Cathy Camper and Raul the Third launched into intergalactic travel with their first graphic novel, Lowriders in Space. This middle grade adventure follows three friends-slash-mechanics as they compete to create the best lowrider car in the galaxy. The highly anticipated sequel, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, came out July 5th from Chronicle Books and features an even greater mix of fun, science, and Spanish. Camper, who is also a youth outreach librarian for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, took the time tell us more about her creative process, graphic novels, and what’s next for the Lowriders.
NFNT Interviewer (Heather Dickerson): What are you reading right now? What’s your favorite graphic novel?
Cathy Camper: AUGH! Never ask a librarian that—I always have multiple books going at one time. I’m just finishing reading forty-five middle grade books for my librarian job, because we record video book talks for teachers about the “best books” of the past year. Sad to say, there’s still a lack of diversity, so as soon as I finish up I plan to read How to be a Chicana Role Model by Michele M. Serros. I don’t know if I have a favorite graphic novel, but I probably reread Krazy Kat the most, it’s just the best. Also excited to hear that the Hernandez Brothers Love and Rockets might start publishing more often again.
NFNT: Why graphic novels? Why do you love telling stories in this format?
Cathy: I’ve always loved the way comics and graphic novels can feed multiple lines of a story to your brain at the same time. The text tells you one thing, while the pictures may be showing you something quite different. But a reader is also picking up information from the font, chibis, emoticons, framing, etc. Also, writing a comic is a super cheap form of film making, that allows for all kinds of magic without a cost.
NFNT: What was the genesis for the idea of the Lowriders crew?
Cathy: I noticed doing outreach as a librarian, we couldn’t keep books on lowriders in stock; they just got grabbed up right away. But these were all nonfiction books. So I started daydreaming up an idea, what if there was a comic or picture book about these cars? Somehow I got the idea of a car detailed by outer space…and then the title popped up, Lowriders from Space. It was all notes scribbled on scrap paper and daydreams for the first year or so, until I had enough to write a short script. The original script could have been a picture book too—it was much shorter—because I didn’t know which way it would sell. When Chronicle took it on, we had to flesh out the manuscript considerably to build it into a full-length graphic novel. But for book 2 it was the reverse, we had plenty of action to fill the pages!
NFNT: Why did you choose to make them animals?
Cathy: I had thought up the name Elirio Malaria first; it was just fun to say, like a roller coaster for your tongue. But then I kept wondering, what kind of guy would be named Elirio Malaria? This was one of those examples where your character actually speaks to you—it was like a little voice said “Hey, I’m not a guy, I’m a mosquito.” Oh. So then I thought up Lupe Impala—she’s named after the Chevy Impala, which is the prized car of lowriders. And Flapjack Octopus is a real kind of octopus. They have short stubby legs, and that’s why they’re called flapjacks. They are super cute—you can look them up and see real photos. So that’s how the characters came about, but as Raul and I worked on the strip, we also realized that by having animals, we could make comments that we couldn’t do if we’d had human characters. We wanted to be sure nothing was stereotyped or caricatures in a bad way.
NFNT: You and Raul live in different cities. Will you talk a little bit about the creative process you use to collaborate?
Cathy: Yeah, we’re lucky in that we share the same sense of humor, the same work ethic and the same spirit of collaboration. So it’s like we’re jazz musicians improvising on a shared tune. In general, I come up with the script first, go through several drafts with our editors, then the script goes to Raul and he blocks it out and draws it. Sometimes he’ll need to cut lines, or suggest changes in the script to better match what he’s drawn. Sometimes I’ll tell him things that need to be drawn or written into the art. It’s rare to have this kind of collaboration in kids’ picture books, more common somewhat in comics. I think that’s why the book feels so rich; you have two people’s imaginations running around in the same landscape. But sometimes it’s frustrating having a three-hour time difference between us, just in terms of making phone calls, etc. It’s also aggravating sometimes, that I’m pretty much done with the writing by the time Raul gets engrossed in the art. There’s a time lag—so he’ll be all excited about something six months or a year after I wrote it.
NFNT: How does your work as a librarian influence what you write and who you write for?
Cathy: I work as a youth outreach librarian for the public library in Mutlnomah County, in Portland, Oregon. I visit kids and schools grades K-12 all year long. I see everyday what books kids and teachers need, which books connect and which flop, and what kids study at different grade levels. That’s all super important if you write for kids. I also interact with parents, teachers, and kids so I hear a lot about what folks need. That said, my books are also just stories I would like to read.
NFNT: What’s something you’d like to share with teachers, librarians, and readers of graphic novels?
Cathy: I think it’s really important to support diversity in what’s published, what you read, and what we share in schools and libraries, so that readers can find themselves, whoever they are, in books. When I do school visits, I tell kids when I was growing up, comics were made by older white guys writing about super heroes. But now you can find all kinds of books written by all kinds of people. I like to mention El Deafo and Smile as examples of how what kids are experiencing right now might provide material for something they might write later as an adult. And books like American Born Chinese, March, and The Shark King are great examples of how a diversity of creators provides both a wider variation of books and role models of writers and artists, for kids.
NFNT: What’s in store next for Lupe, Elirio, and El Chavo?
Cathy: Ah, we just got the OK from our publisher to start working on a third book, so guess what I’m doing this summer? In book three, we meet our three heroes as kids, learn about how they grew up, what their families were like, and how they met. And oh yeah—their rides—lowrider bikes!
NFNT: What do you hope your readers take away from the stories you tell about the Lowriders?
Cathy: Our books have a strong message of empowerment and self esteem, that you can build a lowrider car, write, draw a comic, or do whatever kind of creative thing you dream up, if you put some work into it, and possibly collaborate with friends. Raul drew our books with ballpoint pens because it’s what kids have available to them—art can be made with anything. I also wanted to empower kids to read the book on their own, so we included glossaries for Spanish, car, and science terms, and notes at the back to talk about lowrider history, Aztec culture, etc. I hope readers see themselves in our books, but also expand their worlds by reading our comics, whether it’s because they learn something new, or they just like silly, outrageous puns.