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Unicorn Boy by Dave Roman

Updated: Apr 28

Dave Roman shares Unicorn Boy (First Second), a magical journey about a boy who sprouts a unicorn horn and uses his newfound powers to help those in need!


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About the book: Unicorn Boy by Dave Roman. Published by First Second.


Go on a magical journey with this quirky, young reader's graphic novel about a boy who sprouts a unicorn horn and uses his newfound powers to help those in need!


The first few years of Brian Reyes' life were unremarkable--nothing weird about this kid, no sir. Then, one day, a bump appeared on his head, and it grew...and grew...and grew until it was a full-blown, sparkling, SINGING unicorn horn. That's absolutely the last thing a shy kid like Brian wants, but destiny waits for no unicorn boy.


Luckily, Brian has his reassuring pal Avery to keep him grounded as weird occurrences start stacking up, like Brian's breakfast muffin talking to him, or a bizarre black cat offering him a business card. But when shadowy creatures from another realm kidnap Avery, Brian has to embrace his fate to rescue his best friend.


In the pages ofUnicorn Boy,Dave Roman has created a cast of charming oddballs reckoning with normal, every day problems--like heroic destinies and the fate of all magic in the universe. Readers ofNarwal and Jelly,Grumpy Unicorn,andInvestiGatorswill endear themselves to these lovable characters.


Episode Transcript:


INTRO


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 


It has been a while since we talked comics on this here podcast. So let’s get into it with the cartoonist behind my students’ current favorite graphic novel. Yes, Dog Man is as popular as ever. Yes, the Baby Sitter’s Club is always in a reader’s hand. But for those comics-obsessed kids who are always looking for what’s new in our library, this one has a holds list a mile and a half long.


Today I welcome Dave Roman back to the podcast.


Dave’s latest graphic novel, Unicorn Boy (First Second), is a magical journey about a boy who sprouts a unicorn horn and uses his newfound powers to help those in need!


Let’s step into my conversation with Dave Roman. Ready? Here we go.



INTERVIEW


Dave: Hi, my name is Dave Roman and I am a writer and illustrator of a graphic novel called Unicorn Boy. 


Matthew: Dave, I'm so glad you're here, but also you're underselling yourself.

You do way more than that. Since you've been on this podcast, you like have a job at first second and things like that. You do big things, but most importantly, I will say I am, I am glad that you're the author of Unicorn Boy. I am glad you make comics for kids. That's the best thing. It's so fun. Do you, do you, let me ask you this.


Did you know that your writing voice would be one that writes to children? Did you know that out the gate? Maybe, maybe all of us are just writing to ourselves when we needed it. And that's why some of us do write to our childhood selves. I don't know. It's probably different for every person, but, but Dave, you, you write so well for that, like, Third, fourth, fifth grade sweet spot, I think.


When did you, when did you find that voice or how did you know that it was a voice that you'd be speaking to kids? 


Dave: Thanks, man. Well, it definitely evolved. I, like you said, like I probably thought of myself as someone who was trying to entertain myself and make books for myself. I think it's kind of a common.


You know, thing that maybe a lot of us all parrot that we're like, Oh, we're just, we're just trying to make books for ourselves. Um, and to some degree that's true, but I do think that changes over time for a lot of us. And for me specifically, um, I was a kid who grew up going to comic conventions. And trying to sell my comics on a one to one, you know, like, like a lemonade stand, like, you know, like I'm a kid at a lemonade stand, except it's Comic Con and, uh, and I'm trying to sell these like hand photocopied and stapled books, uh, with my friends and very quickly, you know, you start learning the exchanges that happen when you're, when you're doing direct to reader.


You know, people start asking you questions on the spot and then you're going to have to like answer them and be honest, right? Cause I'm not someone who's going to like lie to a customer. Um, and you know, so very quickly people are like, is this okay for my kids? Oh, yeah. Is it appropriate? Is it okay?


Is this appropriate? Um, and then sometimes like what's the reading levels and all these other things I don't understand, but initially it was the, is this appropriate? And truthfully, that made me have to self reflect and think about my stories and you know try to think like well if I was a parent, like would you know, what would I feel comfortable sharing with them?


