Odd couple characters abound in children’s books. If you think for a moment, I bet you can rattle off a bunch. There’s Frog and Toad, Elephant and Piggie, Narwhal and Jelly, George and Harold…Death and Sparkles the Unicorn..???
They are the dynamic duo of the new middle grade graphic novel Death & Sparkles by author/illustrator Rob Justus. Beautiful, brightly colored characters and lively banter make this such fun story to lose yourself in. There are many layers to this graphic novel, including a clever and darkly humorous social critique. My 8-year-old son and I both loved reading this together (he saw the colorful cover and made a beeline for it), and we are already looking forward to the next installment with anticipation.
I am so excited to talk to Rob today about his new book and his incredible work as an author and illustrator.
Hilary Margitich: Rob, welcome to Writers’ Rumpus! Can you tell me what inspired you to write this story?
Rob Justus: A few years ago, my good friend Katherine Battersby, who is also an author and an illustrator, mentioned to me over brunch that middle grade graphic novels were becoming quite an exciting thing, and shared an idea that she had for one of her own. I had been having a lot of fun doing picture books up until that point, but this conversation got my wheels turning. Then the very next day, my agent Molly O’Neill asked me if I had ever tried my hand at longer form storytelling and graphic novels. I grew up reading comic books, and that was almost all I read as a kid. I was a huge superhero fan. So, I went away for a little while and thought of some ideas, and then came back to Molly with five different ideas. I thought the Death and Sparkles one could maybe work, but the idea of the grim reaper and this cute unicorn was a little more risque, and I wasn’t sure if it would be age-appropriate or not. But when I pitched the concept to her, she really liked the oddball pairing.
Originally, this was going to be more like a Narwhal and Jelly, with skits for each chapter, but once Molly advised me to start world-building I just went crazy with that aspect of it, and started writing everything that I found interesting. Death & Sparkles is really a book that I wrote for me, and I just happened to have the humor of an eight-to-ten-year-old! It started with drawing Death first, and what would be a funny story for him, where Death is an office worker. He doesn’t really like his job, but he plods along at it, and follows the rules without really questioning anything. He is too afraid to quit. From there, the story just started spit-balling. What if he were friends with an exuberant unicorn? That would be a funny pairing, to have the dichotomy of those two different personalities. I really had a fun time writing this first book, and it just poured out of me. Also, coming up with Sparkles’ backstory, his personality, and the environment that he lives in. I found the back-and-forth between the two characters really fun. They are this oddball couple that don’t like each other at first, but then really end up becoming friends because of all these other circumstances.
I’m working on the second Death and Sparkles book right now, and I have three or four more books in my mind for this, so hopefully I can keep making these. I think it talks to the times in a weird way, and I hope it finds a great audience. It’s aimed at children, but I feel that it also has crossover appeal to quirky adults who love adventure.
HM: Did you have any graphic novels or comic books that inspired you when you started making this?
RJ: Somebody pointed me towards The Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey. They’re junior reader books, and there’s a whole series of them, where it’s a wolf and all of these animals. They’re bad characters that try to do good, but fail miserably often. I just found the humor so funny, and these books were so quick to read, and so fast-paced. I’d say those were probably my biggest influence for Death & Sparkles, just in the humor level and pacing of the story. I thought they were awesome.
HM: When did you first realize that writing and illustrating for children was your calling?
RJ: Growing up, I drew all the time. I wanted to be a comic book artist. That was kind of my thing and my dream. But at the time, I was discouraged from pursuing art because it wasn’t considered a safe, secure career path. It’s really competitive. So at university, I pivoted to a Sociology/Mass Communications major, which I found really interesting. I’m a bit of a math brain as well, and there was a statistics course that I really got into. From there, I fell into market research, and spent a good ten years or so doing that. I’m a curious person by nature, as I think a lot of creative people are. Market research allowed me to be creative by helping companies with their ad campaigns and helping government clients target certain people and get messages out that way. At the same time, I don’t think I was cut out for office work. I liked my job, but I certainly didn’t love it. Then when the market in Ottawa took a turn, I was laid off.
I started drawing again for the first time in about fifteen years. I started drawing cute little things for my niece and nephews, and got to see them have a fun reaction. Someone asked me if I had ever tried doing picture books, so I decided to try it. I re-taught myself how to draw, with color theory and composition. I have no formal art training whatsoever…zero. I read books on writing, watched YouTube videos on drawing, and just started playing around. I went to an SCBWI conference, and brought my portfolio at the time to be evaluated by an art director. That was kind of my make or break point, where I told myself if they really like my work, I’ll continue pursuing this career, but if they don’t, I’ll go back to finding an office job. They just so happened to really like what I had, and that was when I decided I was going to go head-first and see where this took me. For the last six or seven years, I’ve been on a life-changing journey. A crazy, crazy journey.
