Getting to Know: Pranas T. Naujokaitis

 

It’s hard to forget January 28, 1986. Well, not the whole day, but the shocking news. I was a teenager, living overseas without a tv (before internet!) but word of the Challenger disaster spread quickly even to my home on the campus of the American School in Kinshasa, Zaire. I had long been a space fan, from my early memory of watching a moon walk (late Apollo) on a grainy black and white tv in my grandparents’ flower shop in Detroit, to Viking, Voyager, the fun fictions of Star Trek and Star Wars, and the Space Shuttle. Space exploration had its dangers, but it was always a noble adventure that ended well in my mind. Until, that day, when it didn’t.

When my media specialist handed me Pranas T. Naujokaitis‘ new historical graphic novel for kids, The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies (First Second, 2020) I was immediately hooked. Although it’s a heavy topic, Pranas pulls us in by setting the story amongst a normal group of kids in the future who go to school in space (not unlike Beep and Bob’s Astro Elementary!) and delivers an engaging and sensitive look at that fateful event in exploration history. I caught up with Pranas to learn more:

Me: How did you get into creating comics?

Pranas: I’ve been drawing my whole life. Any scrap of paper I could get a hold of I’d scribble on. I never knew you could make a career out of drawing though. As a kid I actually wanted to be an actor AND a paleontologist when I grew up (yes, this dream brought to you by being eight when Jurassic Park came out).

Then I saw Star Wars on the big screen. It was early 1997 and the Special Editions had just come out and my little eleven-year old mind was blown. As soon as the Death Star blew up I knew I wanted to do THIS. Tell stories.

At first I wanted to make movies, but that quickly turned into comics when I started drawing comic strips about me and my friends at the time. And the types of comics I wanted to make changed as I grew, got exposed to new things, and kept practicing my craft. First newspaper comic strips, then mainstream superhero stuff, and then in college (where I actually majored in Sequential Art aka the fancy way of saying ‘comics’) I was exposed to so many new and different types of comics and I turned to making indie, journal comics, and minicomics. And post-college my career has naturally transitioned to more all-age comics.

I can’t see myself doing anything else. And honestly after this long, don’t even know if I know how to do anything else!

 

What inspired you to write about one of the sadder moments in space history?

I crossed paths with my amazing (and patient) editor Dave Roman at a comic show in Denver a few years back and he approached me about a new line of books FirstSecond was putting together, History Comics, a sister series to the already established Science Comics line. He already had a list of topics they wanted to do and Challenger was on that list. He gave me a few weeks to think it over and get back to him if interested.

At first I was going to pick something other than Challenger. I mean, everything on the list he proposed was a historical tragedy/disaster, but they all happened a long, long time ago. Everyone involved with those stories are long, long dead. I feel that makes it so much easier to write/draw when it happened that long ago. But Challenger was so recent. A lot of the people involved with it are still alive. The families and children of the Challenger Seven are still alive. Even though I was only three months old, even I was alive for this! It was just all so recent and terrible.

Oh, AND the comic had to be geared towards kids.

But the more I sat on it, the more I got the itch to tackle Challenger. I became obsessed with figuring out a way to tackle something so recent while still being respectful AND making it palatable to kids. I wanted to tell and honor the story of the Challenger crew but also get the message across that humankind should keep exploring even when horrible setbacks occur.

At first I asked Dave if I could just write the script and someone else draw (drawing technical spacecraft is not my specialty) but the more research I did the more I got attached to the story and to the crew and just bit the bullet and asked if I could also draw it as well.

I will say I’m so happy with the final product (shoutout to everyone at FirstSecond and my amazing colorist Cassie Hart) but it did take a huge toll on me. All the research, crafting the story, the writing, then drawing. Working on this project, getting attached to the crew members and then half way though the book, the explosion. I kept trying to put it off but it’s inevitable. You know it’s coming but you hope maybe, just maybe, this time history might change. But history doesn’t work that way. So it was tough.