What do I feel like that maybe they're ready for or not ready for? Um, so it could sound like I'm repeating myself. self censoring, but I viewed it as more about inclusion. Like, I just wanted to make stories that everyone could read and that I didn't have to create qualifiers for and say, I don't think you should read, or, you know, maybe you're, it's a little too violent in this section or, you know, some of the words might not be appropriate.


So, I think even by the time I graduated high school, I was already thinking in terms of, I want to make books that people can read and not have to say no. And, you know, and like, and not, you know, create reasons for them not to be able to read them. 


Matthew: I think that's terrific. And I think that, I don't know that I would even call it self censorship or maybe a younger version of myself might have, but now I think so much more about You know, my time in the library, I've had like two decades in school libraries.


It really has taught me that not every book is for every kid. There are things that can keep a book from being the right book for the right kid. And, and sometimes a book needs to say something and therefore it's not going to be right for everybody. But other times, I think there's a way to say things by not saying them that it just allows maybe even so many more people in.


I, we, it's funny that we're talking about censoring yourself and I'm like, well, we're going to talk about Unicorn Boy and it's going to be the right book for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. And also, um, There will be some people that will be sensitive for, for reasons that they bring to the table and that's okay, um, I will tell you that in my, um, I have an allyship group at my school, I'm so grateful that my principal asked me to lead an allyship group at my school, to be this rainbow rep for my school, and, um, And my student leaders, uh, all are very aware of Unicorn Boy.


And I'm like, I haven't bought it from my library yet, but I have my copy. Well, can I read it next? Can I do it? What about no, no, no. So after spring break, we literally have a list, Dave, of children that cannot wait to borrow my copy of Unicorn Boy for them to read. I want to give that back to you. Cause I don't know, at least I know as a podcaster, We rarely hear from our listeners, but we know that people are listening.


I assume the same, uh, about authors that you rarely hear from readers. You hear from a couple, but you don't get to hear that there are lines and lines of kids for your book. So Dave, before we talk about that. Yeah. Well, before we talk around this book much more, let me, let me get you to be a little bit more direct about it.


How would you describe Unicorn Boy to a reader who's new to the story? This is the thing in libraries, Dave, that we call book talking. What's your, what's your like, you see a kid in a bookstore and Hey, here's this book. Here's what it is. How would you book talk this to a kid?  


Dave: It's like, I'm actually not great at that, to be honest.

And I, and I, because it is, it is a book that it's got a lot of things going on. Someone described it recently as like hats on top of hats on top of hats. Um, so it's like, okay, focus. What is the focus? What is the focus? Um, but I did record some video recently and I probably did like 12 takes on it. So I think I kind of have a handle on it.


All right. Here we go. Unicorn Boy. Yeah, Unicorn Boy. Unicorn Boy is the story of, uh, Unicorn Boy is, um, it's about a kid who's like really, really shy. Like, you know, just like the worst, you know, version of social anxiety that you could possibly have. And just, you know, very happy to like, I will just stand in the back of the room and like blend in with the wallpaper.


That's fine by me. Um, But suddenly becomes the center of attention when a unicorn horn sprouts out of their head, um, to which, you know, some kids might be like, Yes, that's awesome. I love that. Um, this is the wrong kid for that to happen to. He's like, No, this is horrible. No, like, you know, there's no way he can hide now.


Everyone's like, look at that giant horn that's attracting attention. And it lights up and it's musical. And it just like it's shooting glitter everywhere. Um, you know, And yeah, so he realizes that, uh, in addition to, you know, I guess the way I would describe it is that, you know, this, you know, this beacon of light just attracts a lot of attention from negative energy and haters, uh, and people just who just, you know, like when suddenly you're embracing your inner self, like people are just going to sort of come at you. So, uh, that sort of manifested in the form of these shadow creatures. Um, and one of the ways they try to get at him is they end up kidnapping his best friend, um, and bringing them into the underworld.


