prose mixed with some illustrations, but a lot fewer illustrations than usual. It’s a much more complicated story than anything I’ve ever done.

Plain Jane and the Mermaid by Vera Brosgol. First Second, $22.99 May 7 ISBN 978-1-250-31486-4; $14.99 paper ISBN 978-1-250-31485-7