By Cathy Camper
Elirio Malaria (a mosquito), Flapjack Octopus and Lupe Impala work at a car dealership six days a week. Lupe’s the mechanic, Flapjack washes and buffs the cars, and Elirio details the cars with his beak. Their dream is to have a garage and a lowrider of their own:
They’d seen some cars blast by fast,
And others that could shift and drift,
But they wanted a car that would go low and slow.
Bajito y suavecito.
A universal car contest gives them that opportunity. But not until their car gets customized by outer space! Pinstripes from Saturn, pompom asteroids, and star-capped hubcaps make their car an interstellar phenomena!
That’s how I pitched my graphic novel Lowriders in Space at Pitchapalooza in Portland, Oregon. Back when the book was just a manuscript and a vision in my head, I’d exhausted the list of graphic novel agents, and so winning this contest was like a dream come true. The prize was the advice of The Book Doctors, a husband-wife team who connected my project with an agent and eventually, an editor and publisher.
I’m a writer, artist and a youth services outreach librarian. I wrote Lowriders in Space because as an Arab American, I was fed up with the inability of mainstream comics and books to represent the diversity of kids I see everyday, kids who like me, don’t see themselves in books. When I first sent the script to the book’s artist, Raúl III, who is Latino, he told me, “This is the book I wanted to read as a child,” and he was as excited as I was to create it, and for the same reasons. Our editor at Chronicle Books, Ginee Seo, is Korean American, and she gets it too—like us she wants to give kids a book that meets them where they are.
I’d been working on the book since 2006, and was thrilled when the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign launched in May 2014. We’re hoping that when Lowriders comes out this fall, it kicks a big hole in the wall of racism of kids’ books, welcoming kids of all backgrounds to read it. We hope it encourages publishers to create more books by new authors and illustrators of color, and to inspire kids via reading our book, to become creators, too.
By 2050, one third of the US will live in English-Spanish speaking households—that’s our audience! The book’s also aimed at boys, because the literacy rate of boys is dropping, and like Jon Scieszka (who sponsors the Guys Read website), we want boys to read. We also envision that kids struggling to read, for whatever reasons, might find our book inviting. And it looks like adults are loving it, too, from all the reviews that have been popping up online.
Since I’m not Latina, it was crucial to me that our book was culturally correct. I did tons of research, read books, watched films, went to the Lowrider Magazine’s car show, and interviewed people. I’m also fortunate and forever grateful to have the help of many Latino friends and library co-workers, who read the manuscript, offered suggestions, and helped fine-tune the Spanish. One of the cartoonists I admire most is cartoon journalist Joe Sacco. His ability to go into places of high conflict, like Palestine and the Bosnian war and create detailed drawn and written records out of chaos humbles me. When I heard him speak, he mentioned that one of the things he tries to do is set his ego aside, and put the stories of those he’s writing about, up front. When I wrote Lowriders, I tried my best to emulate this goal, and to fight for, as best I could, what would make the story culturally relevant.
This goal included having the right illustrations. Traditionally in children’s books, the writer doesn’t choose an illustrator for the manuscript (though this is different in comics creation). I was warned along the way, “Choosing your own illustrator may work against you.” However, I felt it was crucial that Raúl illustrate this book, not only because he’s a brilliant artist (and if we’re saying we need more diverse kids books, we also need more diverse creators), but because his art added just the right touch of both cultural relevancy and the retro-nuevo feel the text demanded. Raúl told me that much of the setting and landscape is based on his childhood in El Paso, Texas. When he started sketching Flapjack Octopus, he said he couldn’t help but think of him in his pail as El Chavo del Ocho, sitting in his barrel—and so we changed Flappy’s name and look to reflect that.
Just as Raúl was able to make contributions to the text, I sometimes added context to the drawings. For example, it was important to me that our lowriders’ car had the Big Dipper on it. For the lowrider diaspora of Latinos and African Americans whom the book celebrates, the Big Dipper represents the path north, and more broadly, the path to freedom. What better symbol to have on a flying car’s license plate? Our book celebrates the influence of older comics, art, pop culture and car references that Raúl and I both love and wanted to share, including George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, Mad Magazine and Big Daddy Roth’s cars.
And then there’s the science – I love science! My first book Bugs Before Time was about giant prehistoric insects – including a sea scorpion as big as your mom. Why wouldn’t our graphic novel include science, when there really are things as wondrous as flapjack octopuses and braided rings of Saturn? The technology of cars is part of science, too, whether it’s learning how cars are buffed and painted, how air compressors make lowriders hop, or what vulcanizing does to make rubber tires strong.
We think Lowriders is going to read like something brand new, because of the unique, aligned intent of author, illustrator, and publisher and because of the crazy mix of culture, comics, and science our combined imaginations dreamed up. We hope you love it and it makes you laugh, and that you share your excitement with all the kids out there that might love it, too. When Lowriders in Space blasts off this fall, our real destination isn’t the outer galaxies, it’s to land in the hands of kids who deserve to see themselves in what they read, and to be read by everyone else so they experience how rich a culture of color can be.
Cathy Camper is a librarian focusing on outreach to schools and children in grades K-12. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow the book’s Facebook page for more news.
Coming soon on Latin@s in Kid Lit: A book talk on Lowriders in Space with more story details and more peeks at interior pages!