Seven (Give or Take) Questions Over Breakfast
with Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

h1 February 9th, 2010 by jules

Yesterday, in an interview at Cynsations conducted by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010, children’s book historian, author, and critic Leonard Marcus, when asked what future historians might have to say about children’s literature today, said: “{They’ll} have a lot to say about comics and graphic novels and how and why they went from being vilified to being regarded as mainstream.” It’s in large part thanks to this morning’s visitors to 7-Imp that they went from panned to praised. Created by two-time Newbery Honor-winning Jennifer L. Holm and her brother Matthew Holm, 2005’s Babymouse #1: Queen of the World (all books in the series are published by Random House) was the first graphic novel to be named an ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book, and the subsequent books in the series have made it one of contemporary children’s literature’s most successful series (and “one of the best characters going,” wrote Kirkus in 2008). To boot, the series was not only this funny, exciting new introduction to the graphic novel format, but also that rare bird in the graphic-novel category at that time: A series for girls. As they’ve stated in a previous interview, Jennifer was unimpressed with most of the female characters that were featured in the comics she read as a kid; thus Babymouse was born (though, as they’ve also stated in interviews before, boys are pretty crazy about the series, too).

It probably goes without saying who Babymouse is. I’ve kept my eye on her and her twelve tales in the series over the years, but I haven’t talked much about her at the blog at all. Quite frankly, when a series is as huge as Babymouse, I figured other bloggers have got it covered. For those fellow children’s lit geeks who have been living under a rock or for folks who are perhaps just new to all this, here’s the low-down: With “eye-grabbing black-and-pink graphics, and a perceptible Spiegelman influence simmer{ing} in the energetic ink illustrations of the dot-eyed heroine” (Publishers Weekly in 2005), Babymouse is a grade-school mouse with a big imagination (as in, the very queen of the fantasy sequence), a devoted friend in Wilson the Weasel, an archnemesis in Felicia Furrypaws, one hard-core adoration for cupcakes, and lots and lots of pink in her life.

Babymouse is the master of taking ennui, turning it on its head, and soaring into her own glamourous flights of fancy. Making references to movies, literature, and pop culture and filling the series with lots of humor and spunk, the Holms haven’t failed to entertain in a single title; all include an unseen narrator, often sympathetic to Babymouse, often mercilessly teasing.

In the twelve books of the Babymouse series thus far, our wee, plucky protagonist (yeah, “plucky” gets overused, but Babymouse seems to take pluck—not to mention sass—to an art form) has fought a mighty dragon, tried to find the perfect pet, attempted to give up her cupcakes for the sake of training to be a skater girl, tried to survive Halloween (while proving that girls don’t actually have to be pretty for Halloween, despite what Felicia Furrypaws says), found out what it’s like to be Babymouserella, braved a school dance and a band concert, and much, much more. In the newest title, out last month, Babymouse Burns Rubber (involving world-saving fractions, soap box derby cars for numbskulls, and some slugs), Babymouse tries her hand at race-car driving.

Leonard Marcus also talked yesterday about graphic novels and funny books serving as “gateways to reading.” I think it’s safe to say Babymouse has done that for many kids today. And not just in the U.S.:

Babymouse: Queen of the World translated into Swedish
by the publisher Damm Förlag.

The German version of Babymouse. Matt wrote at his site in 2007, “The books are put out by the fabulous Bloomsbury and translated by the German children’s author Zoran Drvenkar, whose quote on the promotional sheet translates roughly as: ‘Each Babymouse story is like an enormous chocolate box, in which, aside from the chocolates, are also found film clips and literature quotations.
Great fun—without any toothache!'”

Both Matt and Jennifer are joining me for breakfast this morning. Matt—not only illustrator of the Babymouse series, but also a graphic designer and freelance writer—is the recipient of my usual breakfast illustrator interview, and Jennifer, the author of many highly-acclaimed novels, talks a bit about more novel-writing in her future, as well as Babymouse and what it’s like working with her brother. Jennifer’s breakfast-of-choice? “I’m a left-over-from-dinner kind of gal. Especially Chinese food.” Matt’s opting for a more traditional breakfast, and if he doesn’t mind, I think I’ll join him, as I share his love of eggs. “Eggs. I love me some eggs,” Matt said. “Either scrambled, or in Benedict or omelet form.” Let’s set the table for breakfast while we chat with Jennifer. I thank them both for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Jenni: Penny From Heaven, Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf, The Boston Jane Trilogy, Our Only May Amelia, The Babymouse series.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jenni: I am a recent transplant (one year ago!) to the Bay Area. And I love all the hippies. (I am a long-time New Yorker.)

