For the first time in his writing career, Stuart Gibbs will have two titles released by a single publisher in consecutive months. Due from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in early 2022, the books mark two other “firsts” for the author: one title is his debut graphic novel and the other launches a new middle-grade series. And one last first: the cover of both books, designed by executive art director Lucy Cummins, are seen here for the first time.
Set to pub on February 1 is Spy School: The Graphic Novel, illustrated by Anjan Sarkar, an adaptation of the inaugural installment of Gibbs’s bestselling Spy School series. On March 1, the publisher rolls out Once Upon a Tim, which starts his middle-grade series. Featuring illustrations by Stacy Curtis, this paper-over-board series skews familiar tropes and stereotypes of fairy tales and other lore to comic effect.
Spy School’s Genesis and Growth
The nine-book Spy School series follows the misadventures of innately nerdy Ben Ripley, a CIA agent wannabe who is recruited by an alleged science-based magnet school that is actually a junior academy for the intelligence organization. Since its launch in 2012, the series has sold three million copies across all formats.
Spy School had long been percolating in the author’s mind before it became a book series. Calling its premise “the first idea I ever came up with” for a story, Gibbs remembered seeing his first James Bond movie as a boy and pretending, with his friends, to be Jimmy Bond, the son of the renowned spy. “Then, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I wrote a story about Jimmy Bond, who attended a secret spy school, and I called it ‘The Kid with the Golden Water Pistol,’ ” he said. “I still have the original pages, written on notebook paper. The thought of holding on to an idea for decades is somewhat terrifying—but I’ve found that that notion is inspirational to kids I meet. I talk to them about the importance, as writers, of not giving up. Most authors are rejected once, twice, or many times. If everyone quit, we wouldn’t have very many books to choose from.”
Gibbs explained that his vision for Spy School “changed dramatically over the years,” and while working as a screenwriter after college, he considered writing the story as a movie or TV script. Then, after S&S acquired his first book, 2010’s Belly Up (the debut title in his FunJungle mystery series, set in a zoo), his publisher asked if he had any other ideas for a book series. And indeed he did. At long last, Spy School found its raison d’être, and S&S signed up Gibbs’s long-contemplated story.
The author animatedly described the transformation of Spy School into graphic-novel format. “It was so much fun to see how Anjan developed the story visually,” he said. “We were operating on the same wavelength in terms of how the graphic novel’s characters and world should look. He knew how to make each panel as concise as possible, while including so much storytelling and action in each one. And he knew exactly how to take advantage of how visual storytelling can give readers insight into what’s going on in a way that text cannot. It has been exciting to see it all come together.”
Senior editor Krista Vitola, in turn, praised Gibbs’s contributions to Spy School’s graphic adaptation. “As a former screenwriter, he understands the way that panels, action, and dialogue work in a graphic novel and he knows how to look at the narrative in a cinematic way,” she said. “Creating Spy School: The Graphic Novel, Stuart followed the storyline of the original novel closely but at the same time breathed new life into it. Working with him and Anjan, who did an amazing job of capturing the novel’s sequence of events, was such a fun experience.” The editor noted that she had recently signed up a graphic novel adaptation of Spy Camp, the second installment in the series.
Venturing into the Land of Reimagined Lore
Gibbs’s imagination propelled him in a new direction in Once Upon a Tim, another project he had been considering for quite some time. This series starter introduces a peasant boy who dreams big: he is determined to be a knight. S&S has acquired four books in the series, which continues in fall 2022 with The Labyrinth of Doom.
“This was originally a project I thought I would write for television, and maybe pitch to animated networks,” the author said. “I hit upon the idea that, though the canon of Disney movies focuses on princess and princesses and such, I thought it would be funny to make the real hero of the story someone who is usually in the background—and who might have had a more difficult path back in olden times. In this series, I plan to do riffs on fairy tales, but also on the Iliad or mythology or stories of the Crusades or Robin Hood. I like the idea of taking this lore and flipping it on its head.”
“Once Upon a Tim has been the most fun thing I’ve ever had a chance to write,” Gibbs mused. “It is the least bound by any sort of reality. Spy School is a bit silly, but in that series I’m still trying to work within a frame of logic. In a world of myths and fairy tales, what is believable doesn’t really matter. I try to write what would have appealed to me as a kid, and that is always fun. I do love my job.”
Spy School: The Graphic Novel by Stuart Gibbs, illus. by Anjan Sarkar. Simon & Schuster, $21.99 Feb. 2022 ISBN 978-1-5344-5543-6.
Once Upon a Tim by Stuart Gibbs, illus. by Stacy Curtis. Simon & Schuster, $12.99 Mar. 2022 ISBN 978-1-5344-5543-9925-6.