And it's kind of like, the Hades, uh, Greek mythology underworld a little bit. Um, and Brian sort of is then faced with the choice of, you know, like, is he going to just let his friend, you know, disappear forever, or is he going to rise to the occasion, embrace his power? Um, and try to, you know, basically go on a quest to, to save his friend and do things that he didn't think he was capable of doing.


So, you know, it's kind of a coming of age story, classic adventure in that way. Um, and then like, you know, it's like, will Unicorn Boy rescue his best friend? Find out! 


Matthew: Everyone dies. And there's a very different children's book. 


Dave: Don't forget the talking muffin.


Matthew: The kids love the talking muffin. Don't forget that you'll be drawing talking muffins whenever you sign any copy of this book.


Dave: Yeah, I just got this this morning. This kid drew for the first time, and I love it because I didn't even think of it. He drew the, the, the talking muffin with the a unicorn horn. So it's a unicorn muffin. And I was like, this kid should be writing the sequel. 


Matthew: I, you know, I, um, I'm going to make a connection to another cartoonist here.

Ben Clanton, who writes Narwhal and Jelly. Fabulous. Beginning comic reader. beautiful. My first graders did a little author study on Ben Clanton and the Narwhal books and wrote their own four panel comics. And one of the exercises that they did was just making everything into a Narwhal by adding a horn onto everything.


And so it doesn't surprise me that your readers are already world building alongside you. I think when you, when you make a book that leaves space like that, that's all that your readers want to do. Dave, what kind of readers did you have in mind when you were writing Unicorn Boy? Then we were teasing sort of at the beginning of the conversation about writing it for yourself or not, or whatever that means.


Where did this story come from though? What readers were you having in mind as you were thinking about it? 


Dave: Yeah, so one of the things that when I talked about like things evolving and changing is that I went from writing for myself to very clearly having images of certain kids that I've met over the years from doing school visits.


I've gotten, I've been very lucky to get invited to talk at schools and libraries, including one that you might've worked at. Uh, and, uh, and what happened so often, and I'm not saying this, like I'm special in any way. I'm sure this has happened to many authors, especially with graphic novels. Um, You get these kids who ask you questions during the Q and A at the end, or they want to talk to you and, you know, maybe they want to share something with you.


And afterwards, like I don't know what at the time at the time, I'm just like, wow, look at this kid who's just like really brave and sharing their story or asking a really great question. But then afterwards the teacher would say, We've never heard this kid talk before, you know, or this kid never speaks up.


This kid never asked questions in class We we were worried about this kid this kid, you know, like we didn't know what to do and something about Comics something about graphic novels something about storytelling Maybe just you know having doing something just silly and fun in the presentation opens it up for them.


So I think I've become more kind of laser focused in wanting to make books for those kids and, and feeling like, you know, if these kids are not being served by all these other things in life, like, wouldn't it be great if there's just more entertainment and more things to just to make their lives easier.


Matthew: It feels in that way, as you're saying that this book feels so niche. You have a shy kid that sprouts a horn and is like, Oh no, now what am I going to do? And his friend who thinks it's the coolest thing and you look at all this potential, but also. is such a good friend, Avery's such a good friend. And also a talking muffin, and a talking cat, and all these different things that just feel like there's space there for the D& D kids, and there's space there for the fantasy kids.


There's just space for all of these kids that may feel like their interests too are niche. There's just space for them in this. Um, let alone making a story that, to me at least, to this reader, feels like a coming out story of sorts. It feels like, I mean, you have a literal transformation in this book. So in that way, there, there, there's absolutely something happening, but it also, to me, and I, to me, I said to you in, in my, my notes leading into this, that this could absolutely be a projection, but this story feels queer to me.


And I mean that in a complimentary way. It feels like there are kids that are. exploring their identity or coming to know things about themselves that maybe they never heard called out before or never were in a social context where it needed to even be a thing before and suddenly now it is in this grade level or at this school or in this context and that feels similar to what Brian goes through in this book where Well, now there's this thing that like, I don't know if people are going to notice it and what they're going to say about it.