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Jenni: Write for three years, one year of many rejections, finally find agent to whom I am eternally grateful, she sells it to pub house, it sees light of day three years later.

Jules: What are the joys and challenges of working with your brother?

Jenni: There is a large age difference between us (six years), so we don’t have much sibling drama. Honestly, he is a joy to work with. He’s ridiculously mellow. Also, we live in different cities, so that helps.

Jennifer and Matt as children

From the special comic created by the Holms for the sci-fi site Jennifer and Matt provide an inside look at their process in creating
Babymouse: Dragonslayer.

Jules: Any more historical fiction (novels) ahead in your future, you think?

Jenni: Yes, finally, I have a new historical coming out in May 2010. (Sorry, I have been very slowed down by popping out kids.) It’s called Turtle in Paradise and is inspired by my Key West family. It involves diaper changing, scorpions, treasure and, well, just read it already!

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Jenni: They involve a lot of costume changes, singing and drawing. In short, I aim to be amusing.

Jules: What’s been some of your best Babymouse fan mail?

Jenni: I just got an email from a man asking me if I would sign books for his girlfriend as a romantic gift. I can’t decide whether to be freaked out or charmed.

Jules: Any other new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Jenni: Matt and I are putting to bed the first of a new graphic novel series called Squish. It’s about amoebas. Yes, amoebas.

{Ed. Note: Also forthcoming in September 2010 is Babymouse #13: Cupcake Tycoon.}

Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Jenni: Mostly strip creators: Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson (of course), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County). I am still a fairly rabid Prince Valiant fan.

Jennifer with some fans

Jules: If you could have three (living) authors — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Jenni: Red wine for sure or Matt’s wife, Cyndi, would kill me. (She is a winemaker at a vineyard in Oregon.) I would say Berkeley Breathed, Lloyd Alexander, and Bill Watterson. (Good luck with that one!)

Jules: Can you point me to your web site and/or blog?


Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Jenni: I like salt. I mean, I really really like it. I put it on everything –even watermelon. Matt gave me a huge block of pink salt for my 40th birthday.

Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Jenni: Q: Is being a writer what you thought it would be?

A: In short, no. It involves huge stretches of time that I must spend alone with me, myself, and I — and, quite frankly, we are all boring after a while. Thank heavens for Facebook.

* The Pivot Questionnaire: Jennifer *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Jenni: “Typical.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Jenni: “Babe.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Jenni: A basket of clean, folded laundry.

Jules: What turns you off?

Jenni: A towering basket of dirty laundry.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Jenni: Let me ask my six-year-old son, Will.

Will: “Mommy says a lot of bad words but I can’t say them or I get in time-out is this a trick I don’t want time-out but one is really bad even my teacher says so can I have some ice cream now?”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Jenni: Quiet.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jenni: “Mommy, I feel sick!” followed by barfing.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jenni: Strangely enough, medicine. (Dad was a doctor; mom, a nurse.)

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Jenni: Film director. (And I will be the only person you will ever hear say this, I guarantee!)

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Jenni: “We just got the place cleaned.”

* * * * * * *

Now it’s time for our eggs with Matt. As mentioned, I gave him my usual illustrator interview. Let’s get right to it…

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Matt: Author/Illustrator, I suppose. Honestly, I’m not much of an illustrator, as illustrators go. I didn’t go to RISD. I’ve never actually painted with gouache. I’m a lousy airbrusher. Mostly, I’m a cartoonist. I studied that very narrow field — very, very diligently. Plus, there was all that writing. I graduated from college with a degree in English Writing (Nonfiction). Eventually, I abandoned a perfectly good career as a writer/editor at Hearst Magazines after eight years. So I’m essentially a writer who was given the opportunity to draw cartoon mice.

