Magic is real, according to Jarod Roselló, and that’s definitely true in many of the stories he writes. In his middle-grade graphic novel series Red Panda & Moon Bear, two Latinx siblings battle (and sometimes befriend!) monsters that lurk in their hometown of Martí. Each episodic chapter finds the sister and brother investigating a strange occurrence they’ll use their smarts and magic hoodies to confront. In Roselló’s newest book, the sequel Red Panda and Moon Bear: The Curse of the Evil Eye, the children face off against the infamous mal de ojo, joined by friends old and new alike. The book releases April 12, 2022 from Top Shelf Productions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jarod – who is a former professor of mine – about his new book.
BVN: How are you? How’s it going?
JR: Hi, Bishop! I’m doing okay!
BVN: Can you talk a little about your art-making process for this new book? Feel free to interpret this question however you like, since there’s a lot of different definitions for “process,” obviously.
JR: I guess the biggest change to my process for this book is that I did almost the entire book digitally. For Red Panda & Moon Bear book 1, I penciled and inked on paper, then scanned it into the computer. For book 2, I did all my pencils/thumbnails and inks digitally right in Clip Studio Pro. In some ways, this was really helpful because it saved me the lengthy process of having to scan hundreds of pages. I could also make corrections digitally much more quickly. The big downside was spending over a year working on a screen almost every day. I also worked with a colorist, so my least favorite part of the process was done by someone else.
I felt some anxiety about doing a sequel. I wanted it to retain the feel and style I’d established in book 1, but still move the story and characters in new directions. So a big part of my process involved remembering: what’s important about these characters, what matters most about them. And also letting go of some things and recognizing that the story, world, and characters do move in new directions.
BVN: Your first graphic novel, The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found, wasn’t marketed to children, but your Red Panda & Moon Bear books are for middle graders. What made you want to make the switch to writing for children?
JR: I think I always wanted to write for children. I started making comics well over a decade ago now, and most of my early comics were kids comics that I self-published and sold at zine and comics shows. In some ways, making Red Panda & Moon Bear felt like coming back home, or back to where I intended to be. I remembered having the distinct feeling when I was working on it that I was making the thing I was meant to make. Not in a fulfilling-the-prophecy kind of way, but more of a finding-my-place kind of way.
BVN: The Red Panda & Moon Bear books have a lot of “cartoon logic” in them, where characters interact in unexpected ways with the world around them. How do you balance letting the mechanics of the world surprise the reader while still making that world feel cohesive and grounded?
JR: A lot of it is driven by what interests and excites me about telling stories. I don’t really like to know where I’m going or how I’m going there when I set out to tell a story. So having kids live in a world that responds well to that kind of unfolding narrative, rather than a collapsing narrative, means I get to give in to that “cartoon logic.” There is a structure at work, though, but I feel like I have to uncover it and create it as I go. It’s not exactly a causal one, because the characters can make anything happen by imagining or saying it aloud. I guess my short answer is that I think humor and heart can function as cohesive elements as well as narrative if you set [them] up right. If your story is about how the story makes sense, then you’ve trapped yourself in a structure where you have to “earn” your plot points. But if you introduce a story where narrative is a convenience for character development, comedy, empathy, and compassion, then your readers are more generous and you focus on other things.
BVN: These books take place in a city called Martí, which evokes the name of José Martí, the influential Cuban poet and intellectual. The space seems to be modeled on Miami, but takes on a unique life of its own thanks to all sorts of monsters the children have to contend with. How did your upbringing in Miami as a Cuban-American affect your creation of Martí and the characters who inhabit it?
JR: When I picked that name, I thought it would just be a fun inside-reference for those who know. But the funny thing about setting is that it’s not just where stories take place, but how your stories take place, too. It’s about what’s possible and real and what exists. Martí was the ideological founder of a free Cuba—his first revolutionary acts were imaginative ones. I’m the child of Cuban immigrants, born in the United States, and so much of our future was an imaginary one. No one in my family knew what it would look like or should look like, but we pushed forward with this imaginary that presented a world in which we were stable, safe, secure, and successful. Being the child of immigrants feels a lot like you’re tasked with willing the world into existence, because you often don’t have any of the raw materials or resources to build the world you want. You have to almost conjure it from nothing, which feels magical. I think the town of Martí is a bit of an actualization of this metaphor. What if these kids live in a world that was just as imaginative, hopeful, and future-facing as they are? And, for me, that’s the real magic of the books.