And the horribleness of the disaster is why I made it a goal to end the book on a very hopeful and positive note. I wanted to rip you heart out, make you cry, but then lift you up. Let you know it is oh-so-human to keep exploring the unknown. And when setbacks happen (and they sadly do and will) to honor those who sacrificed everything you have to dust yourself off and keep reaching towards the stars.

So even though this was all so sad there is good that came from it.

Would you go into space yourself if you had a chance?

Oh heck yeah! It’s still dangerous and anything could go wrong, but I do think we are getting closer and closer to the age of space tourism. Will I ever be able to afford it in my lifetime? Probably not. But if given a free ticket, and it’s proven to be as safe as can be, I for sure would be on that first rocket (or space elevator).

While probably not in my lifetime, I do think humanity will get to the point when space travel is as routine as getting on an airplane is today. Gotta catch that 3PM rocket from Earth to my business meeting on the Moon. And if that does happen we’ll have people like the Challenger Seven to thank for that, for helping to pave the way for us all.

I also wrote about a space school in the future, and love that your characters study aboard the Space Station Sagan. Do you think students may attend classes amongst the stars someday?

I hope so! I was always fascinated by how in Star Trek: The Next Generation the Enterprise had whole families living on the ship, complete with teachers and classrooms for the kids. They would even take field trips! It was all so routine. Now, it was probably illogical to have children onboard a spaceship that is essentially a battle cruiser that sees its fair share of space battles and is going into red alert every other episode, but still, it’s the future I wanted to see. And hopefully when humanity gets to the point we won’t be having space shootouts with Romulans or the Borg.

And unless we actually figure out a way to overcome the speed of light, space travel, especially deep space, will take sooooo long. Whole generations even! So it only makes sense to have classrooms for those kids who might spend their whole lives living on a deep space ship.

Whether you are on Earth or in space, kids still have to learn and go to school!

 

What are you working on now?

Some secret stuff I can’t go into right now that is in the works, fingers crossed. But I’m taking a break from space for a little bit. Just with drawing the space shuttle and its innards over and over again…oof! I’m so glad I did it but it was a challenge and hard on my wrist. But if the next project pans out it’s going to be fun and think anyone who enjoyed this book will also enjoy it.

Also going to take the time between book projects to work on a webcomic idea that’s been building dust. A post-apocalyptic mutant comedy geared towards older audiences as a release for all my anxiety about politics, nuclear war, pandemics, and being a millennial. You know, fun stuff. 😛

Also want to take this time to try to pump out a few more minicomic projects so I’ll be ready with new work on my table once it’s finally safe to hold in-person comic shows and conventions again. I miss comic shows…

Me too! Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?

Practice drawing and writing everyday and keep a sketchbook. But know this when you start out: Your stuff will NOT be good…AND THAT IS OKAY! Making comics is a skill and like all skills it takes time and practice to get good at it. Any artist you like right now? They were not good the first time they picked up a pencil or guitar or camera. If fact, they probably stunk! But they didn’t give up, kept working, and over time they slowly got better and better and better. And I know, it’s hard to not be instantly good at something and so easy to give up. But that is what separates the greats from everyone else: they stick with it. You should too! This doesn’t just apply to comics but ALL skills. It is a cliche, but practice DOES make perfect.

Comics can be ANYTHING. Any genre, any story, any setting, any character, anything. Only limits are your drawing skills and imagination. They can be comics about you, comics about superheroes, about space, romance, funny, sad, scary, all of these things and MORE! That’s one of the great things about comics, they can be whatever you want them to be. That blank page in front of you has the potential to become anything.

And finally, tell YOUR story and the story that YOU want to tell. It’s okay to be influenced by or have similar stories to others, but you are a unique person with a unique life and unique point of view. Let that point of view and life experience come through when telling a story. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, put yourself in it. Comics, art, and the world are all better when we have many different voices contributing to it.

So well said, Pranas! Thank you so much for answering my questions and illuminating your process!

LEARN MORE about Pranas and his work at www.ghostcarpress.com.

And find him at @pranas on Twitter and @ghostcarpress on Instagram.

