Wink is your latest book from Penguin Young Readers. It tells the story of Ross, a boy who has been diagnosed with a very rare disease – eye cancer. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the story?
Back in 2006, I went through my own cancer journey – as an adult – with the same tumor and treatment Ross experiences. I wore the cowboy hat, dealt with the eye goop and drops, the surgeries and the proton radiotherapy. The loss of sight in my right eye. Then for years I thought about sharing my story – and what that might look like. Then a few years ago, as I was finishing up my Life of Zarf middle grade books, my best friend’s teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer as well.
She and I were able to talk pretty candidly about our experiences, and I saw all of the additional difficulties she faced, going through this in school. Dealing with friends falling away, the social elements, etc. And I saw a way that my book could help even more if I combined my experience with that of a middle grade story. At that point all the pieces sort of fell into place.
One thing that struck me most in reading Wink is that you manage to keep an up-beat tone throughout, whilst also dealing with true emotions. How were you able to tap and maintain that voice?
The most important part of that was developing Ross’ voice. Once I had him – and his sense of humor – down, everything came from that. From my experiences with cancer, I saw that just because a situation is horrible, that funny little voice way back in the back of your head doesn’t stop pointing out how absurd and weird things are.
I also gave Ross a lot of tools to use to get him through it. Music, art and family – in the many forms family can take. They all help to buoy him and his spirits. In my own case, I continued to do my daily comic strip Big Top through my treatments, and that daily need to find something funny really, really helped.
Kids don’t have to go through diagnosis and treatment like this to feel “different”. How do you hope your book will help kids who feel like they’re on the fringe?
Hopefully Ross’ story will make them feel less alone. What happens in the book isn’t Ross’ fault, and he’s done nothing to deserve the situation he finds himself in. So we see a kid, thrown into the deep end – into the “weird end” – and he has to learn to lean on his strengths. Hopefully kids can find their own Batpig, or guitar lessons. Something to pour themselves into.
Ross also learns to lean on family, friends, the kindness of others where he can find it. I think that’s an important theme – that we need others, and that kindness can come from unexpected places if we’re open to it.
You’re a cartoonist first, correct? Tell us about your previous books – Life of Zarf – and how important they are to helping reluctant readers find their groove.
My Life of Zarf books center around Zarf Belford, a troll going to middle school in a fairy tale world. So his classmates are princes and ogres. His best friend is Kevin Littlepig, son of one of the famous Littlepigs.
My number one goal with the Zarf books was to be fun. There are some lessons to be found in them, but I wanted to write something kids would laugh at and couldn’t put down. I was a reluctant reader when I was young and the thing that broke the code for me was Mad magazine. I found Mad and the humor there turned me into an avid reader. Suddenly I understood that reading was this awesome, fun thing I could do whenever I wanted!
So I hope Zarf can turn that key for some kids. It has adventure and humor and heart, but the ultimate compliment is someone closing the book and saying “Man, that was fun!”
What guidance can you offer to educators on how to use your books in the classroom?
I think a teacher could highlight the tools Ross uses to cope with his situation. Music, guitar, sketching, Batpig, friends, family, humor. It’s a terrible thing to go through cancer, but hopefully WINK highlights some ways to navigate a terrible time.
Another theme for me was the different forms of family we develop. Your friends can be a family. Your band is a family. Ross’ radiation techs and Jerry become a kind of family. So I think a discussion of the looser meaning of the word ‘family’ could be really interesting.
What advice would you offer to aspiring student writers and artists?
First and foremost, keep doing it. If you like to draw, draw every day. Fill sketchbooks. Make up your own characters. Same if you like to write. Write stories. Write down ideas for stories.
Try to surprise yourself. One of the most magical things that happens when you’re writing or drawing is when you come up with something that catches even you off-guard. So, make that a goal. Write and draw enough to where sometimes you look down and think “Whoa! Did I do that??”
If you weren’t illustrating and writing, how would you spend your days?
Well, my other dream when I was younger was to be a marine biologist, so maybe I’d be off on a boat tracking sea turtles or sharks or something. If I hadn’t been eaten by now.