Novelist Laini Taylor is known for her complex YA fantasy fiction, especially the trilogy that began in 2011 with Daughter of Smoke & Bone and the duology that followed, Strange the Dreamer. Fans who have been waiting for more in this genre will be surprised to learn that her forthcoming book, a collaboration with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, is a madcap middle-grade graphic novel, Billie Blaster and the Robot Army from Outer Space, scheduled for publication by Amulet this August. PW has an exclusive look at the cover, revealed here for the first time, as well as insights on the book’s journey to publication from the creative team that brought it to fruition.
The story stars 10-year-old Billie, “genius spawn of two famous scientists,” who has inventing in her blood, and has been winning science fair awards since kindergarten, to the growing desperation of her archrival Hector Glum. One year, in angry revenge, Hector launches one of Billie’s inventions—Roburt, a robot that can create other robots—into outer space. The book opens with the return of Roburt, bringing news that the evil Emperor Mwahaha is planning to attack Earth with a robot army. It’s up to Billie to build a rocket ship, head into outer space, and stop the invasion—which she does, thanks, to some degree, to the unbeatable combination of dancing and farting.
Filled with kid-friendly elements like toilet weasels, floating cheese puffs, and bees in hazmat suits, the book includes a few “slightly deeper openings to conversations, if readers want to have them,” Taylor told PW, but basically, the couple prioritized humor. “We wanted to create something funny and kid-friendly that adults could enjoy with kids,” Di Bartolo said. “We wanted to characterize science as fun, something where ‘the sky’s the limit’—and something with robots!” Taylor added.
The couple’s agent, Jane Putch of Eyebait Management, believes that the release of the graphic novel, which Abrams senior v-p and publisher Andrew Smith describes as “wildly inventive,” is perfectly timed to enter what she calls “a market hugely welcoming to middle-grade graphic novels.” The state of the current market, though, had no bearing on the genesis of the book: Taylor and Di Bartolo conceived it years ago, well before the birth of their daughter, Clementine, who is now 13.
“We had gone on a creative retreat together, to Netarts, along the Oregon coast,” Di Bartolo recalled. “We’re always tossing silly ideas back and forth and we brainstormed this story together.”
“We’ve always loved comic books,” Taylor added, “and we were aware of the lack of comics for kids. It always struck us as a bizarre absence, especially since many people associate comics with kids, going back to the ‘old days,’ or golden age of comics. But if you’re someone who went to comic-book stores in the ’90s and early 2000s, like Jim did, you would have been struck, too, by the notable lack of comics suitable for younger readers. It had become a very adult-driven market.”
Soon after their retreat, they showed their work—which then consisted of the complete text plus eight pages of sequential art and a few character drawings—to Putch. “I was blown away by the inviting and inventive kid power story of Billie, with its wonderful belly-laugh inducing wackiness,” Putch said. “But at that time, the appetite for middle-grade graphic novels was very limited in mainstream book retail. Because of that, we decided to place the project in their creative vault of stories for later, while they both focused on their contracted projects.”
The first book Taylor and Di Bartolo had created together was also a comic book: The Drowned: A Tale of Mystery and Horror, which was published by Image Comics in 2004. After that Taylor wrote her middle-grade fantasy series Dreamdark (Putnam, 2007), with Di Bartolo’s cover art and interior illustrations. In the National Book Award finalist Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic/Levine, 2009), Taylor’s collection of three short stories, each hinging on a life-changing kiss, Di Bartolo’s contribution is an intrinsic part of the storytelling. His illustrations tell the prequel to each story as a visual narrative. “We’ve always been proponents of art in books,” Di Bartolo commented. “I am emotionally engaged with traditional novels all the time—I love them—but I think the combination of the written word and visual art just sings!”
While Billie lay in their “creative vault” and the couple worked on their individual projects, the market for graphic novels began expanding. A few years ago, Putch was talking with Smith, who had been deputy publisher at LBYR and had helped launch Daughter of Smoke and Bone. He and the couple, all three self-acclaimed “comic nerds,” had remained friendly, spending time together at trade shows and Comic Cons.
“Our conversation morphed into Abrams’ success with middle-grade graphic novels,” Putch said. The company’s graphic novels list encompasses all age groups, early readers through YA, Smith noted, and multiple genres. He had always particularly admired Taylor and Di Bartolo’s collaboration on Lips Touch: Three Times, and wondered if the couple would be interested in “diving into the arena,” as Putch put it, of middle-grade graphic novels together. Putch remembered Billie Blaster and pitched it to Smith.