And what do I do? And one of my friends thinks it's super cool and I should lean into it, but that's not the kind of person I am. Right. Um, so I wonder, I wonder if that was a thought to you, whether or not it was intentional to be some type of coming out story, or if as you were editing, as you were working on it, you realized the potential for readers to see it that way.


Dave: Yeah. Well, all yes and no. Uh, you know, and at the risk of, of, of being slippery about it. Um, I will say first off, that's great. You know, and that's, I feel like anytime a reader is going to engage with the story, like that's, that's, you know, that's all you can ask for. Um, and subtext is real, right? Like I definitely.


Subtext is real. I love that. It's subtext realness, right? Um, yeah. And I just think it's so interesting, like you said, like how different people could potentially bring different things into it. Um, and especially like you said, because it's a transformation story and I think transformation as a concept is like so powerful and so relatable, especially at the age of adolescence.


And, you know, this is a time, you know, where You know, being a teenager going, you know, becoming a teenager is like really hard. Um, what I will say is that, yeah, I mean, I was definitely aware of that. Of course. Um, I think it's, it would be kind of naive of me to not think that there could be LGBTQ parallels to what's happening in the story.

Um, but at the same time, and this is why I feel like, you know, I don't want to seem like I'm dodging it. Um, I intentionally draw. Really simple characters, you know, this is a world where kids don't even have noses. Like I don't, like they've got two dots for eyes, you know, and a little smile. Um, and honestly, I don't even think of them as people.

I think of them as Lego minifigs, you know, they're just those iconic brick people. that you can project yourself onto. And if you project yourself onto it and you read it one way versus another, I love that. Like, I absolutely love that. Um, you know, Because I didn't want to just tell my story, although, you know, my story's in there too.


Like there's elements that are really real for me, um, but I don't want me to be telling you what, you know, you're going to get out of the story, um, because my goal, and this is like really pretentious, um, so I did the Astronaut Academy series, which was, you know, 30 different characters, changing perspectives, or, you know, one minute we're talking to the bully, the next minute we're hearing the perspective of the, of the hero, the next minute it's their parents, and, you know, we're just jumping all around.


So with Unicorn Boy, I was trying, you can argue whether I was successful at this or not, uh, I was aiming for that kind of classic monomyth hero's journey, you know, Joseph Campbell, hero of a thousand faces. Yeah. Um, so that we, you know, so that we all could get something out of it and that we, you know, that we're all kind of, um, bringing ourselves into it.


and I think at the end of the day, and I don't want to diminish anyone's, you know, unique story, but I think being a teenager is really rough. And I think, you know, going through those kinds of transformations, your body is transforming. Um, and, but in addition to that, like, Narratives start changing, right?


So like, that's the time when people start putting you in boxes and, and that could be something as simple as like, for me, people would start to say like, you're an artist, right? And before I was just a kid, but now I'm a kid who likes to draw and somehow that's different from the kids who don't like to draw and the kids who like to play sports and the kids who then become popular and the kids who don't become popular, like all these differences start, uh, popping up.


And I think that that. You know, is really hard. And I think it's a universal thing that we all feel different, right? Suddenly we went from being the group, like we're all part of the group. And now like, I'm different from the group somehow. So I think for me at its core, a kid who suddenly. You know, has this magical appendage that attracts attention, uh, separates him from the group.


Right. And even from his best friend who is so supportive and so behind it all, but now they are different. Right. So now there is a difference between the two of them sort of distinctly. So, I think for me, that's what was the important thing that I was trying to really focus on. But I was very aware that along the way, of course, yeah, of course, this parallels, you know, a coming out story, you know, as well as, as lots of other, you know, things.


Any transformation story. Right, exactly. I don't think you have to necessarily identify a specific way to be able to relate to is a universal experience. And I think that's what I'm really interested in, like, less about like the labels and more about like what, you know, brings people together. 


Matthew: Dave, I think that there's something that you're saying here, which shows your, your skill as a storyteller and also, you know, a nod to your editor as well.

I, I'm sure that there are a lot of hands on this book, but that is that you're, you made a story open enough. for it to be a lot of things without saying in the book, but it's definitely not this. Now this is only about physical change. If you're reading it a different way, you missed my message. You're not saying that.


