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Tom Angleberger Talks with Roger

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tom anglebergerI honestly thought I left comic books behind fifty years ago, but my life — and I presume yours — is more filled with them now than ever. Would young librarians even believe the disdain with which the profession was supposed to regard what we used to call subliterature? Popular children’s writer Tom Angleberger below speaks — with pride — of the inspiration he finds in the superhero universe.

Roger Sutton: I just did a Talks with Roger with Lisa Yee, who’s writing a series for DC and Random House called Super Hero Girls about superheroes in high school — a teenage Supergirl, a teenage Wonder Woman. And then you’re up next, and we’ve got more movies and comics tie-in books. What do you think is going on?

Tom Angleberger: It’s kind of crazy. It used to feel like when books were spun off from movies, what happened in the books had to be pretty much in line with what was in the movie. But at Marvel, they’ve set me loose with Rocket and Groot, and the sky’s the limit. I get to write whatever I want, and it’s been a blast.

RS: The characters Groot and Rocket preceded the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, right? Were these characters you were familiar with?

TA: I was. In the ’80s, Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola did a four-part Rocket Raccoon comics series. These were seventy-five-cent comic books, so for three dollars, you got one of the greatest, most mind-blowing things that’s ever been created in comics. Those guys were incredible. I wanted to have fun like they were having fun. That was one of the main reasons I signed on to this series. And I saw it as an opportunity to write science-fiction in the style of Stanisław Lem. I don’t know if you know him.

RS: I do.
TA: He would send his characters into these crazy situations on other planets while what he was really doing was writing about life behind the Iron Curtain. And because the stories involved robots or aliens instead of the Kremlin, he would get away with it, whereas people who actually wrote about life behind the Iron Curtain were sent to a gulag. He had this incredible way of commenting on the world as he saw it by setting the events in a different world. I realized that I could send Rocket and Groot to a different world in every book, and it would be my chance to mess around with the concerns of our world. So the first book, Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall!, is my critique of strip malls, and the second book is going to explore my concerns about the self-driving car armada that is headed our way.

RS: Yeah, those scare me. I don’t even know how to drive and they scare me. Although I guess they would be perfect for somebody like me.

TA: The one thing that concerned me was the amount of violence in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. But I realized I can just replace straight-up violence with mayhem, and possibly a small amount of toilet humor.

RS: What’s the difference between violence and mayhem?

TA: Violence would be, like, Rocket Raccoon answering every situation with a bigger gun. That’s basically Rocket Raccoon in the comic books.

RS: That’s basically America in 2017.

angleberger_rocket and groot stranded at planet strip mallTA: That’s quite possible. What I decided was I had to find a way to write these books so Rocket wasn’t pointing a gun at people all the time. Or ever, if I could help it. Instead of solving things that way, we solve things by commandeering a garbage truck. Or like in Stranded on Planet Strip Mall! — we had an attack of space piranhas.

RS: And toilets that eat you.

TA: Right. You fight off killer robots by combining a tidal wave of Diet Coke with Mentos. Stuff like that. Mayhem, not guns and violence all the time. It was an interesting challenge.

RS: When I was in library school, which was thirty-five years ago now, the whole point of children’s literature — according to what I learned in library school — was to get kids away from comics. Comics weren’t allowed in the library. Nancy Drew wasn’t allowed in the freaking library, according to my professor, and now we’re cheek-by-jowl with that sort of stuff. What do you think about it?

TA: With the Rocket and Groot series, I wanted to write something that was between a comic book and a novel. A lot of traditional novels have roadblocks for reluctant readers, and sometimes readers can’t get past them. I wasn’t a reluctant reader as a kid, but when I would hit a roadblock, such as a full page of description, it would just stop me cold. I would end up either flying through a book or putting it down and then regretting it. I wanted to create books that, similar to comic books, would have no roadblocks for reluctant readers. These books have no descriptions, just dialogue and sound effects. I removed things like “comma, he said,” “comma, she shouted,” with an adverb after it. I just wanted to strip the text down. Not every kid will pick the books up, but for the ones who do, I don’t want anything to stop them.

RS: I was thinking they would make good Readers’ Theater books. Can’t you imagine a group of kids having a great time with that?

TA: That would be fun.

RS: Who do you like better, Rocket, Groot, or Veronica, the Talking Tape Dispenser?

TA: The three of them really make a perfect team. I enjoy each of them. I like knowing what each one is going to say and how that is going to drive the others crazy.