HM: What was your path to publication like?
RJ: I’m lucky in that I was able to get an agent pretty quickly after meeting with the art director at the SCBWI conference, but it was really by happenstance. I met an editor at that same conference, who told me one of her co-workers, Molly O’Neill, had just become an agent, and was looking for author/illustrators. I sent Molly an email with a few samples and a story, and she got back to me right away. We did a dance back and forth for a little while– she wanted to see how well I would take comments and revisions, and how I worked with that sort of stuff. After a couple of months, she signed me, and I think I was one of her first signees, as an agent.
From there, we went out trying to get my books out into the world. After about a year and a half, we got picked up by Page Street for a couple of books. Kid Coach came out last year. In terms of Death & Sparkles, we had it on submission for a while, and then finally towards the end, I was getting a little dejected, feeling like it wasn’t going to happen. Then all of a sudden, it went into a bidding war, out of nowhere.
HM: What is your writing and illustrating schedule/routine like?
RJ: I am a morning person, through and through. That is when I find I do my best work and it’s the best time for me to build momentum. So, for me, a day can start off really well, and I can just keep riding that wave all day, sometimes even into the evening. There have been times, like at crunch time, when I’ll easily put in a sixteen-hour day, just churning stuff out. But I’m definitely a morning person. I wake up knowing what I need to do, and stick to a routine. I get my coffee, sit down at my desk, and just let stuff pour out of me. Afternoon is when I’ll have a bit of a lull, generally, and I’m a big napper, and then I’ll regroup from there. And then sometimes in the evening, it picks up again.
HM: What advice would you give to new and aspiring author/illustrators?
RJ: I know exactly what advice I would give, and that is to persist! I tell a lot of people that this is a marathon and not a sprint. You’ve got to be prepared to be rejected often, and you’ve got to have a thick skin when it comes to that. But you also have to learn from these rejections, as well, and take the criticism as a learning experience. Then just keep chugging along, and you will make it at some point. That’s just kind of how it is. I’ve noticed that a lot of people that I met at that first conference have dropped off, but those that have stayed and kept working have started to get published, get agents, and get their name out there. It’s a long journey, and we live in the age of instant everything, so I think people’s expectations are to write the best book ever, blow everybody’s mind, and then they are a little shocked when that doesn’t happen. You’ve got to keep working at it because nothing happens overnight. It’s just one foot in front of the other, and keep going.
Also, I think one of the key things, when you are a creative person, is to have supportive people around you. My fiance, from the day I met her six years ago, has pushed me, even when I felt like giving up. As writers and artists, we all go through this, where we think it’s not working out and question what we are doing. We work by ourselves often, and are always getting in our heads. A lot of us have imposter syndrome, and it’s good to be reminded that we are not imposters, and that this is what we do. That there is a career out there for us. She’s always been there to pick me up and remind me.
HM: What are you working on now/next and where can people follow you on social media?
RJ: It’s really kind of funny that I have the next two years or so booked up! So that is really, really fun. I am slogging away through book two of Death and Sparkles, and it’s actually been a real challenge to write book two, I’m not going to lie. I think the pandemic has influenced my writing in a weird way, so I’ve been doing a lot of revisions to pump the humor into it again. It’s been a little different up here in Canada with the isolation and long periods of lockdown. I definitely felt a little caged in a two-bedroom apartment with my fiance and toddler. We just bought a house and have more space and breathing room, and right now, I’m about three hundred or so pages into the dummy book of the second Death and Sparkles. I tend to work really quickly, and I’m churning out about 40 fully-drawn pages a week. It’s a grind, but it will be good when it’s done.
Then after Death and Sparkles, I have my second book with Page Street coming out in February 2022, and that’s called Brave Enough. It’s a fun story about a boy who’s afraid of everything, especially monsters, and his older sister who doesn’t believe in monsters. It’s about her dragging him along to prove that monsters don’t exist, until they encounter a real monster. And that will be another bright and colorful picture book. I’m also illustrating a licensed project coming out in September, which is in a different art style, and a really fun book.
Hopefully, I will find some time to write some new stories. I haven’t written a picture book in about a year, so I’m looking forward to diving into the fun, bouncy nature of that medium. Graphic novels and picture books each require a different mindset, for sure.
My main social media account that I stick to is Instagram, and you can follow me at @robjustus.
Rob Justus is a former market researcher turned picture book author/illustrator and graphic novelist. Like Sparkles the Unicorn, he hopes to have a line of designer socks someday. Rob lives behind a funeral home in Ottawa, Canada.
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