Megan Lacera grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, with a book always in her hands. She became a writer and creator of characters and worlds for entertainment companies like American Greetings, Hasbro and GoldieBlox. She later formed her own creative company, Studio Lacera, with husband Jorge Lacera. After reading many stories to their son, Megan realized that very few books reflected a family like theirs-multicultural, bilingual, funny, and imperfect. She decided to change that by writing her own stories.
Jorge Lacera was born in Colombia, and grew up in Miami, Florida, drawing in sketchbooks, on napkins, on walls, and anywhere his parents would let him. After graduating with honors from Ringling College of Art and Design, Jorge worked as a visual development and concept artist at American Greetings, Irrational Games, and Ghost Story Games. As a big fan of pop culture, comics, and zombie movies, Jorge rarely saw Latino kids as the heroes or leads. He is committed to changing that, especially now that he has a son.
Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies is Megan and Jorge’s debut picture book. They wrote the manuscript together, and Jorge created the illustrations. Zombies was a Fall 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection, and earned a starred Kirkus review.
Thanks for joining me today. I read that you met at American Greetings, where you both created stories and characters for brands like Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. How long have you been collaborating with each other, and how has your process stayed the same or changed over the years?
We started collaborating while we were working at American Greetings (because it was our job and we didn’t really have a choice, ha!). The first big project that we worked very closely on was a pitch bible for an animated series. This was a team project—quite a few people were involved—and Megan was the lead writer and Jorge was responsible for several character designs as well as the layout and final design. So just the two of us had to go in on a Saturday to finish and ended up spending most of the day in the office. It was fun, and I remember we were both happily surprised with how well we navigated a stressful, time-consuming creation. PS, we remained “just friends” for a quite awhile.
The biggest change in our collaborative style and process is that now we’re married (10 years)! And, really, our whole life is a collaboration. It’s pretty hard for us to “turn it off.” We are always thinking of ways to improve whatever projects we’re currently working on, coming up with new ideas, and heatedly debating creative choices. Our almost seven year-old son is also involved now as he has many, many ideas and opinions.
It’s awesome ☺
When did you first decide to write and illustrate picture books together? Did one of you draw the other into the picture book business or were you independently drawn to it?
Megan: Maybe 7 or 8 years ago. We realized that we could create a picture book entirely ourselves (pre-editor and publisher stage, of course) and that was very appealing to us. We’re both “vision” people; being able to execute completely on our vision with out a lot of other interests in the mix is great.
Jorge: We started taking picture books (and our creation of them) more seriously after I attended the Illustration Master Class. I met amazing, talented, and very down-to-earth artists (thank you Adam Rex, Rebecca Guay, James Guerney, Jeff Mack, and more) there who were encouraging and nudged me to tell my stories. I think we got to work in earnest after that.
I know your IP creation skills must have translated nicely into writing and illustrating picture books. What did you do to hone those skills and specifically learn the picture book craft? What, if anything, surprised you about the picture book craft or industry?
Jorge: One key thing that I did was to enroll in Mira Reisberg’s Children’s Book Academy. I applied for and received the Yuyi Morales diversity grant to take the course—such a gift. I learned a great deal through the course about pacing, creating dummies, the market, voice. Mira saw a very early draft of Zombies—we wondered if she would think it was too weird, but she didn’t! She was encouraging and got our sense of quirky, off-beat humor….it was another nudge to keep going.
Megan: Our IP work definitely influences our picture book writing and illustrating— character creation and world-building are two of the prominent ways. We think a lot about what kinds of characters will appeal to kids, what will hook them and set their imaginations spinning? What kinds of worlds will they want to spend their time in? We’ve seen the power of brands like My Little Pony, Transformers, Dungeons and Dragons…they tap into characters and worlds that kids love (ponies, robots, magic) and build and build and build.
Zombies began with Mo…we knew kids loved playing all kinds of zombies games. Go to a playground and you’ll hear kids of all different ages making up zombie-filled stories. Many of the young kiddos don’t even know what a zombie really is! They just love the name, yelling out BRAINS! and spending time in a made-up world. So we had an idea for a character who was a zombie, but wasn’t too sure that he wanted to be undead. We imagined a zombie who was more evolved…think about the years after a zombie apocalypse takes place…will zombies just stay the same? Or will they evolve, like nearly every other species does? We thought they would. I know, this is very strange thinking for a picture book…
Jorge: In terms of surprises, I think just how long the process can be is eye-opening. Coming from corporate worlds, things typically move fast. Very fast. Publishing tends to be quite slow—everything from finalizing contracts, to the revision process, to printing, and more…it’s definitely an adjustment.