RS: Well, we always know what Groot is going to say.

TA: Isn’t that brilliant? I tell kids that half the book is written before I even start it. I just have to figure out what Rocket’s going to say.

RS: I was thinking of sending Disney a mock-up of our interview where we would just be saying “I am Groot” back and forth to each other.

TA: That would be great. I would be totally okay with that.

RS: How is it different for you, working on an established universe you have to find your way into, as opposed to a universe you’ve created yourself?

TA: One of the nice things is you don’t have to spend five chapters with, like, “Rocket was an ordinary raccoon. He never dreamed that one day he’d see the galaxy.” You don’t have to get into “…then Rocket found out he was really a half-cyborg, and then he met a talking tree.” The kids already know Rocket. I don’t have to give them any backstory. I can just go. When I write my own characters, I try to have them make so much sense to kids that I don’t have to do all that backstory either. I’m not one-hundred-percent sure if it’s successful, but hopefully it sets a flytrap. [Ed. note: We see what you did there.] Kids get what they need within the first page, then I can start having fun by page two.

angleberger_beware the power of the dark sideRS: I want to talk about the difference between when you have a lot of structure, as in your Star Wars series entry Beware the Power of the Dark Side!, which follows a well-known story, and when you’re completely free, as in the Rocket and Groot books. How does that change the way you work?

TA: I haven’t really looked at it that way. For the Star Wars books, I was working from a book of movie stills that included just about every shot, so I was writing with that in front of me. One scene I actually wrote with the DVD on, watching, hitting pause, writing. That was very, very tight to the movie version. But I enjoy it, because I do love Star Wars. It was a chance to make myself think about stuff that I’d taken for granted for thirty years.

RS: While reading Beware the Power of the Dark Side!, I enjoyed the sense I had of being guided through the story by someone who really loved it. It was neat to be in the hands of an enthusiast.

TA: Oh, good. I’m glad that came across.

RS: It does. And Guardians of the Galaxy, is that also a favorite of yours?

TA: Well…

RS: Ooh, he pauses. He’s careful.

TA: I’m one of those people who likes a good G-rated movie. So many of my favorite movies are G-rated. I think it’s exciting to see a director really push the limits of how exciting a story can be told without ever crossing the G-rating line. But sometimes these PG-13 movies—partly because you know you’re in a theater with kids all around you—they can be a little upsetting. That was why I looked forward to telling Rocket and Groot my way, in a G-rated, at most PG—

RS: I think PG.

TA: It’s probably PG. The ratings board would have counted the number of times they use the toilet.

RS: It’s funny how you never know what’s going to upset people about a book. The toilet humor is going to set some parents off, in a way that even the most violent gunplay would not. Is that something you have to think about?

TA: You know, I’ve got the opposite problem. Every year when Banned Books Week comes around, I’m so left out. Nobody ever bans my books. I’ve written a book about a poop fountain. Two of the Origami Yoda books were basically how to rebel against standardized tests. I’ve got a book about a corpse. But nobody ever bans my books.

RS: Maybe it’s what you were saying about Stanisław Lem. By turning it into fantasy and humor, you get away with more.

TA: That may be the problem. I’ve defrayed the tension too much with the jokes.

RS: You have to write a tense young adult novel, Tom.

TA: That would be impossible for me. I can’t do it.

RS: You don’t think so?

TA: I have one I’m working on. It’s called Rattlesnake Ridge. It starts, “I was born on Rattlesnake Ridge. Well, actually, no one’s seen any rattlesnakes there for a long time.” And it goes downhill from there. I’ve got to figure out how to make it gritty.

RS: I’m sure you’ll get there. Everybody needs a change, right?

TA: No, I don’t think I’m ever going to change from writing frivolous, madcap middle-grade.

RS: Fart jokes for fourth graders.

TA: That’s the thing. You won’t believe this, but I don’t actually like potty humor. I’m very uncomfortable about it. I don’t like saying the word fart. I don’t like discussing it. But somehow it ends up coming out. The characters and the plot run away from you. You don’t always have control over it. I don’t need to write any more potty humor. I’ve had it.

RS: But it’s like your id is coming out.

TA: No, don’t say that! I hope that’s not true.

RS: Well, it’s got to come from someplace.

TA: You’re making me rethink my whole being.

RS: That’s what The Horn Book is for.

Sponsored by
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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Fart jokes are like farts, they just come out, regardless of you liking them or not. Thanks for the interesting interview Tom and Roger!

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