And I think, I think I am communicating that now explicitly because I have read books that I feel like there is a correct way to read the book and that that is by design. Um, and that reading it any differently might feel like a betrayal to the author or the author's intention. And then this, again, it does feel like it's open enough that a room full of kids that all love this book have a room full of  interpretations of this story and connections to this story. And that, that, 


Dave: yeah. And I, I can understand like those other authors perspective, like if you're a control freak, I could kind of get that. But from my perspective, books, Specifically, the, one of the reasons why they're so great is because they are interactive.


We are engaging with them. It's not a passive medium. I think that Scott McCloud, you know, pointed out specifically about comics, but I think it's true for prose books as well. You're making the voices, you're controlling the pacing of time, you're deciding how much of it, you know, how fast things move.


Things don't, you know, you're bringing yourself to the story and getting involved with it. And I love that. Like, I think that's part of what's so fun about books in a way that's different from like movies or, you know, TV or something like that. You 


Matthew: have this really tight cast of characters too. We were talking about Astronaut Academy having 30 different kids or 30 different people, but in this cast, it's very, very tight.


And in particular, I, I had commented to you before that I just love, uh, Brian and Avery's, Relationship just because it, it struck me as just like a, oh, this is like a real true friend. I, it in my now , 43 years on this planet. I'm reading it going like, yeah, Avery's like really a person I would wanna be around.


And I, and I hope that your readers also see that was, was Avery around. from the beginning of this story? Was Avery someone that you found you needed to give Brian? How, how did developing that relationship feel? Maybe, I don't know, maybe it's modeled after somebody else that you just like adore in your life.


Whatever it is, my goodness, we would all be really proud. lucky to have an Avery in our lives. And I mean 


Dave: that. Thank you. Yeah. I mean, it's, it's funny you say like, give him the, cause yeah, it is the God like power that we have as writers, you know, like, yeah, like I could have been very mean and, uh, and, you know, giving him the wrong kind of friend, but.

Yeah, this wasn't that story for me. I, I, I'll be honest, like I do have a kind of positivity agenda that I'm trying to work into my books. Um, it is meant to make, it is meant to make people feel better. It is meant to make people, you know, like escape for a little while and just enjoy your life. And, and, you know, there is a decency that kind of carries through. I mean, even, you know, yeah, there's bad guys and, but it's very clear, right? That these are the bad guys. Um, but whether it's the parents or whether it's the friends, um, I wanted them to be supportive. I wanted them to accept. almost immediately. There's, there's not a lot of judgment in, in what happens.


And yeah, so like for me, Avery was like the friend, uh, you know, we could all use in our lives when our lives are upside upside down. Right. Like, it's like everything flips and like, you need someone to kind of help stable you out. Um, so yeah, like Avery doesn't miss a beat. Um, so yeah. And, and I grew up. a very shy kid.


so that's the, the auto bio part of it. Um, and my sister was a very extroverted person. And then my cousin who I spent a lot of time with, he was almost like a brother figure later. And then a lot of people I was in relationships with over the years. Um, I think there was always that contrast of like the, the shy, you know, timid, you know, versus someone who's very extra and loud.


so I've always, I've always enjoyed being around those kinds of people. Um, so I think that made sense for the story as well. 


Matthew: I love that you talk about those friends and it makes me think like, sometimes it's nice for me to be around those more extra people, as you said, just because I don't mind that they're extra.


I just can't be that way. So it's really sort of nice to like, Oh, I love that you're around and you like me, but you, you're like, this is fun. 


Dave: I like a friend who can carry the conversation. It's great. 


Matthew: There you go. Hey, um, I know that the spine has a one on it. I know that the book ends in a way that, uh, leaves open for more.


But I wonder if, if just in thinking about any author that's out there thinking about writing a book that, that couldn't be contained in a single book, if that was the way you approach this too, when you had the story idea, did you, did you have like, Oh, this really could span three stories, but I'm going to, you know, I'm gonna try to make it one in case that's the way it sells or I really want to try to make it three or what I don't know what what was that like for you Dave to try to to try to approach this in a way that could be a story that stands by itself but one also that if given the opportunity could could be a bigger story.


