MOLINE — Twelve-year-old Lucy Lareau already is a published author, partnering with her mother, Liz, on a planned 10-book series of graphic novels about the “Geeky F@b 5” to inspire tween girls to raise their voices and make a difference.
The first book in the series — “It’s Not Rocket Science,” to be released July 31 by New York-based Papercutz — premiered at the American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute in June in New Orleans. And on that conference’s heels in the same city, the Laureaus served on a girl-power graphic-novel panel at the American Library Association’s annual conference and exhibition.
The hardcover series, illustrated by Ryan Jampole, spotlights five diverse students at the fictional Earhart Elementary school in the nonfictional Normal, Ill., who learn “when girls stick together, anything is possible.”
“It’s teamwork, girls working together, everybody’s happy — raising them up, but not over boys,” Lucy said of the series’ message of female empowerment. “Showing them what they’re able to do, and even more. This is just when you’re in elementary school.”
A fan of graphic novels by female authors such as Raina Telgemeier and CeCe Bell, Lucy first got the idea for her books when she was 8 years old and wanted to encourage other girls to pursue the STEM-related career fields (science, technology, engineering and math) she was into.
“I loved math,” she said. “I wanted to do something about it. Like my brother — when I was really little, he made a ‘Lucy Be Quiet’ machine. It didn’t work. Hopefully, this works.”
Liz, a former TV news reporter and award-winning PR executive who’s a partner in the Quad-City firm Bawden & Lareau Public Relations, fleshed out the series after Lucy asked why girls at school weren’t raising their hands in class or were complaining about math.
“I shared with Lucy no student should quit before even trying,” her mom said. “Our books were written to be a small voice inside every girl’s head that whispers, ‘You’ve got this!’”
The first book is 64 pages with full-color panels, and mother and daughter shared writing duties. Lucy said her mom writes first drafts, and she edits for voice and attitude, and adds jokes. “I put it into what a kid would really say,” Lucy said.
Each book takes about six months to produce, a time period that includes getting the illustrations and editing back and forth with the publisher.
They’ve finished the second book in the series, “The Mystery of the Missing Monarchs,” which will be released in December. Each book explores a social issue the characters care passionately about.
Characters Lucy and her older sister, Marina, are the new kids in school, and each girl brings a unique STEM talent to the group. Lucy, a fourth-grader, wants to save wildlife, even though she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.
The real Lucy said she’s less of a drama queen than the character Lucy, and she wants to become an orthodontist. Marina is named after Lucy’s real 21-year-old sister, adopted from Russia, who’s in the ROTC program at the University of Iowa. In the book, she’s athletic and smart, and she wants to become the first astronaut on Mars.
In the first book, the girls raise money to replace old, rickety playground equipment. That’s something Lucy really did for her school, Logan Elementary in Moline. She will be entering seventh grade this year at Wilson Middle School.
“She had a good teacher, Julia Laird, who’s been at Logan forever,” Liz said. “She’s an institution there, and inspired her to keep trying.”
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The target demographic for the books are girls ages 7 to 11. “That’s about the age girls start saying, ‘I can’t,’” Liz said. “Lucy was like, ‘Mom, why do they say they can’t do math?’ They shouldn’t. Girls want to be perfect, so when they fail, they quit. Math is one of those things you have to learn.”
Liz and Lucy looked for publishers and illustrators at Comic Con events in San Diego and New York, and they presented detailed concept summaries in 2015 and 2016.
After Papercutz representatives met Lucy, a contract was signed in 2017. “She’s the voice of that age group. Her friends provide a lot of input, so it’s like a rolling focus group,” Liz said.
“It was cool,” Lucy said of seeing the finished book. “It was like Christmas; I was so happy.”
“Graphic novels are really becoming one of the fastest growing categories in children’s books,” Liz said. “Girls love them. Girls can see themselves in them.”
Papercutz co-founder and CEO Terry Nantier said the series “provides a platform to engage young readers — girls in particular — and empower them to ask questions and get involved in their world.
“Graphic novels are a unique medium for girls and boys to engage and explore their identities, as well as to consider alternate realities and life lessons through fiction, fantasy, humor, or, in Lucy’s case, storylines from her own life experiences.”
The first time mother and daughter saw the finished books was at the conventions last month. “We were like, ‘Wow,’ “ Lucy said.
By far the youngest author there, she signed about 200 books in New Orleans, and met many reps from bookstores. One said, “This would be really good for my daughter and my bookstore,” Lucy recalled. ALA drew 25,000 librarians from around the nation.
Lucy’s favorite experience? “It was so amazing to meet people who were interested, who weren’t friends,” she said. “They’d say, ‘This is so cool; you just made my day.’”
During the process of putting the books together, Liz earned her master’s degree in communications in 2016 from Western Illinois University. She studied women-led businesses, and she used the series as a capstone project.
“The graduate program really encouraged me to do this,” she said. “I’m very proud of Western’s support of me. I wanted to explore a new medium and how it provides girls a platform for their voices. It’s really about girls reaching their potential.”
Lucy’s older brother, Gabe, is the voice of Hubble, the Himalayan kitty in the books, supplying the cat’s lines. The cat is named after the famous telescope, while Earhart Elementary is named after pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart.
Papercutz has been publishing kids’ books since 2005, and it is the only publisher exclusively dedicated to children’s graphic novels. Lucy writes a blog on her series’ website, geekyfabfive.com.