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Holms, Sweet Holms

Squish, a new early-reader graphic novel series starring a single-celled super amoeba and a few of his single-celled friends, is brought to us by a pretty familiar early-reader graphic novel dynamic duo. Jennifer and Matthew Holm are the successful brother-sister, writer-artist team behind the Babymouse series, and in this new follow-up series about a character named Squish, they seem to have two new goals in mind. First, they are out to introduce readers to a whole new set of characters, adventures, and epic single-celled battles between good and evil. Second, they are clearly cognizant that Squish, his friends, and their adventures provide an excellent opportunity for early-reader teachers of both language arts and science.

In this interview, Jennifer and Matthew Holm talk about what exactly generated the idea to not only write a new series, but also write a new series that stars a pretty creative main character: A single-celled super amoeba!
 
After the success of the Babymouse series, why write an entire new series, with an entirely new set of characters?
Well, when you’re a brother-and-sister team writing a series inspired by the sister’s life, eventually that brother’s going to want his say. And his say may involve green, blobby amoebas.
 
One of the most endearing aspects of Babymouse is its use and emphasis on the color pink. And, as much as I think pink is and should be considered a color for all kids–both boys and girls–I have found many teachers assigning Babymouse only to their female students. Thus, I wonder if the switch to a more assumedly gender-neutral color forSquish–especially green–was purposeful. What do you both think about the predominant use of the color pink in Babymouse and the subsequent predominant use of the color green in Squish?
The colors for the books really grew out of the characters. When we set out to make Babymouse, we didn't say, "We need to make the PINKEST book EVER, so that girls will read it!" We just made Babymouse who she was, and one of the things she was into was the color pink. When it came time to craft Squish, we knew we would need an accent color for the books. So, Squish being a boy—and a boy who lives inside a slimy pond—we figured that a slimy green color would be the most appropriate. We hope boy readers will like it, but, honestly, whenever we go to schools, we already find boys and girls reading Babymouse in equal numbers.
 
Since Babymouse (and most likely Squish in the near future)is so popular in early reader classrooms, I have been asked by a second grade class in Jacksvonville, Florida (Mrs. Bell’s second graders at Windy Hill Elementary), to find out about your writing process. How do you two generate ideas for your stories? And who writes the stories and who does the illustrations? 
We split the duties with Jenni doing the heavy lifting with the writing and laying-out and Matt doing the very heavy lifting with the illustrating. Jenni considers her elementary school years very melodramatic, so we’ve always had lots of material for Babymouse.
In terms of process, we typically brainstorm for a general storyline together. Then:
1) Jenni writes the story (using a storyboard layout).
2) It is revised many times after input from our fabulous editor.
3) It is finally approved, and then Matt does thumbnail sketches in pencil.
4) Jenni lays out the thumbnails.
5) Matt does more refined sketches with markers.
6) It is revised after input from our fabulous art director.
7) Matt draws the final art using a computer.
8) We collapse.
 
Since they are currently studying and reading graphic novels in groups, these second graders also wanted to know what happens when you have an “awesome and creative idea” you want to share with your friends. In other words, can you offer any insight or advice on how to write graphic novel stories collaboratively with classmates, friends, family, or peers? 
We are living proof that collaboration works. After all, if you can work with the person you blamed for breaking the vase when you were a kid, you can work with anyone.
 
The key to a good collaboration is to not take criticism personally (and, yes, that’s hard). But you have to learn to trust that everyone is on the same team and sometimes at the end of the day, two heads are really better than one!
 
Of growing interest in the graphic novel community is the need for more cross-content-area graphic novels. Squish is a perfect example of an early reader cross-content-area graphic novel that can be used in both language arts and science classrooms. Was this emphasis on multiple content areas purposeful on your part? And if so, why?
It was; we've seen how much educators seem to love using the literary references in Babymouse as a jumping-off point to teach about other books, and we wanted to make sure Squish had the same appeal. The science angle was really inspired by our parents' medical backgrounds, Matt's childhood fascination with reading books about outer space, and Jenni’s son's strange affection for slime mold. Of course, the trick is to use a light hand with the "Real Science" content; otherwise it can get in the way of the story.
 
Two of the major themes in Squish are bullying and courage. In my reading of Squish, I felt like pairing the word “bullying” with the word “courage” was not only smart, but also a conversation starter. What do you hope teachers, librarians, parents, and student readers will talk about when they pair bullying and courage? 
Making simple choices—whom to be friends with, how to behave in the world—are such basic things when you are a kid. While the “right” solution may seem obvious with the retrospective hue of age, it is hard when you are seven (or eight or ten or fourteen). It takes courage to stand up to a bully, and even more courage to stick your neck out when the bully is targeting someone other than you.
 
One of my favorite parts of Squish is the final science lesson, which asks kids if they want to learn how to make mold. The kid in me wanted to make mold immediately. And in fact, I did! Whose idea was it to include this science lesson on how to make mold? And are there more fun science lessons with Squish planned for future graphic novels in the series? 
Have you seen the inside of Jenni’s refrigerator? Let’s just say it wasn’t a hard call as to who came up with the mold lesson. We’ll definitely do more fun science experiments with Pod in the future!
 
When you were growing up, did you read comics and graphic novels? And if so, were your parents and/or teachers receptive to your reading of comics and/or graphic novels?  
Our dad was actually the biggest comic/cartoon strip fan in the family. He loved Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon and we had the bound collected volumes in our house when we were growing up. We fought over them (and still do).
 
If you were asked to talk directly to teachers about the value of reading comics and graphic novels like Squish, what would you say to them? 
Give a kid a comic and you will grow you a reader.
 
At the end of the day, what do you hope kids will learn from reading about the adventures of Squish and his friends? 
Slime mold is more dangerous than it looks.