Dave: Yeah, so that, thanks for asking about that. I mean, that's definitely something that's very top of mind for me, because I think we live in a culture right now that is very series driven. Um, and I don't know if it's because of Netflix, but I think that whole binge quality of being able to consume stories and, you know, just expecting more, you know, to be coming down the pipe at some point.


And I know things like Goosebumps and, you know, were very popular over the years. I don't think that way. I'm not very good at thinking about series. Um, and you know, this is a true story that I'm happy to share. And I don't want to sound ungrateful because obviously I am very grateful, but. When I pitched Unicorn Boy, I was pitching one book with maybe like, you know, here's an idea of like what maybe could have happened, but it was very loose and it was like maybe not even a paragraph.


and when the publisher came back and said three books, did they say three? Yeah, they said three. They said three. Um, and it was like, both the most exciting thing that had ever happened, but also the most scary because I very much am someone who puts it all into each book. You know, so like when I did Unicorn Boy book one, I put my heart, I put my soul, I put all the ideas I had.


I didn't leave like a ton of space except for the openness of, you know, here's this character who potentially could go on another adventure, but I had no clue what that adventure would be. Um, and. You know, I kind of like that challenge though. So it's not necessarily the end of the world. It's, it can be a really great creative challenge.

I often look at Star Wars as my example of, if you watch the first Star Wars movie, the one that's just called Star Wars, uh, you can tell they definitely put at the end, this is it. We got our medals. Congrats. We saved the universe. Um, And then the second movie is like, Oh, we gotta figure out how to create some new problems.


you know, and that's when the world becomes suddenly a lot larger and quicker, you know, you expand on it. So, um, I am very mindful of Unicorn Boy book three. as I wrote book two. Okay. But even then I wasn't able to plan it out too much more beyond just having like a rough idea of what the third book would be.


Because again, I'm trying to put all of my focus in book two to make it really a, you know, a complete story because that's what I like as a reader. I do not like, uh, books that just feel like, you know, we ran out of space. you know, pick up the next one. I don't like books that 


Matthew: also feel like the jelly in between two slices of bread to feel like, Oh, this is just going to sort of feel like the bridge in between.


Yeah. I'm glad that glad to hear that you, you did and should put everything into the first book, into each book. 


Dave: Yeah. And I definitely, you know, there is that humility part of it that it's like, I don't, you know, we're not granted, you know, endless life, you know, and, and we don't know what can happen. And like you said, if things don't sell, if they, you know, who knows what happens.


So I want to make sure that I'm putting it all into this book, because if this is the last one, I don't want to have the regrets that I was like, Oh, I was saving it for book three. 


Matthew: Yeah. Yeah. Hey, um, I, I'm watching our time. I want to tell you that. I loved Unicorn Boy. I continue to love it and think about it and I can't wait to read it for a third time and I really, really can't wait to be able to have conversations with my students as they're reading.


So thanks again, Dave, for coming on the show. Thanks for coming back. Um, thinking about those kids and all of the kids really that this book will reach, I'd like to ask you that I'll see a library full of children tomorrow morning. Is there a message that I can bring to them from you? 


Dave: just give them all high fives, man.


Like I just, you know, I love. Encouraging kids and just being, you know, an enthusiastic cheerleader supporter. So I always just like to give kids high fives. Um, and then, you know, I guess the theme when I do school visits is just share your creativity because you just don't know, you know, what's going to happen.


Whether it's, you know, the interesting connections you meet, like, you know, like I would not be talking to you right now if I had never shared my comics, you know,


Making those comics, going to Comic Con. I met publishers, I met friends and, you know, things just, one thing leads to another and it's, the world is mysterious and there's all these different paths.


So yeah, just share that creativity and see what happens.



OUTRO


Matthew: Thank you to Dave Roman for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 


You can pick up your own copy of Unicorn Boy (First Second) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through Bookshop.org. You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/). 


Our music is by Podington Bear. 


Podcast hosting by Libsyn. 


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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