Castellucci & Varon Find the "Odd Duck" in All of Us

First Second Books' latest children's book "Odd Duck" is both well-crafted and well-packaged, and you might want to give it to everyone: your child, your spouse, your overly-conservative father-in-law -- it's just that good. While writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Sara Varon don't beat the reader over the head with it, the book celebrates the weird in all of its glory and all of its guises. It revels in the very true fact that even those who fancy themselves as straight-laced, newspaper-reading individuals who fit nicely into the category of normal, there is almost certainly something very odd about them, and, in a sense, all of us. We may just not realize it at the moment.

Enter our ducks, Theodora and Chad. Chad sports self-dyed feathers and builds kitschy art. He is an odd, odd duck. Theodora fancies herself as normal, but maybe not as normal as she thinks she is. Within Theodora and Chad's story Castellucci and Varon have managed to distill a very important message in a very simple manner, making it a marvelous little book that celebrates the different types of odd. Both Castelluci and Varon spoke to CBR News about what all went into making an "Odd Duck," finding the weird in the normal and more.

CBR News: "Odd Duck" is not only insanely cute, but it also features a very sweet, universal message. And while it's billed as a children's book, it's very much an all-ages title. Tell me about its beginnings -- where the idea came from and how it changed through the different stages of production.

Cecil Castellucci: Thank you! I'm so happy with how the book turned out and I'm glad that you think that it's for all ages. I know I could sometimes use Chad and Theodora's adventure in friendship as a reminder for myself. The idea for the book came while I was at a dinner and sitting next to artist Peter Reynolds. We were talking about authors and then one name came up and we were gushing about how they were an odd duck. I said that person was our odd duck and that I would write a book about an odd duck named Theodora who swam with a tea cup on her head.  But really, I was interested in talking about how great it was to have a friend who is just so odd and how if you can get past it, you get the best kind of true blue friendship. Of course I imagined myself as Chad, all colored feathers and conceptual art, but thinking that poor Theodora was a bit odd with her tea cup swimming ways, because I'm sure that author thought of me as a total odd duck, too. I thought it would be funny if no one realized that they were odd. Voila! The book was born! I originally sold it to another publisher as a three-book, early chapter book/easy reader trilogy with spot illustrations and they hired Sara Varon to illustrate. So as you can imagine, at first there were a lot of words!

"Robot Dreams" is one of my absolutely most favorite books. I'm a huge Sara Varon fan, so I flipped out with joy. Since I sometimes write comics, I suggested that we throw out the words and come up with something new and different and more illustrated. There was some initial resistance over there, but Sara and I talked and we agreed that she should break down the text. She thumbnailed it, using text where necessary. I then went in and proposed some cuts and suggested that we move some text to other pages and have another panel, etc. She added in some great details, something she is so good at (Mallard Moving Company! Egg Replacer!), and we kind of went back and forth. It really became a true collaboration. Ultimately, the other publishing company didn't really get it and so we found a very happy home with First Second, who were able to take what we had on the page and kick it up a notch.

It's been a long road, about 7 years, but I'm so glad that we stuck to doing it this way.

Why a duck as the central character? I have my own ideas, but I'd like to hear yours.

Castellucci: Oh! I want to hear what your theories are! I mean, it was a duck because at that dinner the phrase "odd duck" was bandied about. Also, I love ducks. There is something so perfect about them. Especially when writing for kids. I think ducks have personality. Think of Daffy Duck. Think of Donald Duck. They just are kind of quirky water fowl.

What children's books did you look at while developing "Odd Duck?" Was this always going to be a children's book?

Castellucci: This was always going to be a children's book. I didn't look at too many early chapter books. I think that the things I thought of were books like "Frog and Toad" or characters like Ernie and Bert. Or the Muppets. Or even Han and Chewbacca, that's an odd friendship. But it works. I was actually listening to the song "You've Got a Friend in Me" [from "Toy Story"] on my iPod today and I was like, ", Woody and Buzz." They are odd friends.

I love the lettering. It plays to the story so well. Who was behind that, and was there lots of back and forth regarding style?

Sara Varon: The lettering is just my everyday handwriting, traced with ink and brush, which gives it a different look than pencil or pen. I'm not always so neat, so I line everything up in Photoshop. We also used a font created from my handwriting. The narrative sentences are typeset using the font, and all the sound effects, detail notes and words in balloons are hand-lettered.

Speaking of style, Sara's art works perfectly for the story. How did you two hook up?

Varon: We got matched up by the publisher! I've been offered to illustrate other people's stories before, but this is the first time I accepted, so I think that attests to it being a good match.

How long does a book like this take to produce?

Castellucci:  I think this is Sara!  But it took a long time because we stuck to our vision!

Varon: It takes a long time to produce a book like this! The final drawings alone took maybe a year or two? This is the first time I've done such detailed full-page illustrations, which take longer for me than pages with panels. The first round of thumbnails is a pretty hard step and takes a lot of concentration. I usually work at home, but I rented a studio for a month, where there were fewer distractions. So I think I thumbnailed it in that month. And then there are several rounds of revisions, and a lot of time in between. The time in between is pretty important because it provides an opportunity for things to stew -- you think about the project maybe while you're on the train or running or working on other things, and the details of the character's life become clearer and more fleshed out. I think I received the story in 2007, and here it is 2013 and the book is just coming out!  There's usually a year, though, between delivering the final art and the publication date. So technically I worked on in for 5 years, on and off.

We're all a little odd. Whenever I crack open a comic or a book, I literally smell the ink on the pages. And that's only one of a million odd things I do. What are some odd things you do?

Castellucci: Oh, I agree. We are all totally odd. There is something that you do that is really weird. And amazingly you. I sometimes do interpretive dances when I am happy. Also, I sing little made up songs about what I'm doing.  "I'm sitting at my parents house! Watching the hockey! La la la!"  I always have a bottle of bubbly in my fridge in case there is a celebration that needs to happen. I used to always have caviar (OK, lumpfish) in there, too. I don't like pie. I mix my own chocolate milk instead of using a insta-choco mix (cocoa, milk, sugar). I have used my grandmother's toaster from the 1940s for the last 25 years, meaning I have to pay attention when toasting because you have to flip the bread yourself.

This book would have been perfect for high school me to read, and certainly my kid will read it when he's old enough. If you could have one person read this, one person in your life you think could benefit from reading a book that encourages uniqueness, who would it be?

Castellucci: Oh, this is a really good question. Recently my friend told me about how her daughter was told by her friend that she was too enthusiastic and hugged too much and that she should watch that or people would think she was weird. I would like to give this book to that friend (or any friend in the world who thinks that you are not behaving right) in the hopes that she'd realize that the fact that my friend's daughter hugging too much and being enthusiastic is what makes her a most awesome 12 year-old and great person.

"Odd Duck" is available now from First Second Books.

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