We recently asked two longtime KCU members, Jannie Ho and Steve Metzger, to share the stories of how they became children’s book and graphic novel creators. Everyone has a unique path, but at the same time, you can get a lot of inspiration from other people’s journeys.
We hope Jannie and Steve inspire you!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background?
Hi! My name is Jannie Ho (pronounced Jane-nee) and I’m a children’s book author/illustrator and comics creator. My background is in illustration but I started out working as a designer for various children’s publishers and magazines. It was when I was working at Scholastic Book Clubs that really fueled my love of children’s books. Soon after, I decided to become an illustrator full time and for the past few years-started to write my own stories too. I create board books, picture books, and artwork for magazines. I also love creating comics for all ages. My comic, called Creative Obstacles ABCs- is about the struggles we face as creatives through the lens of a neurotic chicken (slightly autobiographical).
I grew up in Queens with my mother, father, and sister. I received a business degree from Baruch College, which I immediately ignored upon graduation. I’ve had many jobs over the years (all of which I’ve learned something from), including movie-theater usher, hotel reservations clerk, dishwasher, taxi driver, independent school Admissions Director, and preschool teacher. Before becoming a full-time writer of children’s books, I spent 20 stimulating years as an Editorial Director and part-time writer with Scholastic’s book clubs.
Why did you decide to start creating comics?
I’ve been dabbling in comics for a long time, alongside with my professional children’s book work. Although comics always felt much more personal to me. I’m known as Chicken Girl online so I started to draw my life experiences in comic form as an Anthropomorphic Chicken. It started when I moved from New York City to Michigan and experienced a bit of culture shock. To cope, I created this comic called “ If You Lived Here,” which was part of the Sketchbook Project. It documented my feelings, helped me connect with others, and felt less lonely. I made copies and sold them at MoCCA, found that people enjoyed my humor. It was surprising that different types of people connected to my stories- as humans we are all more alike than we think.
When I was 14 years old at Parsons Junior High School, My friend Steve K. and I decided to create a comic strip. Very offbeat, these five three-panel comic strips were about two clueless brothers — think a less edgy Beavis and Butthead –but this was created many years before those guys appeared on TV came. They were called the Duh Brothers and that was that. Except that I never forgot them. It was my dream to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. When graphic novels came into vogue, I thought that format might work for Walter and Christopher Duh. Many false starts later, the name was changed from the Duh Brothers to the Bumble Brothers. Also, most importantly, I got connected to a wonderful agent (that would be Janna) and the brilliant illustrator, Brian Schatell. And now, about 50 years later, my old comic-strip idea has been reborn. I guess the overarching message is — “Never give up!”
What type of work do you create? What are you working on now?
I write and illustrate a variety of children’s books. My art and stories seem to resonate with the younger age group, so I work on a lot of board books and younger picture books. Currently I’m finishing up my first early reader graphic novel with Holiday House and illustrating another graphic novel series called Fry Guys, written by Eric Geron, being published by Andrews McMeel. I also have a semi-regular comic series in Highlights for Children High Five magazine called Super Chicken and Shelly.
Although most of my writing over the years has been picture books for young children, I am now mostly focused on writing Bumble Brothers’ graphic novels. Bumble Brothers #1, the first of a three-book series (chosen by the Junior Library Guild as a Gold Standard selection), was published in Oct. 2022. The second one is coming out in Oct. 2023. Finishing writing touches is now happening for #3, scheduled for Oct. 2024.
What tool has improved your workflow or creative process recently? (This could be anything — an app, a plug-in, a specific brand of pen or paper, a particular software or hardware, an invigorating type of tea, whatever!)
Surprisingly, I started using Google slides quite a lot after KCI. It is simple, free, and easily shareable. I use it to figure out pagination and layouts of what I am working on, and google makes it easy to share it with critique groups. I have many other apps or software options I can use, but sometimes we just need something simple at the work-in-progress stage so it doesn’t tie us down in the creative process.
Since I’m purely a writer, I have to give an old-school answer to this question. My best tools have always been my imagination, my personal memories, and the routines I remember from my comedy heroes.
What books, websites, social media accounts, or podcasts are particularly inspiring to you right now? Where do you go when you need a dose of creative inspiration?