His cool self portrait as an artstronaut (artstronaut, get it? Artist + Astronaut…)

 

 

 

Teachers ‘Toon Too! Getting to Know: Aron Nels Steinke

Kids love to make comics. As an art teacher, I see them drawing their favorite characters or creating their own almost every day (even if it’s not the assignment!).

Confession: sometimes us teachers like to make comics too. I first learned to draw by copying Batman. Now I’m working on my own graphic novels! Another fellow teacher/author/cartoonist, Aron Nels Steinke, has created a wonderful series called Mr. Wolf’s Class. I talked to Aron about what it’s like to both teach and ‘toon.

 

 

JR: When did you start creating comics?

ANS: Like you, I was really into superhero comics as a kid and really loved to copy the artwork. But the work I was copying seemed so complex and intimidating (muscles and shading) that I really could figure out how to manipulate the characters, so I rarely drew characters with my own poses. Even when I made up my own characters I would basically copy the poses from the books I was studying and change the uniform or hair style, etc. I didn’t draw and write my own stories until I was an adult, after I had training as an animator, an experience that gave me lots of practice drawing and not being precious with my artwork. The first real story I wrote and drew in comic form was done with tiny simple drawings. I had adopted this style because I wanted to focus on telling the story, rather than letting myself get bogged-down by the details of drawing, as I had in the past.

I see kids making their own comics today totally free from the drawing hangups I had as a kid. They just blaze ahead and create stories. I really think it’s the influence of today’s middle grade graphic novels like Mr. Wolf’s Class. Get a kid who has read through all the Dog Man or Raina Telgemeier books and they’ll be off creating their own comics in no time.

I love that you feature a teacher who is caring but real, nerves and all. How much of Mr. Wolf is you?

Mr. Wolf is a fictional version of myself, so he’s maybe ninety-percent me. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he is learning and growing and wants to do his best. Unlike Mr. Wolf, I do not wear ties and nicely-pressed and tucked-in shirts to work each day, and I certainly don’t have pointy ears, sharp teeth, and a snout.

 

The students of Hazelwood School seem very real too (despite being animals). How did you create the class?

I started working with children over ten years ago, and over time I’ve come to know lots of great kid personalities and voices. Mr. Wolf’s Class truly began as an autobiographical comic strip called MR. WOLF. As a way to protect the identity of my students, I drew them as animals and then, born out of those comic strips, was the desire to make a full-length graphic novel for kids. I wanted to make a book that my students would love and appreciate. The characters in Mr. Wolf’s Class may have all started out with a personality germ, inspired by real kids, but over time, they have evolved and claimed a unique life of their own.

Not to boast, but I get recognized all the time at the mall. Not for being a famous author, but as a teacher! (“Mr. Roth, what are you doing here?”) Do you have brushes with educator or author fame?

I did a comic strip about this once. Yes, when you’re a teacher you get noticed and recognized by the people in your school community all the time. It is a lot like being a mini-celebrity. It’s fun to run into students at the grocery store, or out and about, and it can be quite a shock for the student. Once when I was teaching preschool, I ran into a family of a two-and-a-half-year-old I was teaching. When the boy saw me, he must have had quite as shock as he reacted by quickly sinking his teeth into his father’s arms. The fourth and fifth grade students I teach today are usually quick to share and start up a conversation if I see them out and about. It’s a little different now with the pandemic, obviously. We’re all starved for real human contact, so it’s even more exciting to see people and connect when we do, even at six feet distance and with a mask on.

 

The outdoor world, particularly the woods, plays a big role in your series. What role do you hope the great outdoors plays in our students’ lives?

            I grew up on eleven acres in rural Washington State, where I spent my childhood roaming the woods and fields, picking huckleberries and hazelnuts, and falling asleep to the howls of coyotes. When I’m in nature I feel an immediate and spiritual connection to the universe. For me, there’s nothing better than being in the middle of an old-growth stand of cedar, hemlock, and douglas fir, surrounded by giant ferns, salal, and big leaf maples dripping with moss. In my latest Mr. Wolf’s Class book: FIELD TRIP, students spend the night in an old-growth forest and experience that beauty first hand. I hope the reader is inspired to get out to appreciate and protect the natural world.