Megan: Yes, the slow pace for sure. It’s been challenging for us to adjust to.
Was Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies the first picture book you created together? How many other collaborations have you had? How many are you currently working on?
The very first picture book we worked on together was called Sydney’s Gotta Pee. It was about a little girl and her dad…the girl was learning how to survive without a diaper. The dad was learning how to survive with a daughter constantly yelling, “I gotta pee!” It was…not exactly ready for prime time.
We are currently working on book #2 for Lee and Low. We also have another picture book nearly ready to head out on the submission train. Then there are dozens of other ideas in various stages of creation.
In addition to picture books, we are excited about illustrated middle grade novels, and we’ve been slowly creating one that we hope to become a series.
We have a crazy idea for a Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies movie, and we’re working a treatment for that….
Jorge: Don’t forget the animated series.
Megan: Oh yeah. We’ve co-created a number of those. They’re in various stages of development.
Do you also have separate kidlit projects you are individually writing and/or illustrating?
Megan: Yes! I’m working a middle grade novel and have a picture book story with a STEM theme that I’d love to be illustrated by a woman.
Jorge: Also yes! I’m illustrating two books right now; one by Nancy Viau and one by Deborah Underwood. I’m also creating an illustrated chapter book.
Getting published is a long and difficult process for any writer/illustrator, and it’s especially challenging to sell a collaboration. Did knowing that change the way you approached the process of learning the picture book craft, creating your book, or querying?
For us, it was always about doing it together. We queried together, as a team. Luckily we have an agent (John Cusick) who represents both of us and never suggested otherwise.
Megan: I don’t know if we did it consciously, but somewhere in our minds we both knew that we had to be at the top of our games.
Jorge: True. We push each other a lot. It’s not always comfortable, but we’ve both learned that achieving the best outcomes means be willing to grow, change, work harder.
Did you have any mentors or role models along the way who helped you figure out how to successfully create a picture book in collaboration and sell it?
Jorge: Mira Reisberg was so helpful. Adam Rex offered great advice and support. James Gurney is a huge inspiration.
Megan: I think we figured out the most through trial and error. You don’t want to know how many fully drafted dummies we’ve gone through….
You’re both represented by the same literary agent, John Cusick at Folio Jr. Did you query John together using one of your collaborations, or did you each query him separately? Can you tell us a little bit about that process?
It’s a funny story….we actually originally queried Molly Cusick (together, with the full dummy for Zombies) and signed with her. We loved her approach to agenting and connected with her right away during our initial phone call. While Zombies was on submission, Molly called us to let us know that she was leaving agenting for another publishing opportunity that was too good to pass up. We were sad, but completely understood and appreciated her candor and communication—in our opinion those two qualities are must-haves in the agent-client relationship. She let us know that other agents at Folio loved our work and were interested in taking us on…including John. We talked to John over the phone and were so impressed—it was an easy decision to sign with him. Several years into the partnership, and we’re very happy to be working with John and Folio.
One thing to note…. at our request, we originally signed just for our Zombies project. We thought it was a good way to get to know each other and test drive the relationship. Soon after we sold Zombies, we agreed to have John/Folio represent all of our kidlit work.
Prior to querying, did you guys talk about what you would do if an agent or editor liked the story, but not the art, or visa versa? How did you approach that issue?
We did! The answer was always that we are a team. Molly and then John never suggested that the art and writing didn’t work together, and luckily we didn’t receive an offer from an editor who asked if we would consider another illustrator or writer. If they did, we would have said no.
What advice would you give to other author-illustrator teams (or would-be collaborators)?
Every team has to find their own way. And collaborating isn’t always easy. For us, it’s been important for us each of us to continuously improve and be willing to grow beyond our present capabilities. We also have our own individual projects that we can have complete control over…that helps to give us an outlet for when we just want to do things the way we want to do them.
Engage in healthy creative conflict. Agreeing on everything may be peaceful, but it probably isn’t going to elevate your work. Debate, argue, defend your ideas…all while staying focused on achieving the best you can together.
Lastly, make sure you’re honoring each other’s genius and contributions. It’s a team…share the credit and uplift each other!
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
Thank you, Rachel! Best of luck to you—we’re excited to see your book collaborations in the coming days!