BVN: What advice do you have for people interested in making things–not just books, but anything really–for children?
JR: I find spending time with children to be really helpful. Besides my own kids, I do a lot of writing and cartooning workshops and classes with children, both inside and outside of schools. Children don’t have a lot of the same baggage as adults do. They’re more open to unusual plot twists and pivots. I think some of it is just what happens to all of us: the older we get, the narrower our view of the world becomes. And at some point, we can really only believe a small set of things that seem to be right in front of our faces. Kids are still learning how the world works, and what’s possible. I don’t want to romanticize children or childhood, but there are some advantages to living in a space where the rules of the world feel fuzzy and unclear. Being a cartoonist is a lot like that, too. We can make anything we want, but we have to be able to imagine it first. Hanging out with kids is a good reminder of how boring we’ll grow to be if we don’t intervene.
Engaging with children’s media is essential. When I’m working on a book, I like to read a lot of really similar books and watch cartoons. I’m a maker, first. This is something I’ve come to learn about myself. I don’t read just for pleasure. I find reading pleasurable, but I read and engage with other media primarily as a way of fueling my desire to make. Reading work that inspires me, fires me up to tell stories, to create characters and worlds, and to play and experiment. I play a lot of video games with my kids, too. I love it because it’s a place where they’re in control and I’m just barely following along. I get to see them as these powerful agents who are running the show.
The last thing to know about making things for kids is that adults are often the mediators of children’s media. You might make your book or TV show or comic or music for children, but we need adults to grant children access to it, by agreeing to produce it, distribute it, stock it in their library, or just buy it for their kid. This means you have to make stuff that’s for kids but that adults think kids should have, too.
BVN: What keeps you hopeful?
JR: I don’t know if I’m hopeful! I don’t want to blame everything on my upbringing as a first-generation kid, but I don’t think hope is necessary. If you don’t have a plan B, then hope is irrelevant. There is today and now and what’s happening and what will happen next, and so on in that direction. But what else are you going to do? You keep going.
BVN: At Screen Speck, we’re doing something called a lightning round of questions for interviewees. Here are some questions the Screen Speck team wants to know:
What’s the last comic/graphic novel you read and loved?
JR: I just jumped back into reading Usagi Yojimbo after an unintentional multi-year hiatus, and it’s just as good as ever. The new first volume, Bunraku & Other Stories from IDW, is the perfect place to start if you’ve never read it.
BVN: Do you listen to music while you work, and, if so, what was your playlist for this book?
JR: Yes! A lot of Coheed & Cambria.
BVN: How did French toast get left behind in the great Pancakes vs Waffles debate?
JR: I don’t know, but I’m so uninterested in food as a topic that it doesn’t bother me.
BVN: What’s your favorite tree?
JR: One of my neighbors has the best tree I’ve ever seen—I don’t know what kind it is, but I like to talk to them about how I would have climbed it when I was a kid. It has giant, twisting branches that make it seem impossible to even be standing. And the branches are covered in other plants. I’m waiting for the day it emerges from the ground and walks away.
BVN: What Olympic sport would you throw it all away to pursue?
JR: The only sport I have ever cared about playing is soccer. So, there you go.
BVN: Is magic real?
JR: Obviously, yes.
BVN: What’s next for you (as an art-maker, teacher, scholar, or whatever other kind of identity you like being)?
JR: I have a young reader graphic novel series, Hugo & Dino, coming out from Random House Graphic next year. It’s got a kid who transforms into a dinosaur so he can go on adventures with his best friend who is also a dinosaur.
Jarod holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction, both from The Pennsylvania State University. Originally from Miami, he now lives in Tampa, Florida and teaches in the creative writing program at University of South Florida.