Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock Talk with Roger

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Graphic novelists, comics artists, whatever we call them, Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock talk to me about their new book Salt Magic and the nature of collaboration.

Roger Sutton: If I were to write term papers, I could write a terrific one on the relationship between this book and John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” It’s basically a woman in white who loves you and then wrecks you.

Hope Larson: Exactly like our book.

RS: Where did this witch come from?

HL: The outline for this story came together really fast — in a night! As a rule, I usually labor over these things for weeks. But I was going through a tough time in my mid-thirties. In trying to figure out how I wanted the rest of my life to go, I was at this crossroads with my career and personal life. I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I wanted to be, or where I saw myself in five years. Dee, the Sugar Witch, and Greda, the Salt Witch, both came out of that questioning. And that translated really well to a middle-grade book and to the pre-adolescent main character, Vonceil, who is also trying to figure out what kind of person she wants to be as an adult. She’s chafing at the roles that are being offered to her by society at the time, which was 1919.

RS: Middle-grade certainly is a time when children are becoming more aware of the bigger world, and thinking, Where am I going to go in it? What’s my path?

HL: Yeah. So I wrote the outline, and I passed it to Rebecca early on. I showed it to Margaret Ferguson, our editor, first, but then I got Rebecca linked in pretty quickly. We were able to start developing these characters in tandem. Rebecca did so many wonderful early concept sketches that helped me to get a handle on who these characters were. Rebecca, do you want to talk about that?

Rebecca Mock: Sure. The earliest drawings of Vonceil, for instance — she had long hair and a big bow. But Greda was very clear in my mind when I read the original outline. She’s very true throughout. A lot of the characters I got to have fun with, based on the outline, and to decide what would be fun to draw. The process for this book evolved from working on our other books, Compass South and Knife’s Edge, where I would send sketches periodically as I was developing characters, and Hope would give feedback, and we’d go back and forth. But because I was involved so early with this one, some of my ideas informed decisions that were made in the actual writing process. This project was much more collaborative, and it was really fun for me to play with visually.

RS: Can we take a step back, and can you tell me: when it comes to a graphic novel, what does the word outline mean?

HL: There’s really no set thing that it means for every cartoonist. Because I’m a little more focused on the writing aspect, it’s pretty much what you would see for a novel: a few pages of prose that outline the plot, the characters. Here’s where we’re going to go, beat by beat, throughout the book.

RS: A collaboration like you’re describing is so different from what we think of with picture books, where author and illustrator may never even meet or talk.

HL: That sounds really challenging. One of the things that is so nice about working with Rebecca is that we have a shared Dropbox, an online archive, basically. We can both be researching independently and putting images or whatever we find into the Dropbox and see it in real time. When I was writing the script, I put a bunch of pictures in there for Rebecca, and she did the same as well — I actually don’t even know, at this point, who added what. It’s still there, and it’s fun to go back and look at those early influences, those little ideas that we were sharing.

RM: Not just drawings — I would send pictures I found in books and little excerpts. Anything of interest, really. Anything inspiring. I’ve worked on projects, too, where I’ve gotten the manuscript as a finished product and I’m doing my drawings based on that, never having any interaction with the author. It’s perfectly nice to do that type of project, but it is very different. I can just email or text Hope and say, “I just found this really cool thing; what do you think?”

RS: Were you going behind my dear friend Margaret’s back?

HL: I wouldn’t say that. Everything goes through Margaret! It was early exploratory stuff that we did together, and then I went away and wrote the script. Margaret and I hammered out the script for a few drafts, and then it went back to Rebecca. The purest sort of collaboration was before I even started writing. From there, we parted ways a little bit. I did the writing part, and Rebecca did the art part. We came back together in the end, and I did the lettering and made sure that the text fit with the art. Things always change from the script, and you’ve got to be able to finesse it all.

RM: We had our respective roles, our respective responsibilities, once things got rolling.

RS: You’re both writers and cartoonists. Is there any competitiveness in putting a book like this together?

HL: I think so, and it’s largely a good thing. We’ve worked together several times. Rebecca was a much younger artist when we started, and they’ve come into their power, which is really cool to see. With this book, I felt more like I was jockeying with an equal. Not that you weren’t an equal on the other books, Rebecca, but you brought a confidence to this project that you can really only get by having a few books under your belt.

RM: I would agree. That’s how it felt for me as well. With Compass South and Knife’s Edge, I was learning a lot directly from Hope. I was also learning, in general, about who I was as an artist. With Salt Magic, I came to it from a place of knowing what I like and what I wanted to do. My personal goal was to do the very best that I could with this book. It was really exciting to be able to bring that confidence to a project. It was energizing. I think that comes through.

HL: For sure. And I also know, having worked with you a couple of times, the kinds of things that you like to draw, and I’m able to tailor elements of the story and the visuals to that.

RS: You mean like “Rebecca likes to draw horses, so I’m going to put the character on a horse”?

RM: I don’t think that was very challenging!

HL: Rebecca definitely likes challenges.

RS: As an illustrator you’re basically following the directions of the text. But as you’re describing it, it’s also about how to make it your book as well. Would that be correct?

RM: There’s interest in that, for sure. It’s partially looking at the script and saying, “What is the writer’s intent? How can I, as clearly as possible, show that and stay true to it?” But with this book, I made more decisions that were more personal. Hope might include the direction to have a panel that shows so-and-so, and I would think about it and maybe break it into two panels showing something else. But all of that led back to the original intent of the script, its core. It’s always fun to play with what can I change and enhance from my perspective.

RS: Hope, did you ever find yourself saying, “Wait, that’s not what Vonceil looked like”? Or, “Too many frills on the Sugar Witch’s dress”? Or do you stay out of it?

