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Lunch Is Served

Jarrett J. Krosoczka was already an author of children’s picture books when a visit to his old school inspired a new character: Lunch Lady. His yellow-gloved heroine uncovers mysteries at her school with the help of three inquisitive children and an arsenal of foodie gadgets—a lunch-tray laptop, a spatula helicopter, and a banana boomerang, among others. She even stops a getaway car with a flood of sloppy Joe mix.

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute and Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in July. And Krosoczka recently announced that Universal Studios has optioned the film rights to the series, with Amy Poehler to star as the Lunch Lady in a live-action version of the graphic novels.
How is Lunch Lady different from all the other superheroes out there?
Lunch Lady is sort of like Batman in that she doesn’t have superpowers. She relies on her wit and her gadgets to fight crime. She’s serving sloppy Joes at lunchtime, but all the while she has her eye on the mysterious events that are popping up around the school. She has a sidekick named Betty, who is her gadget master—James Bond has Q; Lunch Lady has Betty. There are three kids who turn up for breakfast every day, Hector, Dee, and Terrence, and they start to wonder what their lunch lady’s deal is. They investigate to see if she has lots of cats and lives this boring life, and they become tangled up in the adventure, and much against Lunch Lady’s better wishes, they follow along and ultimately help her solve a lot of mysteries.
Were the lunch ladies in your school the inspiration for the superpowered Lunch Lady?
Back in 2001, I was celebrating the release of my first picture book, Good Night, Monkey Boy,and I returned to my old elementary school to speak to the students. While I was there, I saw my old lunch lady from when I was a kid. I said, “Hi, Jeannie,” and she looked at me and said, “Steven Krosoczka?” Steven is my uncle, and he is 20 years my senior. Obviously we were the only Krosoczkas to go through the school, so A, she knew I was a Krosoczka, and B, her history went back that far. We struck up a conversation, and she told me about her grandkids, and it totally blew my mind—I thought, “You had kids? And they had kids?” So I started writing a picture book about these three kids who wondered what their lunch lady did when she wasn’t a lunch lady. One thought maybe she was a crime fighter, and that one spread of a picture book became the entire story.
How did the Lunch Lady end up as a graphic novel?
The story no longer fit into the format of a picture book. I began writing it as a chapter book, but it was very evident that the humor was in seeing a lunch lady do karate kicks. I scrapped the chapter book and started writing a TV series, but I backed off on it in the end because I decided I wasn’t ready. Then I contributed to an anthology put together by Jon Scieszka, Guys Write, for Guys Read, a reading initiative for boys. I went through all the old artwork I had in Tupperware bins in my mother’s attic and I reillustrated a comic I made as a kid, and I fell back in love with the format. And then it was very evident that this Lunch Lady story needed to be a comic book.
What attracted you to picture books as a medium?
When I was a senior in high school, my goals were set squarely on comic books or comic strips, and I even had dabbled in animation. Then my teacher brought in two picture books, The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg. These books are really cool, not dull stories with generic illustrations—here is something that can sit on a shelf for a lifetime. At the time, there was still something that felt disposable about the comics. If you did keep them, they would be put in plastic bags and shoveled away to a secure location. That’s when I shifted my focus to picture books. While Lunch Lady marks my first professional endeavor, it is really a throwback to getting back to my creative roots as a comic book guy. When I was writing the books, I reread the comics I wrote as a kid. That helped me loosen up a bit in my storytelling and to have no fear in having a character say out loud, “This doesn’t make sense.”
How is writing a comic different from writing a picture book?
It’s actually not that different. Initially, I was kind of overwhelmed by the prospect of putting together a 96-page story, because I’m used to dealing with 32-page stories, one picture per page. Now I have five to six pictures per page. I sat down to write a script for the comic book and I had nothing. So I thought, “Why have I been successful in writing picture books?” It’s because I start off by taking 32 little rectangles and map out the story with thumbnails. That’s now what I do with comic books. I make 96 little rectangles, one for each page of the book, and I think about how I am going to fit the story into these 96 pages, so I can see I need to have the resolution by this page to give me a few pages to wrap up the story, so I need to have the rising action start here, I need to start the bulk of the action here. I write very visually, and then ultimately the process in writing the stories is very similar. My editor was very nervous, because she hadn’t ever edited a graphic novel, and then she saw the first draft and saw the same concerns of character development, plot, rising action, falling action. I had suggested that she read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and I think she had gotten maybe a third of the way through it before she received my first draft and she had the epiphany that this is just like any other story, just a different format.
Tell me about the color scheme of the book.
As we were developing the Lunch Lady books and we were talking with the production team at Random House, one thing that came up was making this book affordable and also giving it a certain look. Something they had found success with in Babymouse was giving it a limited palette and a signature color. We all came to the consensus that Lunch Lady-glove-yellow is what we would use. I thought it would be a handicap, but it turned out to be a helpful tool. One of the hardest decisions you have to make as an illustrator is deciding what colors you will be using for a certain page. Well, I’m using yellow.
I had looked at some other limited palette books, and I did some test runs of different philosophies in using the color. The only place we see the yellow at 100 percent is her lunch gloves and big moments of explosion and excitement. I created comic-book dots in black, which comes across as gray, and I have discovered that if I put yellow over the black, I get a brown, so I explored that a little bit in the second book. It’s amazing how much you can do with just one color—well, two colors, black and yellow. I definitely felt like it was a challenge on Survivor, where you are given a stick and a rock and you have to make a meal for someone.
I draw each page in brush and ink and some pen. It still has that element of my hand touching the actual page, and then I scan that in. Even though it’s colored on the computer, I try to give it a look of the old printing process.
You will be releasing the first two books in the series at once. Why did you choose to do that, and what are your plans from there?
I had finished all of the work for the first book, and the sales team at Random House fell in love with it and asked my editor how far along I was on the second book. I was pretty far along, so they decided to push back publication of the first book and publish the first two simultaneously. I guess it works on a few levels. The bookstores that are going to be selling the book can be told it’s a series, but when you see the two books, it helps give it a bigger push out the gate. Hopefully they will be more invested in hand-selling the books, because that is an integral part of my career, having all those booksellers who like them enough to hand-sell them. The second part is for readers, to whet their appetite. They can read the first book and read the second right afterward, so it really gets them going. The third one will be out on December 22, which is my birthday. It’s officially on the spring 2010 list. The fourth book is due out in summer 2010, and from there I have been putting together other adventures for these characters to go on. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book with Knopf, and I’m hoping to live my life as a graphic-novel artist and picture-book illustrator and have these two different kinds of books on parallel tracks.

-- Brigid Alverson