Two things really get Elise Gravel’s creativity flowing: weird little monsters and girls who subvert gender norms. Both are found throughout the prolific author-illustrator’s catalogue of work, which ranges from picture books to graphic novels and even doodle books that encourage kids to learn to draw. And both feature in her upcoming June releases, Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere (HarperCollins) and If Found…Please Return to Elise Gravel, which marks Gravel’s first outing with Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
Kooky creatures and misunderstood kids feel like a natural combination, and Gravel finds joy in playing with their similarities and telling stories about them. “I’ve always felt attracted to those characters and creating things that combine my desire to do absurd things and just let my imagination roam free, and also to show that everybody is different – you can be weird or ugly or smelly and you still deserve to be loved,” says Gravel.
Olga and the Smelly Thing From Nowhere certainly fits that bill. The book is inspired by Gravel’s own tomboyish childhood and by her two daughters – an eight-year-old obsessed with bande dessinée (Québécois comics) who would read nothing else given the choice, and an 11-year-old who loves science. Olga is a petite, science-loving nerd who is teased by her “cool girl” neighbours and aspires to “hang out with Jane Goodall and her chimp friends in the jungle,” drinking tea and talking about how silly humans are. When she finds an unidentified creature that looks “like a cross between an inflated hamster and a potato drawn by a three-year-old,” Olga sets out to discover what it might be. Her enthusiasm at the possibility of finding a new friend and the thought of describing a previously unidentified species informs Gravel’s exuberant text. It’s a romping story – full of Gravel’s trademark gross-out humour, speech balloons, and strange-looking creatures – that integrates lessons about environmentalism, curiosity, and self-esteem.
The book is another in a growing collection – including last year’s The Cranky Ballerina (also published by HarperCollins) and 2014’s Jessie Elliot is a Big Chicken (Running Brook Press) – that display Gravel’s belief that girls should be nerdy, brave, loud, get dirty, have fun, and explore the same way boys are encouraged to. “I’m trying to make these strong girl characters who are not into pleasing or being cute or pretty, who are interested in other things,” says Gravel.
This desire is also reflected in many of the projects Gravel posts to her blog, including downloadable posters, like the one bearing the slogan “Girls can be” that depicts the various “unladylike” things girls are often discouraged from being (angry, strong, leaders, etc.), another presenting “Some famous women scientists,” and the free ebook Artsy Boys and Smelly Girls, which Gravel says has been downloaded more than 175,000 times since she made it available in 2014.
“I’m a feminist, and I have two daughters and I want them to learn they can do whatever they want. But gender equality means boys can be sensitive and scared too, and we have to help all children reach this equality,” says Gravel. “I’m always thinking about that stuff and I’m trying to get these messages across in my regular published books. But I like to do stuff that can help parents and teachers – visual materials they can use in the class to teach messages.”
Gravel is a bit of a rock star in her home province of Quebec, having published more than 40 titles in French since her 2003 debut, Catalogue des gaspilleurs! (Éditions Les 400 coups). “Her books are in every school library in the province,” says Drawn & Quarterly
publisher Peggy Burns. “You can’t be a parent of school-aged children and not have come across her books.”
Despite Gravel’s popularity in French Canada, it’s only in the past three or four years that she’s made headway in English Canada and the U.S. “The American market has no one quite like her,” says Jill Davis, Gravel’s editor at HarperCollins in New York, who feels the author’s popularity will only continue to grow. “She’s becoming easily recognizable in the U.S., with librarians and booksellers alike becoming huge fans.”
This newfound recognition is welcome, but getting there hasn’t been without its challenges. “When I started working in the U.S., I realized that it was harder to just do weird formats,” says Gravel. “It’s something that I can do here in French, because we’re used to bande dessinée and all those weird books with panels, and there can be no story.”
Worried that her spontaneity and creativity might have to be sacrificed for the sake of success in the English market, Gravel began to work on a sketchbook, “drawing everything that came to my mind without ever thinking about anybody else and how everybody is going to react to this,” she says. When the sketchbook was full, she posted images online (Gravel is very active on social media), and approached two publishers: Éditions Les 400 coups, and D&Q. Both instantly agreed to publish If Found.
“I am such a big fan of Elise’s that I stalked her for a few years, friending her online and showing up to her signings,” says Burns. “It was more than just wanting to publish her book, her sensibility clicks with D&Q’s approach to publishing.”
In the case of If Found, that sensibility includes pages of doodles, personal notes, and advice for budding artists. “Be yourself and create and don’t think about what other people are thinking. That’s a big message in this book,” says Gravel. “I wanted the child to hear what I’m thinking, and I’m talking to them and saying ‘you’ and ‘I’ and I’m an adult and they’re children and it doesn’t make any difference – we’re all the same inside.”