The following is an interview with author Norm Harper, who recently released the new children’s book, The Naughty List. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Harper about his inspiration for the holiday-themed story, his creative collaboration with artist Christopher Tupa, the other upcoming projects on which he is working, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: What inspired you to create the holiday-themed children’s tale, The Naughty List, and what do you hope that readers will find most enjoyable about the story?
Norm Harper: What I hope that readers will enjoy most about the story is the humor, and the way it takes the notion of Santa’s list and turns it on its head. It’s a kids’ picture book, but I’d like to think it’s just a little subversive – in a way, it’s kind of a holiday-themed, rhyming, supervillain origin story. It’s been said that great villains are the heroes of their own stories, and that describes Franklin’s situation perfectly. So, I hope it stands out from the crowd of other kids’ books and becomes something people want to revisit every year.
I absolutely love Christmas time, and I especially love the songs and movies and TV specials that come with it – A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooged, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”. . . I could go on and on. I love more Christmas media than I can usually fit into the month of December. So, the thought that I might create something that could become a part of someone’s holiday tradition is really exciting.
The project really came about by accident. I’d never intended to write a picture book. Certainly not a rhyming picture book. But, I was brainstorming ideas for other kinds of projects, and I landed on this idea of a kid who had to actively misbehave to save Christmas.
As I developed the idea, I kept coming up with increasingly outlandish ways for the kid to misbehave, and I would just mark them down in a spare Word doc to reference later. It was stuff that made me laugh, but which I wasn’t sure how to justify in a longer narrative. (“He could get kicked out of flight school for buzzing the tower.” That’s great, but how would I justify him being in flight school in the first place?)
So, eventually, I had a page’s worth of misbehavior – literally a list of ways to be naughty. And, I noticed some of them rhymed. So, I moved a couple of them around, wrote a couple of lines to open and close the piece, and before I knew it, my reference document had become a poem. I was trying to create a Steven Spielberg project, but ended up with Shel Silverstein.
I honestly didn’t know what to do with it at the time. It probably sat unused for six months or a year as I gave up on it and moved on to other projects.
BD: The Naughty List was illustrated by Christopher Tupa. How would you describe your creative process in working with Tupa, and why did you feel that he was a perfect fit for the project?
NH: I discovered Christopher’s work originally online. He does these great watercolor pictures based on ’80s properties – GI Joe, He-Man, Goonies, Gremlins, My Pet Monster – you name it, he’s drawn it. And, this is the same kind of nostalgic stuff that I love, and a lot of Franklin’s misdeeds are directly inspired by those kinds of things.
I ordered a painting or two from him to hang in my office, and at some point it eventually just clicked: That Christmas poem I had written plus Christopher’s art – that could be a book! So, I dug the poem out and wrote him. He said yes, and we got to work. I broke the poem down into pages and gave vague suggestions of what each corresponding picture could be. He took those and ran with it, generally turning in better art than my suggestions had been. He had a perfect sense for the tone of the whole piece.
At one point, he even turned in a page of the main character asleep in bed on Christmas Eve, and the character’s hugging a teddy bear that looks exactly like my wife’s favorite bear from childhood. Not what that bear looked like new. He drew it the way her bear looks now, after years and years of love from a child. All worn and matted and misshapen. So, I took a picture of my wife’s bear and sent it to him and asked, “How did you know?” and he shot back a picture of his childhood bear – same bear. Worn down in very much the same ways. It was a little surreal. So, maybe there was a kind of Velveteen Rabbit-style magic that brought us together. A Christmas miracle.
BD: The book was published through your publishing company, Karate Petshop, which publishes all-ages books and graphic novels. What intrigues you most about writing children’s and young adult literature, and do you feel that writing for these age ranges provides you with specific tools as a storyteller?
NH: That’s a really interesting question because – just looking at my personal creative process – I’d say that I don’t write for any specific age range. I try to write for myself. If it entertains me, then I hope it will entertain someone else. It just so happens that most of what I write for myself ends up being something that you can share with your children. Which is probably not surprising, if you look at my biggest influences – Steven Spielberg, Jim Henson, Bill Watterson, Jeff Smith. They all have works that walk that line between being entertainment for children and for adults.
We had a great experience in my family this year. My nephew finally got old enough to read the Harry Potter books. It was a big deal for him because all the adults in his life – his parents, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles – had read the books for themselves already. Sometimes more than once. As he finished each one, we’d have these big group discussions about what was happening at Hogwarts, and what he thought would happen next, and who was evil or not, and which were his favorite books so far. It was awesome to see how his reading of these books became an event for everyone across three generations. For my nephew it was this rite of passage on the way to adulthood. He was now in on the conversation. For the adults, it was an opportunity to see the story through new eyes.
That’s my hope for Karate Petshop as a company – that we become a brand that people really think of as for ALL Ages. I want our titles to be something that can excite kids and adults in equal measure and can create that shared fan experience that crosses generations.
BD: As a special treat, you will soon be releasing a read-along audio version of The Naughty List. What encouraged you to provide readers with this bonus feature, and how/where will it be available?
NH: With Karate Petshop being a new publisher, we wanted to do something that gave our first book just a little extra bit of value for the money. And, for our accidental picture book, a read-along audio seemed like the perfect fit.
We hope the availability of the audio will create convenience for parents, making it easier for their younger kids to enjoy the book multiple times. And, even for older kids and kids at heart, the audio creates an extra layer of humor to the story by juxtaposing this nice, gentle, upper-crust character reading a story about (spoiler alert) Santa Claus kidnap attempts and spray paint vandalism and giant lizards. We hope it’s something everyone who buys the book will take advantage of and enjoy.
The read-along audio is available as a free download on The Naughty List project page at KaratePetshop.com.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
NH: Karate Petshop’s next project is RIKKI – a graphic novel adaptation of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I wrote the adaptation, and the art is by the super-talented Matthew Foltz-Gray. That should be printed and ready for sale in Spring 2016.
We also are in discussion to have another comic project set for Fall 2016. I’m really excited for this one, because I’m not part of the creative team. Karate Petshop is just the publisher. I love writing, but it’s been very fulfilling helping to create a home for a project that isn’t mine. I can’t wait until I can tell everyone about it.
While we’re not currently accepting submissions at this time, we definitely want to do more projects like this one, so we hope an open submissions policy is something we can work towards. Karate Petshop plans to have a new book out each spring and fall for the foreseeable future.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about The Naughty List and your other work?
NH: In addition to KaratePetshop.com, which will detail all our projects and link to our online store, Karate Petshop is on Facebook and Twitter (@KaratePetshop). As our books hit market, and we hold signing events and go to conventions, we’ll be updating those feeds regularly so readers know where to find us and our books.