What is very helpful these days is stepping away from social media to find inspiration. There are already tons of beautiful art I see everyday online. So I think the trick for me is to look inward instead of outward. This year, one of the themes for myself is to remember how weird I once was. I feel too influenced by what I see on social media, so I’m trying to listen to my true self more.
I enjoy checking in on the websites/newsletters of the following creators:
- Annie B (byannieb.com/links/)
- Lincoln Peirce (www.gocomics.com/bignate)
- John Patrick Green (Johngreenart.com)
- Misako Rocks (misakorocks.com)
- John Gallagher (maxmeow.com)
- Jeff Smith (boneville.com)
- Ryan Claytor (www.elephanteater.com)
How did you find out about Kids Comics Unite? Have you taken the Intensive course and/or become a Studio member? If so, what aspects of those programs helped you?
I found out about KCU through a Facebook group. I’ve taken the intensive course twice! The process of creating a graphic novel is quite different from creating board/picture books although there are many similarities. So to learn about how other artists’ process is like was an eye opener. I love that the classes are live and I felt the sense of community to push me along in my journey. The vibe was very encouraging but also intense! (which is a good thing for me!)
One day, about three years ago, during lunch with a Scholastic colleague, she mentioned recently reading a PW Spotlight that a former Scholastic employee — someone she had a very high regard for — was starting her own agency. Of course, that would be Janna, and after a lunch in Manhattan Janna just before Covid really shut things down, I was very fortunate that she agreed to represent me. I’ve been an active participant and a big fan of Kids Comics Unite ever since!
What’s the most valuable thing that you’ve gotten from your experience in Kids Comics Intensive or Kids Comics Studio?
My critique group from KCI! Without my group, my early reader GN would not exist. I love that we still meet regularly and talk shop, discuss ideas, etc. (Shout out to Jade, Martina, and Katie!)
I guess that would be three things:
- Janna is the guiding light of KCU. It’s her boundless energy and enthusiasm that makes the magic happen. It doesn’t hurt that she has tons or expertise and that she’s always learning along with all the other members
- The lunch-and-learn creators who have presented to KCU members have shared so much useful information about the process of creating and the publishing biz. Among these were: Eric Grisson, Andi Watson, Ryan Claytor, Matt McClure, Alec Frankel, Kate Farrall, Emma Dryden, and so many more.
- The Community — the people in KCU are open, funny, honest, and interesting. My publishing contacts have really opened up.
What’s a favorite project that you’ve worked on so far in your career? What did you love about it?
The ABCs series I worked on started out as a personal project/ idea for a postcard mailer. It gave a lot of insights on how I work best (having specific parameters), tested my patience (it took a long time for the series to end up being in book form), and delighted me (the Halloween theme of the series ended up being licensed as tableware at Pottery Barn, which was a huge surprise.)
My favorite project was creating a picture book with Tedd Arnold, one of my children’s book writer/illustrator heroes. I knew Tedd through working together on a shared project at Scholastic. I had an idea for “Mother Goose Noir” nursery-rhyme mystery books about what happened to Little Miss Muffet when the spider scared her away. When he agreed to my suggestion about working together on this project, I was in 7th heaven.
What advice do you wish you could give your younger self, or other people who are just getting started as writers or artists?
An artist’s life is full of weird and twisty turns. There is no straight path. Just trust and enjoy the process. The best part of it all is seeing the fruits of your labor bloom from all the seeds you’ve taken the time to plant. And it always blooms in the most unexpected ways.
My advice to people who are just getting started as writers or artists is to “just be you. Don’t forget that there is no one quite like you.” Also, try not to be discouraged by rejections. Everyone gets rejected. Being rejected means that you’ve tried…and that’s a good thing, brave thing! Also, write from the heart, never stop reading, and don’t be influenced by publishing fads.
Where can people connect with/find out more about you? Please list as many links as you want.
My website: http://www.JannieHo.com
Are you working on a kids or YA graphic novel project yourself? Or interested in getting started? Hooray! Kids Comics Intensive, KCU’s in-depth, 13 week course about the A to Z of creating a kids/YA graphic novel, opens for enrollment on Jan 27th. Click below to find out more.