The Sydney Taylor Blog Tour Returns! E. Lockhart and Manuel Preitano Talk Whistle
The blog tour, my friends, is alive and well. And honestly, when done with care, a good blog tour can bring attention to a whole host of titles you’d never see otherwise. So it was with great pleasure then that I agreed to take part in the official Sydney Taylor Blog Tour of 2022. You see, every year the Association of Jewish Libraries sets up this amazing tour with all, or almost all, of the winners of the Sydney Taylor Award for Jewish books for kids and teens. And this year, I have the particular pleasure in getting to host the winners of a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category.
Young Adult? That’s right, my friends. I’m making a one-time-only exception to my usual eschewing of YA matters. Why? Because this book is so much darn fun, that’s why! Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero by E. Lockhart with art by Manuel Preitano takes a deep dive into Batman territory while focusing on a whole new hero. Here’s how the DC Comics describes it:
“From New York Times bestselling author E. Lockhart (Genuine Fraud, We Were Liars) and artist Manuel Preitano (The Oracle Code) comes a new Gotham City superhero in this exciting YA graphic novel.
Sixteen-year-old Willow Zimmerman has something to say. When she’s not on the streets protesting City Hall’s neglect of her run-down Gotham neighborhood, she’s working nights at the local dog shelter. But despite how much she does for the world around her, she’s struggling to take care of her sick mother at home. She’s got no time for boys (though there’s one she really likes), and no means to adopt the amazingly loyal stray Great Dane, Lebowitz, that follows her around.
Without health insurance and with money running out, a desperate Willow reconnects with an estranged family friend E. Nigma–party promoter, and real estate tycoon. Nigma opens the door to an easier life, offering Willow a new job hosting his glamorous private poker nights with Gotham City’s elites. Now Willow is able to afford critical medical treatments for her mother and get a taste of the high life she’s never had.
Then everything changes: Willow and Lebowitz are attacked by one of Gotham’s most horrific villains, the monstrous Killer Croc. When they wake after the fight, they can understand each other. And Willow has powers she never dreamed of.
When Willow discovers that Nigma and his poker buddies are actually some of Gotham’s most corrupt criminals, she must make a choice: remain loyal to the man who saved her mother’s life, or use her new powers to save her community.
My treat is that I get to talk to both Emily and Manuel about the book. And yes. I was o’er filled with questions:
Betsy Bird: Geez. Thank you both so very much for joining me here today! This is just the loveliest treat for me. Emily, I’m going to start off with you. You’ve pretty much written almost every type of book for young readers. Very few authors can say that they’ve gone from board books to adult essays, and covered almost everything (early chapter, books, picture books, middle grade, YA fiction) in between. There are a few gaps in there, though, and until now comics and graphic novels would have counted. Can you tell us a little about how you were approached to do this particular project for DC?
E. Lockhart: I was at LibraryCon, which is a library conference devoted to fandom lit — horror, sci fi, fantasy and graphic novels. It was super fun, and after one of my panels a pair of editors from DC Comics approached me to ask if I might want to write for their new young adult line. They had already signed up a really gorgeous array of YA heavy hitters to write existing characters like Harley Quinn (Mariko Tamaki), Swamp Thing (Maggie Stiefvater), Catwoman ( Lauren Myracle), Mera (Danielle Paige) and Raven (Kami Garcia). I grew up reading comics and was psyched to work with them. They asked, would I like to pitch them an original hero? YES, PLEASE.
BB: It was new for you, Emily, but Manuel, you’re an old hat at this. After all, you’ve worked on other DC graphic novels for teens like Marieke Nijkamp’s The Oracle Code.That book took a pre-existing character (Barbara Gordon) and gave her an original story. Whistle is different since Willow/Whistle has never existed before. Did you find the experience more freeing or more stressful because you have to originate someone wholly new for DC?
Manuel Preitano: In both cases there were quite interesting challenges ahead. Reimagining Barbara Gordon made me research all previous designs of the character, something that of course didn’t happen with Willow/Whistle. In this case, Emily brought some very clear ideas for Willow design and in particular for what the character should wear throughout the story, so I had very good directions to start with and I did my best to bring her ideas to life. I really love the character design part of the job, so this wasn’t stressful at all, even if I felt the pressure about creating a new superhero!
BB: Well, but Whistle isn’t simply a superhero but a Jewish superhero with social activist roots. Emily, can you talk a little bit about the role of activism, particularly Jewish activism, and how it influenced your creation of her character?
EL: The teenagers I know are activists in a way that I never was as a kid. They campaign for changes in their school communities (dress codes, treatment of trans kids), they write zines and go to organizing meetings. They attend protest rallies for racial justice, reproductive rights, and other issues. I know some kids in Worker’s Circle, which is a secular Jewish organization that does a lot of social justice work, too. I wanted to write a character who was working for change in her neighborhood. What would happen if a kid like that got superpowers? But also, what would be the strong pull of the Gotham City underworld on a kid whose family is hurting for money? I was interested in a character for whom being a good person isn’t easy.
BB: True enough. You were designing her entire story and you, Manuel, got to design a whole new superhero’s look, which is just thrilling. How did you go about creating it? What were your influences?
MP: While Willow’s main design was found pretty quickly I’d say, the superhero look took more time as we really tried a lot of ideas for her costume. We wanted to be sure we explored all options, including how her hairstyle would change in her superhero costume and so on. I think there were more than 30 design tests for the costume and a similar amount just for the costume symbol as well. As for the influences, with Emily and Diego–the book editor–we gathered a folder full of very different ideas, so the design wasn’t the result of a main influence: more like a big mix of many concepts reworked and redesigned to work well all together. As I mentioned, I love to do designs (that’s my main job when not drawing comics), thus spending so much time on Whistle costume and discussing ideas with a really great team for me was more like having a wonderful time with friends than working.
