Many readers may have an image of the Pied Piper of Hamelin conjured from the folktale made famous by the Brothers Grimm, or the popular poem by Robert Browning. But that image is surely nothing like the mysterious protagonist in Piper, the spooky graphic-novel retelling by Jay Asher (13 Reasons Why) and Jessica Freeburg and illustrated by Jeff Stokely (Razorbill, Oct.). We have an exclusive first look at the book’s cover and an interior scene.

In Asher and Freeburg’s take on the German legend, a lonely deaf girl named Maggie, who dreams of finding her true love, falls hard for the Piper, who turns out to have a magical dark side. That darkness is largely what inspired the authors to develop this project.

They met roughly five years ago when Freeburg was a volunteer with the SCBWI chapter in her home state of Minnesota and Asher was invited to speak at one of the organization’s conferences. They struck up a friendship and learned they had lots of common interests. “We had a similar idea about the kinds of stories we were attracted to,” Asher recalls, “and we both like creepy stories.” Freeburg’s fascination with all things creepy even extends beyond writing to her paranormal research/ghost-hunting group Ghost Stories, Inc.

Over time, the duo hatched the idea of co-writing a screenplay—indulging one of Asher’s passions. Both authors were intrigued by the Pied Piper legend, especially when they started researching its rich history. “We wanted to do a scary version,” says Freeburg, “and also incorporate a love story.” And according to Asher, “The more we dug into the history, it prompted more story ideas. There were things in the legend that were unexplained. How does he know to play the tunes he does? Why doesn’t the town want to pay him? That left room for developing more of a story. We didn’t want to change the legend, but wanted to fill in the gaps and expand on it.”

According to Freeburg, they finished a screenplay version in just a few months. But upon completion, Asher says they both thought, “Let’s try something more in line with what we both do,” and they shifted gears to recast it as a book.

Asher had previously co-written a novel, The Future of Us (Razorbill, 2011), with Carolyn Mackler. That project came in the wake of the massive success of his bestselling 2007 debut, Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill). “It was a great experience working with a co-author, and it was a way to distance myself from my first novel,” he says. The advent of the Piper project offered him not only a new writing partner, but a new format altogether—the graphic novel. Freeburg says, “That’s what made it fun; it was something we hadn’t done before. It was really cool and less intimidating to work on this because it was new to both of us and we were figuring it out together.” Asher adds, “I was not embarrassed sharing bad ideas and having them shot down.”

Taking on a graphic novel was also a new venture for Razorbill, as Piper is the imprint’s first foray into the format. The idea made perfect sense to executive editor Jessica Almon. “We’re always eager to work with Jay Asher,” she says. “He spends a lot of time talking to and listening to teens all over the country and is deeply in touch with what they want in a story. When he came to us with the idea for Piper, we were struck by the strength and clarity of his vision. He had all the pieces assembled: Jessica Freeburg’s wonderfully dark sensibility, Jeff Stokely’s lush yet accessible illustration style, the fresh take on an age old tale, and the hot new format. We were sold!” Looking ahead, Almon notes that Razorbill is open to expanding in this arena. “There’s no question that Jay has tapped into something with his venture into the graphic novel format,” she says. “It’s a growing area for children’s books especially and we do hope to publish more down the road.”

A Collaborative Trio

The actual co-writing process for the authors involved many hours talking on the phone, according to Asher, and a fluid division of labor. “We would divvy up scenes so that whoever was most excited about it, or had a better handle on it, would start writing and then pass it off to the other person.” They had some face-to-face working sessions, too, when Asher returned to Minnesota for a few speaking engagements along the way.

Because they had originally envisioned Piper as a film, Freeburg says she had very definite ideas of what the characters and setting would look like. “We imagined Tim Burton-style, like Sleepy Hollow,” she notes. To that end, the authors created a private Pinterest page where they could share ideas about the appearance of the costumes, musical instruments, and buildings of the era. Those saved images also served as a reference point for illustrator Stokely. “Jeff was always our first choice to illustrate this,” Asher says. “He’s very creative in the way he lays out the pages; it’s extremely exciting. And he told me he’s always wanted to do something with Germanic folklore.” Freeburg is impressed with Stokely’s interpretations, as well. “It’s been so amazing to see how closely [the illustrations] match what is in my brain, without Jeff having been in my brain!”

As they wait for the world to see their new project this fall, Asher says Piper is not a one-off in terms of co-created endeavors with Freeburg. “There are a couple of projects we’re working on,” he says. “It’s been such a fun experience writing together and sharing ideas about storytelling.” Freeburg concurs, adding, “I pulled him over to the dark side. He likes to go ghost hunting now!”

And Asher is also eagerly awaiting the March 31 premiere of the Netflix series adaptation of 13 Reasons Why. “I’ve seen the whole thing and it’s turned out incredibly; it really honored the book,” he says, noting that the head writer was a fan of the novel. “I hope that’s the same case when Piper becomes a movie!” he says.