He still doesn’t know what it was. At age 7, Ruben Bolling and his friend both crept behind the stack of firewood in his backyard, and there it was — a pulsating, pink blob creature the size of a football. They screamed and ran.
And then, they started the Mystery Club.
This childhood club was one of Bolling’s inspirations for his new series of children’s books, headed by the release of its first installation, Alien Invasion in My Backyard: An EMU Club Adventure.
But Bolling isn’t known for his children’s works; in fact, his path up until this point has pointed to anything but. Bolling graduated from Harvard Law School and began to pen his notorious alternative, satirical, progressive comic strip “Tom the Dancing Bug,” which has been syndicated, appearing in publications like The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, The Village Voice, and several others. He splits his comic writing with his part-time job at a financial services company.
And now, the progressive, adult-geared cartoonist has written a children’s book.
“I really felt as though there was no carryover in the way I’d learned to write into what I did for the [children’s] book,” Bolling says. “Suddenly I had to make a compelling story about real characters, not political strongmen or satirical cutouts, so it really was so different that I was able to keep everything very separate.”
Although this is Bolling’s first foray into children’s literature, it’s not his first time telling stories to kids. When his eldest daughter was 5-years-old, Bolling created stories for her nightly, and later for his two other kids, based off of the character Monopoly Jr. (what his kids believed to be the name of the monocled man on the Monopoly box). “They would end up being long stories, and I would end up lying awake thinking about how the story would go and how I could surprise them with a plot twist,” Bolling says. “It made me realize how much fun this is really is.”
Though Alien Invasion is incredibly different from his previous work, Bolling is still able to maintain his knack for witty, purposeful humor. “I wanted the story to be exciting first, and then for the humor to develop out of that. I don’t know whether kids will catch on to the humor found in the way that Stuart [the main character] sees the world, but so far I think they have,” Bolling says. “I took the leap of faith that kids would be sophisticated enough to take to the character and love him. There’s a deeper connection when it’s story first and characters first.”
Bolling manages to subvert certain children’s chapter book conventions (like potty humor) by starting his stories with a premise: What if we looked closer at everyday mysteries? Although Alien Invasion in My Backyard starts with a normal, commonplace mystery of “Where did the game controller go?” the EMU Club members are quickly confronted with an outlandish answer.
“The metaphor is that things may look boring and ordinary, but if you look really really closely you can find cool things,” Bolling says. “The closer you look at things, the more fascinating they are. I want to start with something as mundane and everyday as possible so that every kid can relate to it.”
In future books, Bolling intends to examine more mundane mysteries, like why time passes so slowly right before school ends. Though he has spent his career writing for adults, he feels he’s always been looking to write for children. “A lot of my recurring characters [in “Tom the Dancing Bug”] are based on kids’ lit. There’s a Donald Duck-type for tax policy, a Tintin type for mocking narrative conventions, a Superman for religion,” Bolling says. “I’ve always been interested in kid culture; just now instead of subverting it, I’m creating it.”