A few months ago we reviewed Mike Lawrence’s latest graphic novel, Star Scouts, and spoiler alert: we loved it. How can you not love a kid’s graphic novel about alien scouts earning ridiculous sci-fi inspired merit badges? It’s an incredibly fun adventure about friendship and determination — and also finding a place for yourself. The main character, Avani, is one of the most relatable young heroines I’ve come across in a long time.
We had the opportunity to sit down with author and illustrator Mike Lawrence to talk about his Star Scouts series. We discussed crazy sci-fi badges, the challenges of illustrating your own book, easter eggs hidden throughout the books, and more! Mike also gave us the scoop on the Star Scouts sequel, League of Lasers, which comes out next spring.
If you haven’t read Star Scouts, you may want to check it out before reading this interview. Most of the questions don’t reveal too much more than you might read on the book’s cover. But some hint at some of the bigger plot points in the story — and the two questions about the sequel will definitely give a couple things away!
What can you tell us about your book, Star Scouts?
Mike Lawrence: Star Scouts is about a girl named Avani who is new in town. Her dad signs her up for Flower Scouts so she can meet some new friends and she doesn’t get along with them. She doesn’t click with the other girls really and she’s having a hard time finding her group in her new town. Then one day on the way home from her Flower Scout meeting she’s abducted by an alien.
Avani finds out – after a brief bit of terror – it’s an alien scout working on her xenocollecting badge and she accidentally collects Avani. After Avani finds out about Star Scouts she decides to join up. Star Scouts has badges in like jet packs and flying spaceships and mad science. Eventually she goes on to camp and there’s a rival. It’s kinda like the other troop on the other side of a lake but it’s on the other side of an asteroid and there’s some conflict.
Speaking of badges, I think one of the most fun things about Star Scouts is all the badges they try to earn. How do you come up with all of them and how do you decide which ones to use in the book?
ML: I tried to take actual badges and think of the sci-fi equivalent. You know, making [canoeing] into a spaceship was a pretty easy one. Instead of archery it was a combination badge of like leadership and archery with their glue guns and that kind of thing. Then cooking – which I think is an actual badge – I was just going to keep that one because like alien food is funny.
For the first book, I made a list. Because there’s some weird badges for boy scouts. There’s literally a badge for everything. So I kinda had to narrow it down. And then I tried to figure out what plot points I wanted to hit. That kinda helped me narrow it down more.
If you had to earn one of the badges which would you choose?
ML: What badge would I go for? I would probably go for the piloting badge where they’re flying the spaceships in the asteroids. When I was a kid all I wanted was to be a pilot. A super sci-fi geek [growing up] in an air force town? I just wanted to fly.
You both wrote and illustrated this book. Was it hard to come up with the different character designs? Did you go in knowing what you wanted out of your alien characters?
ML: The aliens in Avani’s troop were revised quite a bit – especially the character Mabel. Originally Mabel was really short and like this round ball kind of character. And I thought it would be kind of funny if this ball had dreams of being this mighty warrior someday. Feedback from some others… suggested that I stretch her out so that she could be the same level as Avani.
But for the random aliens I just sorta start doodling. And in every book I let my kids design aliens, too. I have a four year old and six year old and so I just say, “Design some aliens!” And the ones that I think I can translate into a shape are the ones that make it into the book. They’re pretty excited about their contributions!
Avani is an Indian-American heroine – something we don’t see often enough in kids’ comics – and diversity is a big part of the book even in subtle ways. Was that a conscious part of your storytelling?
ML: The reason I made Avani Indian is because my niece and nephew are Indian. My sister in law is from India and I buy them tons of comics. For years I’ve been sending them graphic novels and all of them had white kids on the cover. I wanted to make an adventure story with someone who looked like them and could sort of culturally reference their experience. I’m a white guy. I don’t have any experience growing up as a minority in any way… but I can tell a pretty funny story and have it be an inclusive story.
Is there any one character you enjoy drawing the most?
ML: I’d say it’s probably a tie.
Lunchbox, the little robot that Avani makes, he’s really simple to draw. And it’s really fun to make two squares express emotion. I have two squares and the little ear things. Whenever I like nail it, I’m like, “I’m good at this!” It’s pretty fun to have a simple shape to work with.
And then Diane, who is kinda like a noodle-y alien with wings… It’s just kinda fun to have those flowy shapes and how her body moves. I feel my art doesn’t get too stiff when I can just draw a noodle that can fly potentially.
Is there anything you find hard to draw or that you regret not making a little easier?
ML: Crowd scenes! The second book doesn’t really have crowd scenes so much but in the first book there’s quite a few crowd scenes. Drawing them is fun! Inking them is less fun. And by the time I get to coloring I’m like, “Why did I do this to myself!?”
Because [when] I’m drawing [I’m] like, “Oh, there’s an alien that’s a slug and an alien that’s a rock and they’re friends!” I get to have all these jokes to keep myself entertained. But by the last stage of the art I just hate past me.
Right, so, the second book in the series comes out early next year. What can you tell us about Star Scouts: League of Lasers?
ML: League of Lasers starts off where Avani is invited to join an elite group within the Scouts. Boy Scouts has Order of the Arrow and that’s kind of what inspired the League of Lasers. They have this ordeal they have to do in order to join. For Star Scouts it’s to survive on an alien world for like a day or two. Avani and Pam are both selected to try out for it and [when] their ships collide they get off course and they get marooned on the wrong planet. They have to work together in order to survive and escape the planet.
As a kid I really loved Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and I really liked the sci-fi movie Enemy Mine and I just kind of smashed those two together.
It’s more of an intimate story about Avani and Pam and their relationship. I knew I wanted to have Avani and Pam come to terms in this book. Because there is a divide between scouts that breath oxygen and scouts that breathe methane and the overall point of the arc was to get that meshed together so there’s less of a divide.
And what about Jen, who we see find out about the Star Scouts at the end of the first book?
ML: Jenn definitely gets more ‘screen’ time as the book progresses. In the second book Jenn has joined the troop. The troop is sent out to try and find Avani and Pam and she’s part of the rescue team. She’s kinda in conflict with Mabel a little bit. Mabel is a little jealous.
Is there anything else you can tell us about the books?
ML: You know, I’m surprised at how closely people have read the book. I got Ben Hatke’s permission to put a little Zita in a crowd scene. The book had been out for about a week and some mom tweeted me a picture of her kid like pointing to it and I was like, “Whoa that was fast!”
So I asked if they could find Bird and Squirrel because James Burk and I have the same agent [and] he said I could [add them]. And they found it almost immediately! When I draw them they’re kinda double the size but when they’re printed they’re kinda small. Eagle eyed readers!
Are there any other Easter eggs coming up?
ML: The next one is going to be super hard to find because I was having a hard time fitting it in. There is a Roller Girl reference but I think it’s so small I don’t think anyone [will find it]. And there’s I think a reference to the Time Museum – one of the library cats. I think I snuck one of those in!