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Matt: Is Adobe Photoshop really a “medium?” (This is the kind of world in which we live today, I suppose.) I do the Babymouse books on the computer in Adobe Photoshop, using a Wacom drawing tablet and stylus. Our new graphic novel series, Squish (Summer 2011), is being done in Adobe Illustrator, an entirely different type of computer program. (But the difference between the two is probably irrelevant to 99% of your audience, and explaining it would likely cause a giant yawn-fest.) I also do all my early thumbnail sketches in pencil and my better sketches in Sharpie marker.

Early Babymouse: Matt’s first two drawings of the character (though it was initially Jennifer who quickly sketched Babymouse on a napkin,
when first conceiving the character)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Matt: I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, for three years. It’s a nice city—good food, very bikeable and walkable, and not nearly as wet as everyone thinks. (Hint: it never rains a drop from Memorial Day to Labor Day.) There are also more kidlit folks than I can shake a stick at. I lived in NYC and New York’s Hudson Valley for years, but I knew absolutely no one in the industry until I moved to Portland.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is an illustration from Babymouse #11: Dragonslayer.}

Jules: Can you briefly tell me your road to publication?

Matt: In 2000, sister wins silver Newbery medal. In 2001, sister and I try to pitch something called “a graphic novel for kids” (a book category that does not yet exist). But, despite sister’s silver Newbery, no one is interested. In 2004, sister pitches “graphic novel for kids” for the last time, as she is moving out of New York City. Several publishers still unsure, but Random House loves it. Cue strings, chorus of heavenly host, etc. Because of production schedule (four books due in about eighteen months), I have to quit my day job and draw full-time. I move further up the Hudson Valley and live in sister’s vacant weekend house so that I can afford to both draw and eat.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Matt: Our kid-friendly web site is www.babymouse.
; lots of fun stuff to do and lots of resources for educators. My own blog is www.matthewholm.
; it has more resources for teachers, but not much stuff for kids to do, I’m afraid. There are links to all my books, postings about events, and my thoughts on publishing, especially comics publishing and how it intersects children’s publishing.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is an illustration from Babymouse #9: Monster Mash.}

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Matt: I’m actually in the middle of a week of school visits in Humble, Texas, as I write this! For my school visits, I do a presentation using PowerPoint (boy … doesn’t that have “boring corporate quarterly sales meeting” written all over it?) that is NOT boring and recounts our childhood, how it inspired Babymouse, and how Jenni and I work together to create the books. Then, I pull kids out of the audience and have them give me ideas for how to draw Babymouse. Plus, I sign whatever books they throw at me (occasionally, not even my own) and answer all manner of questions.

From Babymouse #8: Puppy Love

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Matt: We’re working on a new graphic novel series, called Squish. It follows the exploits of an amoeba and his microscopic friends. It works in a little bit of science (not too much) and has lots of fun nods to classic Silver Age superhero comics. The size format is the same as that of Babymouse—but the boys out there will be relieved to hear that the accent color will NOT be pink. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pink!) Due out in Summer 2011!

Mmm. Coffee.Time to refill our coffee cups. And, without further ado, let’s get to the seven questions over breakfast of my illustrator interview. Thanks again to both Jennifer and Matt for stopping by.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Matt: When I was in college, my fiction teachers told me that the way to write was simply to start writing and see where the characters took you—never outline, never plan more than a paragraph ahead. Having written a large number of things in the years since then, I find that advice to be utter nonsense. I much prefer the advice I got from my painting and figure drawing teachers, which was to never focus on a single part of the page or canvas, but to work everywhere all at once, so that you gradually move from roughed-in composition to finer and finer details, all over the scene. That’s how I treat writing (by outlining and by jotting down key moments/dialogue/etc. that I want to place in each scene) and drawing.

For a book like Babymouse, after Jenni and I and our editors have worked over the manuscript, I do a bunch of thumbnail sketches with pencil (a cheap, disposable plastic Paper-Mate #2 mechanical pencil—that way I never have to stop to sharpen it, and never have to worry about losing it) in a small, spiral-bound sketchbook. (I like the spiral-bound ones because you can fold them flat for scanning art into the computer, or rip pages out as needed.) When I’m drawing the thumbnails, I just try to think of every angle or action that we might need in order to “cover” each scene in the book, almost as if we were shooting film for a movie.