Immediately enthusiastic, Smith offered to make a preempt on the book if Taylor and Di Bartolo were game. “Knowing their personalities and interests, it seemed obvious that they would create a story of a child genius and her evil (miniature) nemesis that includes a talking side-kick pet goat, a robot army and a toilet weasel from a different planet,” Smith said.
The couple were not only game, they were thrilled. Returning to the project, they made a few crucial changes to their main character: mostly importantly, a gender swap. They had written Billie as a boy but “now we realized Billie definitely had to be a girl,” Di Bartolo said. The female nemesis Hazel became the male Hector. And Billie’s last name “Raygun” became “Blaster,” not only because ray guns are now known as blasters but also because both Taylor and Di Bartolo now felt strongly about not having the word “gun” in the title.
The Look of the Book
Once acquired, the project was in the hands of editorial director Maggie Lehrman and senior designer Andrea Miller, both with extensive experience working on graphic novels. Lehrman has edited numerous series in the genre, including Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series (“now at 12 books and counting,” she said), and Amy Ignatow’s Popularity Papers, first introduced in 2010, which makes it one of the first middle-grade graphic novel series. Miller has worked on a wide range of children’s books throughout their career, and now focuses exclusively on designing graphic novels at Abrams.
The team bonded quickly over their love and enthusiasm for the project. Lehrman said. “It felt like just the right book for us at Abrams—the way the story leaps all over the galaxy, light as a feather. I love its sly, wry humor, and Jim’s art style gives it such a distinct, vibrant look.”
While Lehrman and Miller both provided notes for layout and clarity, Miller worked closely with Di Bartolo to bring out the distinctive character of this story. “Billie Blaster is set in a fantastic time and place where the dial on science and whimsy is turned all the way up,” they noted. “We really wanted to make that clear via the color, which is sometimes hard to do with a normal CMYK printing process. To solve that, we used a special mix of inks to make Billie and her world really pop off the page. Rhodamine Magenta ensured that her hot pink space boots and her fiery hair have a lot of impact.”
“Technically speaking, graphic novels are their own thing,” Di Bartolo reflected. “That’s one reason it took traditional publishers so long to educate themselves about how they are created. Traditionally a comics artist works in black-and-white pencil, then someone else inks the drawings and a third person colors them. Timelines are generally too short for one person to do all of it. In this case, I did the black-and-white drawings digitally and a few color samples of the look I wanted. Then I found a fantastic colorist, WK Sahadewa, on Instagram, who did all the color work. She was great—so fast, and willing to redo things as needed. The final product from her really knocked it out of the park.”
For the cover, which Smith extolled for “showcasing our hero and supporting cast while at the same time teasing the epic adventure that lies within,” Di Bartolo submitted several sketches and was delighted that his favorite was selected: “I love having overlaps and angles on covers, having things a little skewed, and I wanted to incorporate a number of elements and characters.” Miller asked for minor changes, such as the size of some of the elements and making space for the type—which they designed. “I was aiming for the cover to be dynamic and have a sort of old-school sci-fi vibe,” they said. “We ended up with what I’d call a movie-poster approach that I love, and I wanted to balance that with friendly yet bold type to capture readers’ attention and invite them in.” When Taylor and Di Bartolo saw the print proofs of the cover, they were especially pleased that spot gloss had been used to highlight the title, their names and Billie herself.
For Taylor and Di Bartolo, both back to work on other projects, Billie Blaster was a wonderful opportunity to engage a “different set of muscles,” as Taylor said. “My fantasy work for older readers, which is more serious in tone, is a different mindset and process. Intentionally working in a tone that is so silly made it much more fun than trying to make everything adhere to the rules I create for the fantasy worlds of my other books.”
Di Bartolo agreed, saying “I’m often drawn to edgier, more realistic work, and it was fun to create something sillier, to borrow from anime and manga. Ideally, I’m working on something serious and something silly at the same time.” At the moment he is focused on a project that is “something edgier and older,” while Taylor is working on her first adult novel.
The ending of Billie Blaster clearly leaves the door open for future books, and the couple admits to harboring some ideas, though they emphasized that “nothing’s nailed down yet.” Andrew Smith mused that he knew from the start “that this amazing cast of characters had other stories to tell and I could envision lots more adventures.” It will be up to readers, next August, to weigh in.