A conversation with Greg Trine and Illustrator Rhode Montijo
Greg, how did you come up with the idea for Melvin Beederman?
I think the idea for Melvin Beederman started when I was thinking about Little Red Riding Hood’s cape and how it was so similar to a superhero’s cape. Did she find it in the woods or what? I decided I didn’t want to retell Little Red Riding Hood because retellings had been done to death, so I focused on the superhero. What was his story? How could he have lost his cape, and what would be the consequences of that? Melvin Beederman was the result. I named him after a priest in Ventura, California, named Father Beederman. He passed away this year, but his name lives on.
The first book in the Melvin Beederman series began as a picture book called Superhero Bob. It was rejected once and then sat on my desk for about five years until one day I realized I needed more room to tell the story. The big change, other than length, was that the protagonist became more interesting and flawed . . . flying problems, train-stopping problems, x-ray vision problems. I think Rhode picked up on the flawed superhero idea and extended it . . .
Rhode, I knew you were the perfect illustrator for Melvin the moment I read the first story, but I didn’t know if you would feel the same way. What convinced you?
I feel really fortunate to be working on such a fun series. I still remember the day you first called me and asked me to consider illustrating Greg’s book. You told me parts of the story over the phone and we were just giggling uncontrollably. Four books later, we’re still here giggling and looking forward to more laughs. I grew up with a healthy dose of comics, so Greg’s manuscript reminded me of all that goodness found in comics. Also, I very much liked the idea of the struggling hero. Here’s this little guy trying to make a difference, but he’s hitting all sorts of obstacles along the way. It appealed to me very much and I couldn’t resist!
Greg, you submitted Melvin as a single chapter-book length story without any illustrations. How did it come to be a series?
The idea to make Melvin into a series came from my editor, Reka. I had submitted it as a stand-alone story. When she mentioned a series I really had no ideas for future stories, but over the next few weeks things began forming in my head. Maybe the McNasty Brothers had sisters who break them out of jail. Each book seems to work differently as far as process goes. For book three, Reka had mentioned that I could do something with the Freds (possibly a Fred epidemic) which sparked the idea for The Grateful Fred. Usually what happens is that I just park my butt and start writing and somehow the humor comes. Plus there are so many repeating things from book to book, which acts as a form to hold the story up. One thing that keeps each story fresh, I think, is that I never really read comic books as a child. I have no background in superhero stuff, which makes Melvin more original (hopefully).
Rhode, how did you approach the illustrations for these books?
After reading Greg’s manuscript, I loved that Melvin Beederman was a struggling hero who encountered lots of obstacles. I tried using that thinking when I designed him, by adding physical attributes that might not be the norm for superheroes. I gave him glasses, freckles, and bucked teeth. Things that would maybe be more physical obstacles, at his age. On the other hand, Melvin does have his hero qualities, like his super-suit and even super-hair, which was influenced by Superman’s “S” curl. In our series, Melvin sports a stylish “M” curl!
Candace is a bit opposite from Melvin. She didn’t go to the Superhero academy, so design-wise, she’s not wearing tights. I put her in regular t-shirt and jeans. She also doesn’t have a hair style with an initial on it. So far, I’ve managed to have all the students of the academy with their first initial in their hair. I don’t know how long I will be able to continue that, but it’s worked out, so far.
Greg, what were your favorite books when you were a kid?
I’m rather embarrassed to say this, but I didn’t really read as a kid. With four brothers, reading just doesn’t happen. I think what really influenced me, though, was TV (again, I’m embarrassed to say this), especially Get Smart, George of the Jungle, and Super Chicken. The Melvin humor is from Get Smart. The intruding narrator is from George of the Jungle. And the superhero is from Super Chicken. I like to think that though I was a nonreading kid, somewhere in inside me there was the love of the story, which eventually came to the surface as I began to read in my thirties.
Rhode, what were your favorite books as a kid, and who were your favorite artists?
As a kid, my favorites were Harold and the Purple Crayon about a boy who would draw his own adventures with the aid of a magic purple crayon, and I also enjoyed There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, starring Grover from Sesame Street. It’s a book where Grover begs the reader not to turn the pages because there’s a monster at the end. It’s the first book I remember involving the reader, it was genius on the one hand and silly fun on the other. As far as artists that I liked when I was younger, all I remember is going to the library and staring at the Dr. Seuss books forever.
Greg, how do you keep the series fun and exciting as it goes on?
As I mentioned, I don’t have a background in comics or superheroes, so I purposely don’t go there now because I don’t want to corrupt myself. Maybe the stories seem fresh because I really don’t know how a superhero story is supposed to be; I have no preconceived ideas. It’s really a strange way of writing. Sometimes I just have one huge gag, like Candace breaking out of the book in book four or the Valley girls breaking into the narrator’s house in book six, and then I form the story around that one huge event.
The challenge for me in writing the series is making each book seem fresh and new. And this has partly to do with coming up with unique villains. Sometimes I have them as part of a duo; sometimes they work alone; some are male, some female. In book eight the villains are nonhuman. The other thing I do is try to vary the story . . . beginning the story in a different place or in a different way. For example, in book seven I begin with the bad guys, not the main character. There is a lot of repetition in the books in general, which makes it a fun read-aloud, but at the same time I try to make it repetitious in a different way with each book.
Rhode, what’s the first thing you do when you get a new Melvin manuscript?
I always look forward to getting the latest script from Greg and sketching new character designs, but to tell the truth, I’m a big Melvin fan, and enjoy being one of the first to read the new story. I read it as a fan first and after the geeking-out settles, I go back and look at it with my serious “It’s-my-job” face.
What are the best responses you’ve gotten from kids who have read the books?
Greg: Sometimes I receive emails that are pretty cute. An eight-year-old girl wrote to me saying she loved Candace so much that she wants to name her first daughter after her. Then she went on to name all of her pets. A second grader told me that page 36 of book one was his favorite part. I checked page 36 . . . there is no text on that page! Just one of Rhode’s great drawings. When Rhode and I visited schools together the big hit was the evil laugh contest. I think next time we should have the teachers participate . . . and possibly the custodian.
Rhode: I think, for me, it was when Greg and I went to our first school appearance. We went to a school that was facing closure, and the kids went all out to welcome us. We heard a crowd outside the office where we were waiting, and when we looked, there were these kids who greeted us with two huge papier mâché heads of Melvin and Candace. All the other students were surrounding them, shaking their hands and patting them on the back. It was so surreal, seeing the characters in 3D and hanging out with them. I’ll definitely never forget that.
If each of you could have one super-power, what would it be, and why?
Greg: Being able to turn invisible would be a lot of fun. I could get into the movies for free.
Rhode: I’ve seriously thought about this question for years . . . I wish I could speed read! I love to read and there’s so many books that I want to read, but I just wish I could do it a bit faster.