BB: Speaking of teams, one of the things that I love about Gotham City is how different authors over the years have started to delineate its different neighborhoods. For example, in something like White Knight by Sean Murphy you’ve long sections on the harm Batman’s done to Black neighborhoods, like Backport. Emily, you yourself have created a historically Jewish neighborhood in Gotham called Down River. How do you go about creating a new interpretation on a long established property, like the world of Batman?
EL: I loved White Knight, but I was thinking mostly about how I could give my version of Gotham a unique flavor. I had done a good amount of research about New York’s Lower East Side for another project, and I grew up going there a lot as a kid because my dad lived nearby. My great grandparents on his side came to NYC from Russia and Poland a little after the start of the twentieth century, and so I felt a connection to the amazing Jewish history of the LES. I decided to put a Lower East Side into Gotham, and have my hero be a “friendly neighborhood superhero” for the community there.
BB: And that, in turn, reminds of what recent Marvel comics have done with Miss Marvel’s New Jersey. DC’s a little different, though, and Batman spin-offs can get pretty bleak. Heck, Batman himself can get bleak too. And yet, Manuel, the color schemes you’re using here aren’t dark and brooding. Did you consider making it the standard Dark Knight palette or did you know from the start that Whistle should be brighter and lighter?
MP: When I read Emily’s script and I started doing the storyboard for the comic pages, I also started imagining these pages in color, and I couldn’t imagine the palette being too dark. With Gabby Metzler–the book colorist for interior pages–we did some tests to find the right palette and to be sure we were synchronized on the same idea. I colored the cover myself because I really wanted to explore that bright color palette as well. I can’t leave all the fun to the colorist! Troy Peteri contributed a lot with an amazing lettering, which follows the brighter and lighter direction we chose.
BB: Beautiful. Emily, when creating Whistle/Willow, how much of your own background influenced hers? What was most important to you to really bring out in this character? What did you want to avoid?
EL: I grew up with a single mom (as does the hero of Whistle) and I often write about characters who are looking to claim some power, for better and worse (Genuine Fraud, Fly on the Wall, We Were Liars). So Whistle falls right in with those — a journey from feeling useless to badassery.
Whistle’s relationship to her Jewish identity — that proud, secular, intellectual relationship — is shared by me, my spouse, and many of the people I know, teenagers included. I wrote from the heart there, though Whistle’s mom is Jewish and in my case, it’s only my dad.
BB: Aw. Okay, I need to talk villains, if only a little. Manuel, it’s not every artist that gets to put their own spin on a rogues gallery containing such legendary villains as Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and the Riddler all in one swoop. Who was your favorite to tackle?
MP: Hard to choose a favorite! Killer Croc is a huge monster, and you can say that’s a lot of fun to draw. I tried some very, very different designs for that big guy. The final result was a sort of mix of Croc’s classic design and some smaller innovations. With Ivy and the Riddler, I can’t explain how fun it was to draw them, especially in everyday scenes. Emily had all these fashion references saved, so I had this huge wardrobe to use for those characters! I would say I had the most fun drawing the Riddler in particular because he’s kind of the trickster character, so the way he moves and acts always reflect that subtle attitude. You can guess it’s a good challenge for an artist!
BB: Absolutely. And heck, Emily, you also have created the first crime fighting FEMALE dog in DC history: Lebowitz. Fantastic naming there. Are you a bit of a dog person yourself?
EL: Yes. First-ever superhero bitch. (You don’t have to print that but it makes me happy to say.)
BB: I mean, how could I resist?
EL: I love dogs. I write about them all the time. There are talking dogs in Again Again and a very important Great Dane in the Boyfriend List books. (I am sorry about what happened to the dogs in We Were Liars and won’t do it again.) But I am an apartment dweller and fundamentally cat-oriented for domestic purposes.
BB: All right, you crazy kids. One last one for Manuel. Finally, are there more DC YA books in your future that we should look for? Or can you even say?
MP: I wish I could reveal more about the projects I’m currently working on, but they’ve not been announced yet, so I can’t say much at the moment.
BB: I totally get that. Well thank you both for joining us today!
And thank you too to the good people at the AJL that set this up! Care to see the entire blog tour itself? Here are the other stops along the way:
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2022
Veera Hiranandani, author of How to Find What You’re Not Looking For (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Middle Grade Category)
at Mr. Schu Reads
Aden Polydoros, author of The City Beautiful (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult Category) at Paper Brigade Daily at The Jewish Book Council
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2022
Nancy Churnin and Bethany Stancliffe, author and illustrator of Dear Mr. Dickens (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category)
at Good Reads with Ronna
Gordon Korman, author of Linked (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category) at 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal
E. Lockhart and Manuel Preitano author and artist of Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category) at A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2022
Eugene Yelchin, author of The Genius Under the Table (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category) at Jewish Books for Kids
Jeff Gottesfeld and Michelle Laurentia Agatha, author and illustrator of The Christmas Mitzvah (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category) at Pragmatic Mom
Hannah Reynolds, author of The Summer of Lost Letters (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category) at Bookishly Jewish
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2022
Peter Sís, author of Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category) at Vivian Kirkfeld’s Blog
Leah Scheier, author of The Last Words We Said (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category) at Kayla Reads and Reviews
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2022
Podcast Interview at The Book of Life
Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah
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