HL: I think I just don’t really ever fully know the characters until I see them drawn. They’re in soft focus when I’m writing the script. Once Rebecca starts doing sketches and art, they come more clearly into focus for me. I can hear their voices better. I know their expressions. It’s the process of getting to know them through Rebecca which is really special.

RS: That becomes your vision of the character, then, what Rebecca has given you?

HL: Exactly.

RS: How about the landscape? Who’s responsible for that fascinating Wild West landscape?

HL: I think that was mostly Rebecca. I more tried to provide an atmosphere and a feeling through the script.

RM: You’re right — it was more open. Those scenes, in particular, where Vonceil is riding her horse across various landscapes — that’s a good example of times in the script where that might have said “one panel” or a very short description. “Vonceil rides her horse.” And I took that to be, “Okay, Vonceil rides her horse across this Joshua Tree type of landscape, because that’s what I would like to draw. And I would like the camera to focus this way, like a super-wide shot, and show all of this space.” That’s where I started dropping in little nuggets of atmosphere. I think that did come from just me sketching.

HL: That sounds right. When I’m writing, I’m usually most concerned with pacing and text, and beyond that, I try to put the least amount of information that will convey what the scene is.

RS: It would seem to me that the pacing would be something that you both have to take responsibility for, right?

HL: Yes, that’s true. What I mean by pacing, and why that’s a concern for me, is I write full scripts. So basically a page of script is a page of the book. Page breaks, like in a picture book, where you turn the page, are really important; how much information is on each page is important. Because we’re doing a pretty large book, we’re trying to keep the page count reasonable. I try to always think: What can I fit into this book? How much can I fit in without it feeling cramped?

RM: And the page-turn plays such a huge role in comics. You have to really be able to understand the comics form to break a whole story into page-by-page. Hope does that so well. Because she writes full scripts, it’s always very easy to figure out the intent, not just of the whole story, but what each page is saying. What typifies the books that we’ve done together is this really wonderfully energetic pace to all the stories.

RS: For a long time now, over a year, reviewers have been working from digital books, PDFs. Which means we have to imagine the page-turn. We don’t get it the same way a person does with the book.

RM: I have to say, I read most of my comics digitally. I’ll always buy a physical book if I really want the physical item, but I love reading digital comics. Even when it’s a very traditional page-by-page, you still get a lot of emotion from the next image.

RS: I think a lot of that will come from how that digital comic is being presented to you. Are you just looking at a PDF and scanning back and forth, or are there page-turn mechanisms? How does that work?

RM: And do you see the double-page spreads? Because sometimes you need that.

HL: That’s the biggest concern for me with reading stuff on the computer or digitally. There are so many spreads where if you weren’t getting the full picture, or if it was getting crunched down to fit on the screen, you’re losing a lot, especially some of those beautiful party scenes.

RM: And I did this entire book as spreads, because I wanted each two-pager, even when they weren’t connected pages, to be cohesive, color-wise and style-wise.

RS: And saving the shifts for the page-turn, just like any good illustrated book, using that page-turn to move the story forward.

RM: Exactly.

RS: I’ve known Margaret for thirty or forty years. She’s a master of picture-book editing. It’s interesting for me to see her editing in this new — to us old people — medium.

HL: She is an incredible editor. I really love working with her. She has a lot of helpful comments on continuity stuff, the kinds of things that always slip by me.

RM: “If this person is right-handed, why are they holding that thing with their left hand?” That was a note.

HL: It’s always so helpful to get those notes.

RM: That’s the kind of thing an editor is for. You need someone to look at the full picture and say, “This isn’t making sense realistically. This person would move this way. It’s throwing me out of the story."

HL: There’s actually a lot of benefit to working with Margaret with comics not being her main focus, historically. She notices things and has questions that people like me and Rebecca, who have spent years and years reading comics, do not even notice.

RS: It’s comic into book, and book into children’s book. The universes of comics and children’s books overlap like they never have before, but they’re still kind of distinct worlds, I think.

HL: They are, for sure. I have a two-year-old, so we read a lot of picture books. It’s been really interesting to see how many elements of comics are creeping into books that are straight-up picture books.

RS: Yes, they are. We’ll get some books sent in for review that we’re like, “Wait, is this a comic? Is this a picture book? Is this a graphic novel?” The goal of reviewing is not to define things, but it’s become very tricky to distinguish. Which is ultimately a good thing, right?

RM: Oh, yeah.

HL: Anything that expands the boundaries of what you can do creatively is awesome. I’m for that.

RM: Definitely. It is good to ask yourself: What is the purpose of things like word balloons? Why do we recognize word balloons as things people are saying? Why do we recognize these tools of comics as they are? How are they formed? Also, having comics literacy is important to consuming any kind of visual medium now. It’s part of our visual language.

RS: There was one moment, one panel, where Vonceil was saying something in a speech balloon, and in the next, she’s saying something directly to us, with no speech balloon. It was a very effective contrast.

HL: Thank you. I love doing that. It’s one of my favorite things about comics, that you can see that internal/external thing visually.

RM: It’s so interesting how different artists play with that as well. Everyone has a slightly different pattern for when someone is switching from thinking to narrating to speaking.

HL: What’s cool about doing that in a comic is that it gives the impression that it’s happening at the same time, versus in a novel where you would have your line of dialogue and then you would have the internal monologue or whatever. It doesn’t feel quite the same. It’s one of those special things about comics.

RS: So many things are being taken in by the reader at the same time. It’s the panel, it’s the page, it’s the panel before, it’s the panel after, all of that’s coming at you at once, whereas in a novel, it’s word by word.

HL: Right. Comics are all about playing with time.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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