Next, I scan in the sketchbook pages and e-mail them to Jenni, who prints them, cuts them out, and pastes them down into a rough layout that will fit our 96-page format. She sends them back to me, and I draw “good” sketches. I print out template sheets (they show the margins, edge of the page, etc.) at the actual size of the books’ two-page “spreads” (i.e., the right- and left-hand pages you see next to each other when you open a book) and then draw the art again, this time using Sharpie markers. My goal throughout the illustration process is never to overwork anything early on, because I find you can very quickly lose the “verve” that you find in early sketches—and rarely find in carefully pencilled and inked drawings. I could never work for someone like Marvel or DC, because I never do final pencils. Instead, my marker sketches serve as a very, very loose “pencil” that I draw the final “inks” on top of in the computer, using my Wacom tablet and stylus. But I rarely follow those “pencils” very tightly, which gives the final inks a lot more liveliness, in my opinion.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Matt: One of our bedrooms (the small one) is my office. I have two four-foot-wide desks placed side-by-side, with a computer on either end: a Mac Mini, which has a moderately large monitor and is attached to my scanners, and a Dell PC that I use for accounting or for watching TV (it has a little USB hookup thingy that the cable TV plugs into). Since the Mac Mini is rapidly becoming obsolete (I can’t upgrade its operating system any further), I actually do 99% of my work on a small MacBook with a 13-inch screen, which I plop in the middle of the two desks with a 9-by-12-inch Wacom tablet plugged into it. And since it’s a laptop and portable, I do at least 50% of my work on the kitchen table or counter, despite having an office of my own. That’s just the way I am. My office also has a great big color printer (for which I need to buy new toner: Memo to myself…), a disgusting tangle of networking and power cables on the floor, and several filing cabinets and large bookshelves, the latter of which are filled with children’s books, comics, and sci-fi. I also have a great many Star Wars figures and vehicles overlooking my work area. Because I’m a giant nerd.

From Babymouse #12: Babymouse Burns Rubber

Matt’s 2009 contribution to Number One, a Commander Riker of the Day Tumblr site.

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Matt: For me, it was Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz all the way. I divided my time evenly between reading Peanuts cartoon collections and reading Seuss books. We had tons of both and hardly any other kids’ books. I remember maybe one Richard Scarry book, one Berenstain Bears book, a scattering of Sesame Street books (like The Monster at the End of this Book), and Go, Dog. Go! All the rest were Seuss. I never read many of the other “classics.” I never read Goodnight Moon until we had to parody it in Babymouse. I never read Where the Wild Things Are until this year. And, after the picture-book phase ended, I read few middle-grade chapter books. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Judy Blume book. As soon as I could, I moved straight to fantasy and sci-fi novels.

From Babymouse #12: Babymouse Burns Rubber

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Matt: Is it weird that they’d all be cartoonists? Because I’d love to get Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Gary Larson together in one room. Talk about a meeting of the minds! If nothing else, I’d love to hear their differing perspectives on the comics renaissance of the ’80s that they oversaw.

Matt’s contribution to Tomie dePaola’s birthday/tribute site, Three Kisses for Tomie.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Matt: I can only listen to music at certain points of the process. There are non-analytical tasks, like inking and coloring, that, to me, lend themselves to listening to music. All of the planning, the layout, the composition, perspective, etc., etc., has already been taken care of, so you’re moving on autopilot. But for a lot of the process, I can’t have music on at all. It’s too distracting. If I have to figure something out, I need quiet. So, a lot of times, I’ll start up some music on my computer, then, a few minutes later, mute the sound so that I can think clearly. Hours later, I’ll realize that iTunes is still running, unheard. As far as the music itself, I tend to listen to either alternative rock (Live, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, Foo Fighters) or poppy girl rock/folk vocalists (Vanessa Carlton, Regina Spektor, Ashlee Simpson, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple). I don’t really have much of an explanation for either, except that I like vocalist-centered songs that have some sort of emotion to them. That said, I also have a lot of heavy Industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Marilyn Manson) in my rotation, plus a large amount of nerdy Progressive rock (Peter Gabriel-era Genesis). As a result, I occasionally have auto-generated song mixes come up in which Sarah McLachlan’s “Adia” is followed by Ministry’s “Burning Inside.”

