As pearl clutchers panic over declining print sales, one illustrator is riding a career high. Ben Hatke's children's graphic novel series, Zita the Spacegirl , is getting a film adaptation from Fox Animation and Chernin Entertainment, and he's got a lot more projects for kids of all ages on deck. Here's what's going on with this author and illustrator, and why he should definitely be on your radar.
Zita the Spacegirl is a three-volume series of graphic novels, published between 2011 and 2014 by First Second. Zita was the heroine of a comic Hatke's wife, Anna, wrote in high school. After they met in college, Hatke developed Anna's original character into something resembling her present incarnation, green cape and all.
Today, Hatke says Zita "really tends to be a lot like a pint-sized version of ... Anna," but notes that his protagonist includes aspects of his daughters as well. "All characters are blends of different people to the point that they become their own entities," he says.
Zita's adventures begin when her best friend is kidnapped by an alien doomsday cult. She soon finds herself adopting the role of intergalactic hero, helping good guys out along her journey. The second volume, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, pits Hatke's heroine against the forces of her own fame, while the third, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, finds her wrongfully incarcerated on an alien prison planet.
Hatke's tween-centric series has earned a ton of positive attention. Like most of the author's work, all three books in the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy received starred reviews from Kirkus. It's no surprise, then, that Fox Animation optioned the film rights to the little heroine's adventures.
Hatke wasn't able to say much about the forthcoming Zita the Spacegirl animated feature, but a few names are attached to the project already. Morgan Jurgenson and Alex Ankeles will be responsible for the Zita the Spacegirl screenplay. The screenwriters have a few projects already in the works, including Robodog, Hyperdrive, and Subdivision. Additionally, Jurgenson was the writer behind the 2010 indie-horror-comedy hit, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Overseeing Zita the Spacegirl for Fox Animation is Darlene Caamano Loquet, who executively produced Dan in Real Life and The Bling Ring.
Ben Hatke's latest project is Mighty Jack: a modern-day take on the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. Hatke says the story seed — bean? — had been bouncing around his head "since about 2008 or so, when a friend of the family was working on a masters thesis on fairytales." That friend left behind a pile of fairytale collections, which, along with the "really great little garden" Anna planted in view of his studio, inspired the middle grades graphic novel.
Unlike the original story, Mighty Jack has three young protagonists, each of whom brings their own strengths to the little party. Jack has taken over responsibility for his sister, Maddy, who is diagnosed with autism and largely non-verbal. Their mother works long hours to make ends meet, but the bills keep piling up. During a trip to the flea market, Jack — prompted by Maddy — trades away their mother's car keys in exchange for a container of seeds.
You know where this is going.
Soon, Jack and Maddy's garden is overrun with sentient onion babies, pink pumpkins that bite, all manner of dangerous flora, and even a dragon. Joined by their homeschooled neighbor, Lilly, the siblings must fight their way into the heart of the garden to stop the evil that lurks there.
Mighty Jack is the first part of a new duology. The graphic novel hit store shelves on Sep. 6, and Hatke has a sequel on the way, which "will be out next year at this time," according to Hatke's blog. Don't wait for Mighty Jack 2 to come out before you read this little gem, though. Here's a preview of Hatke's latest graphic novel.
Also out on Sep. 6 is Ann M. Martin and Annie Parnell's Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure. Hatke illustrated this sequel to Betty MacDonald's original series, which follows the niece of the iconic child-minder, who has been left in charge of the Upside-Down House in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's absence. It's "the first installment in a planned series," according to NPR, so we can probably expect to see more of Hatke's illustrations as the all-new, Millennial-age adventures wear on.
As you've probably noticed, Hatke writes and illustrates a lot of female protagonists. Zita follows an unexpected girl-rescues-boy plotline, and the Piggle-Wiggle books are now somewhat of a matriarchy. Hatke's Little Robot graphic novel centers on a 5-year-old girl and her mechanical friend, while Julia's House for Lost Creatures follows a young girl who invites mermaids, fairies, goblins, and other fantastical creatures to live in her walking house. And in Mighty Jack, readers have not only the sword-wielding Lilly, but also Maddy: the girl with autism who is so rarely seen in the media.
Hatke grew up with sisters, and he and Anna are currently homeschooling five daughters — Angelica, Zita, Julia, Ronia, and Ida — and so he says that "it seems very natural that these protagonists would show up in [his] work." He also recognizes the importance of diverse books. Hatke says he "think[s] it's important that [readers] see a wide variety of characters on the shelf. There can't be just one template for what a hero looks like!"
Hatke fills his spare time with interesting hobbies, not the least of which is archery. He says he's "been thinking a lot lately about finding the balance between small personal projects and the longer book projects, and preserving a sense of play in [his] work."
To that end, he's currently working on a series of watercolors based on his daily life. At the time of this writing, @heybenhatke, the Instagram account for his personal project, has 27 entries, complete with musings on unexpected family additions and country living. Seriously, folks, tune in.
The Nobody Likes a Goblin author's penchant for Dungeons & Dragons helped to inform his 2016 picture book. Naturally, I had to ask him what he thought of Netflix's recent, D&D-inspired hit, Stranger Things. Hatke says:
Oh gosh, Stranger Things! So good. Everyone is over the moon for Stranger Things, but with good reason. It's smartly written and so iconic. While watching it I just kept thinking "Yes! I want to make something like this!"
Here's hoping he does.
Images: Courtesy of Ben Hatke