 

Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?

Make real, physical copies of your comics with a photocopy machine or a scanner and printer if you can. Fold and staple your books and give them away to friends and family. Share your work with other people. You’ll only get better at making comics by making lots of comics. Try making a comic about yourself. Try to avoid writing and drawing a really long story until you’ve done lots of short-story comics first. Practice, practice, practice, and keep at it. If you need to start with stick figures, that is just fine. Don’t overthink your work. Just begin.

Great advice, Aron! Thank you so much for the awesome interview.

Mr. Wolf’s Class can be found wherever you get your books. I got Field Trip at Politics and Prose (DC) after Aron’s (virtual) event there: https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9781338617634

Check out Aron’s site at https://www.mrwolfsclass.com/

Art Blast! Fun Lessons for Kids and Aliens #10

Your Own Secret Code

 

Can you solve a famous art mystery? If so, please tell me what this says:

 

Give up? I give up, too. It’s a painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, in which he made up his own symbolic language. Did he tell anyone what it means? NO! So frustrating. And without a key, like the Rosetta Stone which was used to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, we may never know…

However, I DO know what this one below says. Can you figure it out? Hint: each thing represents one letter. (spoiler alert: answer key below)

Did you decipher it? Try this one:

Like Kandinsky, I’ve created a code of my own (mostly using symbols based on book and movie characters I like). Technically, it’s a cipher, not a code, because each symbol represents one letter. Possibly the most famous cipher in history is the Caesar Cipher, in which each letter of the alphabet shifts over by the same amount (A=B, B=C, C=D, etc. or A=C, B=D, C=E, etc.)

Ready to create an alphabetic cipher/code of your own? Here’s a key to fill out (or draw a grid or rows how you like):

 

You can make it kind of easy (like mine) or nearly impossible (like Kandinsky’s). The main trick is to come up with a symbol or letter to replace each letter of the alphabet. The symbols you use can be regular shapes, made up shapes, things that start with that letter, characters, or anything that works for you! Note: don’t make it too hard to replicate, you’re going to have to draw each symbol many times if you want to write something. Do you know an alphabet other than English/Latin (A, B, C…)? You can make a cipher for those letters too!

The final step is to share with a trusted friend, so you can write to each other in code. If you want to write me in my code, here’s my key (can you figure out why I used each symbol?):

My two codes said: ART IS THE BEST and BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER.

If you like codes and ciphers, here’s a cool article by children’s book author Kevin Sands.

Always Be Creative and Have a Blast!

Beep Says Yay to You!

 

Another Art Blast soon….

Art Blast! Fun Lessons for Kids and Aliens #9

Make Art with Stuff

 

True or False: You need expensive art materials to make art? And the answer is: FALSE. False, False, FALSE!

Art doesn’t come from having fancy paints (though fancy paint is nice). Art is born when you put your creative mind (your imagination) to work (effort).

I bet you can create some fun arrangements using ONLY objects you have in or around your home right now. (Important note: As always, safety first! And please get permission before you collect things, and put them back just as you found them!)

Here are some examples that I made. Can you name all the objects? What can you make?

 

 

 

 

Hey, mini-Beep wants to try the skateboard, too! YES, you can also use stuffed animals, toys, Legos, blocks and so on as part of your artistic arrangements!

 

Can you also draw as part of your art? OF COURSE! Check out this awesome slideshow that art teacher Kimberly Mueller made of her 3-6th grade students’ found object illustrations:

Finally, what about natural objects, like rocks, shells, sticks and so on? GO FOR IT! One of my favorite artists in the world, Andy Goldsworthy, makes most of his art when he goes outside and is inspired by natural materials to arrange and build ephemeral sculptures (ephemeral means they aren’t meant to last). Here are a few of his artworks:

     

 

Pretty amazing, huh? Just remember: You can make art anywhere!

Always Be Creative and Have a Blast!

Beep Says Yay to You!

 

Another Art Blast soon….