From Babymouse #4: Rock Star.

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Matt: Apparently, that I listen to Vanessa Carlton and Ashlee Simpson! Also, I was once in an independent film called The Hall Monitor. It was a dark comedy, and I played a football player who gets bumped off by a mysterious serial killer.

* The Pivot Questionnaire: Matt *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Matt: “Monkey!”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Matt: “Solutions” (in its Internet business-gibberish mode, such as, “a full-service web-based Solutions Provider”).

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Matt: Other competent, creative people.

Jules: What turns you off?

Matt: People who have no ability to get things done.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Matt: Well, since I’m a cartoonist, I can confidently transcribe it in cartoon language as “@*&#!!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Matt: The Star Wars theme.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Matt: The Alarm Clock Beep. It should be illegal to use that sound in TV commercials or other non-wake-up situations.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Matt: Home-builder. Eight years at a shelter magazine left their mark on me. But I wouldn’t want to be an architect—that’s a business that’s filled with angst and misery.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Matt: Professional chef. I love cooking, and I don’t want to grow to hate it.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Matt: “Sorry for all the confusion.”

* * * * * * *

All art and photos used with permission of Jennifer L. Holm and Matt Holm. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in mid-September of 2009. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

21 comments to “Seven (Give or Take) Questions Over Breakfast
with Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm”

  1. It’s jealousy-inducing enough when someone is a talented author or illustrator for a living — why do they also have to be good looking, funny and clever? Doesn’t seem fair.

  2. Great interview, Jules! I love the Babymouse series, and it’s nice to go behind the scenes a bit on it.

    I’m looking forward to this new amoeba series, too.

  3. A graphic novel about amoebas sounds great. What an entertaining and truly inspiring interview. Thanks for this!

  4. Well, I have been living under a rock!!! It is the first time that I hear about Babymouse. I love the idea of a graphic novel with an attitude ;D
    I just got to look for it now!
    Thanks Jules for the interviews!

  5. I want to read Squish NOW. Can’t you two work faster? You only have 2 books coming out this year. Geez.

  6. Great, detailed interview, Jules. Can’t wait for Squish!

  7. This is great Jules!

  8. We have a lot of boys who come into the library who are Babymouse fans (including Lucas), but they read the books kind of on the down-low because they don’t want to be seen reading something so pink. They stick the books in magazines and other comics–I find this both amusing and kind of sad when I see it. I read a lot of books I felt like were more for boys than girls when I was a kid, so I was always doing that kind of thing in reverse.

    Anyway, the kids and I are always so happy to see a new Babymouse book when it arrives here at the library, and I’m sure we’ll be loving Squish when it arrives, too. A book about an amoeba sounds like it has potential to me.

  9. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Seven (Give or Take) Questions Over Breakfast with Jenni…—Wonderful interview with BABYMOUSE creators Jennifer Holm & Matthew Holm. Fun & fascinating questions. I met Jenni at Comic-Con last summer. She’s a gem. Rilla makes me read (sing) BABYMOUSE: THE MUSICAL to her practically on a daily basis. […]

  10. Fun stuff. (I will never again be able to watch Star Trek Next Generation without checking out Will Riker’s shirt level!)

  11. this is fabulous! thanks for the great interview. i can’t wait for jenni’s new historical novel.

  12. […] have to add that earlier in the week, here in Nashville, my girls and I had the opportunity to meet Jenni Holm. What a good week for meeting up with great minds and fun people. Lucky, lucky me to be in their […]

  13. […] not generally a big interview person. But I did enjoy Jules’ recent “questions over breakfast with Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm” post at 7-Imp. There are many Babymouse references, as you might […]

  14. […] Author Jennifer L. Holm and author/illustrator Matthew Holm (February 9, 2010): […]

  15. […] same month, the Holms released their first title (volume 1), all about this new character, Squish, Super Amoeba (also […]

  16. […] blogger managed to get photos of others speakers, which I failed to get — such as, Jennifer and Matthew Holm and Gail Carson […]

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