Penguins Are Done in This Town by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
In the spring of 2004, I was visiting schools in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, a section of Houston, TX. It was a year before Punk Farm was to be published and I would end every school presentation by drawing a character from the book and I’d ask the kids to guess what my next book was. One of the kids said, “It’s a pig who’s a cop!” He was, of course, mistaken (and unintentionally offensive). The aviator sunglasses led him to think that the guitar-wielding swine was a police officer and that stuck with me. What if there was a book about animals who were cops? I set out to write a book that was called. . .Penguin Police Squad.
Over the next year, I filled sketchbooks with penguins. Penguin cops and penguin citizens—businessmen, bakers, athletes, mothers, babies. I constructed an entire world that centered around a hot-shot young rookie named Rick Zengo who was partnered with a grizzled old-timer named Corey O’Malley. I even visited the New England Aquarium and sketched and photographed the penguins in the aquarium’s penguin exhibit.
But then something happened. Penguins were everywhere. Penguin documentaries, penguin animated movies, breakout penguin stars in movies that didn’t center around penguins who then got their own television shows. You name it, penguins were there. Punk Farm had just been optioned for film and Eddie Gamarra, my manager at The Gotham Group, was curious about what I was working on. I told him about Penguin Police Squad. A red flag immediately went up. There was no way Eddie could do anything with a penguin project. “Penguins are done in this town,” he told me. Seriously. He really said that, and without irony. These are the conversations you have when you write children’s books. You have serious editorial and business conversations about absurd topics.
I was disheartened, but Eddie was right. Penguins had oversaturated popular culture and if I wanted my book to stand out, I would need to re-think the species. But I really loved the way “Penguin Police” sounded. I’m a sucker for alliteration. So I searched for just the right animal. I thought back to my days of working at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and remembered that in the summer of 1998, my cabin group had adopted the platypus as our mascot. I had since always wanted to do something with platypuses. And so it was! Penguin Police Squad became Platypus Police Squad.
I filled my sketchbooks with platypuses and watched documentaries on the very odd monotreme. I re-watched every awesome cop movie from the 80’s. I also rode along with the Northampton Police Department. It was a slow night, we didn’t see much action. But that worked out in my favor—I got to sit shotgun with an officer on his overnight shift and just ask questions. Not just about how a cop car works, but about why he wanted to be a police officer in the first place and what his experiences had been like.
I did all of this work without really knowing what format this book would take. That’s how I work. I had been working on the Lunch Lady series for about four years before I knew it would be a graphic novel. With Platypus Police Squad, I knew I wanted to get into the psychology of these characters, so I set out to write my first chapter book.
This may sound absurd to you, but Platypus Police Squad is the most serious and realistic thing that I’ve ever written. Sure, it’s odd and funny, but I’m slipping in some pretty heavy themes. When I shifted to platypuses, I wasn’t interested in creating a world that was just comprised of that animal, so I created a menagerie of characters. With that came perceptions that species would have of one another. And what happens when there are haves and have-nots. These characters inhabit a city that has real-world problems. It is dealing with its past, its current less-than-desirable state and the dreams for what could be. There are real consequences to the characters’ actions and time moves forward for them. They won’t forever be in a cartoonish state of sameness.
It was a fortuitous set of circumstances—the kid who misinterpreted the pig with aviator sunglasses, the over-exposed penguins, the fond memory of the camp platypus. Everything in the creative life does happen for a reason, it’s just not until you look back that you can see how all of the dots connect.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka has been passionate about storytelling through words and pictures since he was a kid. He began his professional career by illustrating educational readers for a national publisher while still an undergraduate at Rhode Island School of Design. Then, just six months after graduation, Jarrett received his first contract for a trade book that he authored. Knopf Books for Young Readers published Good Night, Monkey Boy on June 12, 2001 and Jarrett hasn’t stopped or slowed down since. He currently has authored and illustrated eighteen published books—ten picture books and eight graphic novels. His Lunch Lady series has twice won a Children’s Choice Book Award, in the Third to Fourth Grade Book of the Year category, and was nominated for a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award. In the summer of 2013, Jarrett will have his chapter book debut with the publication of Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked. His Punk Farm and Lunch Lady series are both currently in development as feature films. While Jarrett awaits seeing his work adapted for the silver screen, he can be heard on The Book Report with JJK, his new radio segment on Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live. Jarrett is happily living out his childhood dream in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he resides with his wife and daughters and their pug, Ralph Macchio.
You can find him online at http://www.studiojjk.com and on Twitter as @StudioJJK.