Authors and BFFs Talk Lowriders in Space, Libraries, and Flapjacks
Megan McDonald interviews her fellow writer and bestie Cathy Camper. Cathy is author of the excellent Lowriders in Space, a graphic novel-style tale about transforming a jalopy into the best car in the universe.
Cathy and I met while working at the Minneapolis Public Library in 1989. We would sneak into the stacks and whisper about what we were writing. We loved looking at, thinking and talking about kids’ books. It wasn’t long before we became writing partners. We’d meet once a week over gingerbread pancakes. We read chapters from novels, sticky with maple syrup, and shared our writing.
MM: You have worked on a gazillion great writing ideas over the years. How did you ever come to choose Lowriders to become a book?
CC: I got angry. I was working as a youth outreach librarian for Multnomah County Library. I was seeing all these kids of color in schools, but all the books were about suburban white kids. I’m Arab-American so I get what it means to not see yourself in books. I wanted to write a book that might change some of that.
I also targeted it at boys, because boys’ literacy rate is dropping, and boys need books that appeal to them. I wanted it to be funny, and a graphic novel because I love comics. And I’ve always loved science, so it was natural to include that. It struck me as weird that although cars pretty much rule our lives (think about it—they’ll tear down whole neighborhoods to put in roads for cars), car culture is extremely rare in kids’ books.
MM: You are one of the most creative writers I know. I’m dying to know how you came up with your characters. Such unlikely friends—a mosquito, an impala, and an octopus!
CC: Well, I didn’t start with the animals, I started with the names. The first name I came up with was Elirio Malaria. Say it out loud; it’s like a little roller coaster for your tongue! But what kind of guy would be named Elirio Malaria? I couldn’t quite figure it … then one day, a little voice in my ear said, “I’m not a guy; I’m a mosquito.” Oh. OH. It was that point writers talk about, where your characters take on a life of their own.
MM: That’s what happened with Judy Moody. It all started with the name.
CC: Judy Moody is fun to say too! I knew the Impala is the favorite car of lowriders, so Lupe Impala came from that and it’s also pretty fun for your tongue too. I read about a Flapjack Octopus—they’re real creatures! Very cute, with stubby, webbed tentacles, perfect for washing cars.
Often kids’ book writers use animal characters to avoid talking about race or ethnicity. For Lowriders in Space it was of the opposite; using animals let illustrator Raul The Third and I avoid stereotypes. There’s a panel where I wrote, “People were a little afraid of Elirio Malaria. With a beak like that, they thought he might bite. “ Elirio replies, “ Don’t be scared, eses! Only female mosquitoes bite vatos for food.” I not only squeezed a science fact in there, I was able to poke fun at the prejudice that all lowriders must be gangster.
MM: That’s my favorite line in the book! I get asked this a lot, but I can’t help asking you…how did you make the book so funny? Humor, to me, is the universal language—it cuts across boundaries of class and race and gender.
CC: Humor is very subjective, so I expect not all the jokes will reach all kids, or even all adults. And adult sense of humor isn’t the same as kid sense of humor. Just saying the word ‘fart’ around kids is a joke in itself. Raul and I loved the flexibility comics allow—characters can bend, break and do all kinds of things and be just fine in the next panel. It’s part of the language of comics.
MM: Lowriders is such a unique idea. There are so many ways that your book defies boundaries. Is it a picture book? A graphic novel? And not being Latina yourself, you are writing from outside the culture, which is not an easy thing to do.
CC: As an Arab-American, I understand the importance of having the book be authentic to Latino culture. I’m a big admirer of Joe Sacco. In his comic Palestine he wrote exquisitely about an extremely volatile situation, also outside of his culture. That was what I tried to emulate in Lowriders. I did a ton of research, and I’m fortunate to I have many Latino co-workers at the library who helped me make sure the language was authentic and culturally correct.
I pushed for Raul to illustrate from the beginning. Bringing in your own artist just isn’t done in the children’s book world; editors want to make that decision. We were lucky to land at Chronicle. Our editor Ginee Seo is Korean-American, and she loved our book because she wanted to make books for kids where they could see themselves I’m proud that Raul, Chronicle and I raised the bar of what a children’s book can be.
MM: I’m thrilled for you, Cathy, and as Judy Moody would say, I’m so not jealous! Ha ha.
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