“Odd Duck,” by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon, chronicles the quirky friendship between two ducks — Theodora, who swims with a teacup balanced on her head, and her scruffy neighbor Chad, who loves astronomy and snow angels.
The tale is a celebration of strangeness, says Castellucci, who admits to being a bit of an odd duck herself. Castellucci has made a name for herself across media as former indie rocker (then known as Nerdy Girl and Cecil Seaskull), filmmaker, opera libretto writer and award-winning author of books and graphic novels, including “The Plain Janes,” “The Year of the Beasts” and “First Day on Earth.”
For “Odd Duck,” the Canadian writer teamed up with artist Sara Varon (“Robot Dreams”) to create the story’s whimsical format — a sort of hybrid between comic and picture book (take a peek in the gallery above). Hero Complex caught up with Castellucci to talk about “Odd Duck,” out May 14 from First Second Books.
HC: What inspired Chad and Theodora’s story?
CC: I have always had a very high tolerance for strange people. If you march to the beat of your own drum, I adore you. One night I was at a dinner and the name of an odd person came up. And I said, “But they’re our odd duck.” Then I declared that I would write a story about a duck with a teacup on her head. Theodora was born. When I sat down to write, I thought about how I think I’m totally normal, but actually I’m pretty quirky. After all, we look pretty normal to ourselves when we’re moving through the world. I wondered what Theodora would think was odd and how would she go about accepting her own strangeness and the strangeness in someone else. I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that you’ve got to take a person for exactly who they are, quirks and all. I always assume that people do the same for me. Of course that is not always true and I’ve been terribly disappointed. But when you meet those people who truly accept you and that you can totally be yourself with it’s kind of like the whole world makes sense. That’s why I wrote this story. Because truly, we’re all a little bit weird and we all have totally odd friends.
HC: Why do you think that message is an important one, particularly for a younger audience?
CC: I think that there is a great desire to fit in. That is especially difficult and confusing to navigate when we are young. Recently, I had a friend of mine who told me about how her young daughter was walking home one day and her daughter’s friend told her that if she wanted to be liked she had to change her behavior. Her crimes? Being too enthusiastic. Hugging people too much. Wearing weird things. You know the drill. To be clear, she wasn’t being bullied. Her friend thought she was being nice and doing my friend’s daughter a great favor. I nearly spit my drink out in horror. I think the more that kids and adults realize that it is 100% wonderful to be yourself and that there are people in your life whom you may not know yet but are there who get it, who love it, who support it, who think it’s wonderful that you are the way you are, the easier it is to be happy on all levels. I mean, man, it’s hard in the world. Let’s bring on the love and acceptance!
HC: How closely did you work with Sara Varon? Did you develop the look of the characters and the story together?
CC: Originally this was an early chapter book/easy reader with spot illustrations that I sold to another publisher as a three-book series. Sara was brought on as an illustrator. Once I found out she was on board I said, “Let’s throw out the words and do something hybrid-y!” Sara Varon is one of my favorite comic book artists. Have you read “Robot Dreams“? I am a big cheerleader for that book. We sort of took over the book and ultimately we didn’t publish with that company and found a very happy home with the amazing First Second Books. She and I had a long conversation where we came up with the way we envisioned the book. It was one of those amazing moments you have as an artiste in the world where you are collaborating and it is the best. We decided that Sara would break down the book and then we went over the thumbnails and tweaked a lot of it together.
HC: There are some pretty cute duck jokes throughout the book’s artwork (like egg replacer and Mallard’s Moving Company). Were those part of the writing process or improvised during the illustration process?
CC: I have to give about 90% credit to Sara for all of those amazing little visual extras in the book. That’s all her. I think that is what happens when you give a complete world to a great artist. She’s got a great sense of world and every time I’d see that in the thumbnails, I’d be like, “AH! AMAZING!” She just kicked it up to an amazing level. I love every single thing that she added. She also added some of the asides that are squiggled in the book. I told her not to be afraid of words. Look for a shout-out to “Robot Dreams” and also the author of the “Duck Space Stories.” (Me!)
HC: You’ve written sci-fi, fantasy, graphic novels and YA fiction. What would you say is the thread that runs through your work? Any particular themes that tie your work together, or elements that make you want to tell the stories you tell?
CC: While it seems as though I write in wildly different genres (even opera librettos!) I think that fundamentally I am interested in stories about people who are a bit on the outside who become who they really are and find their true tribe. Whether these stories take place in Los Angeles in the zoo, or in the desert with a maybe-alien, or with a girl who has turned into a Medusa, or in a tower with a dragon, I would say that I am interested in the human heart and with characters whose worldview grows. They become awakened in some way. I would also say that I’m interested in how art saves us. That was even the motto of my book “The Plain Janes,” but I think it runs through all of my novels and comic books.
HC: What’s next for you?
CC: I have two books coming out in 2014. The first is “Tin Star” on Roaring Brook Press Feb. 14. It’s Book 1 of a science-fiction two-book series. It’s about a human girl named Tula Bane who is abandoned on a space station, living alone among aliens. Then I have a new graphic novel that is still untitled but it’s about two hobos in 1932. It’s being drawn by Joe Infurnari and out on Dark Horse Comics in fall 2014.
– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark
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