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October 20, 2016

Witches come in all forms --- they can wear pointed hats and ride broomsticks across the night skies, cast spells from rickety shacks or imposing castles, or, in the case of Grunhilda from THE LUNCH WITCH, they can serve you food in the school cafeteria! In the first book, which released in 2015, Grunhilda befriends a bespectacled little girl named Madison, but when Madison needs her help, she has to decide what to do --- helping people isn't a very witchy activity, after all.

In LUNCH WITCH #2: Knee-Deep in Niceness, Grunhilda's familiars and ancestors have become suspicious about her and the tiny soft spot on her old crusty heart. When the familiars find her collection of letters from Madison, Mr. Williams creates a meanness potion to set her straight. But when his potion goes awry, the whole town finds itself under the influence of a positivity potion, and it is up to Grunhilda to put things back to normal.

We interviewed Deb Lucke, the creator of this hilarious new graphic novel series, about her own cafeteria memories, an influential childhood art project and her writing/drawing process. Read her answers below! What inspired you to create THE LUNCH WITCH?

Deb Lucke: My good friend from high school, Cheryl Wilson, got a job as a lunch lady. It got me thinking about lunch ladies and the mysteries of the odd-smelling steam that crept out through the window with the rubber tentacles where you put your tray. I imagined a lunch lady with secrets. Somehow, my Great Aunt Hulda and Great Aunt Bertha, who were strong farm women, got mixed up with a waitress I worked with in my teen years who once threatened to kick my right lung out, and Grunhilda was born.

KRC: You both wrote and illustrated THE LUNCH WITCH. Which came first, the writing or the drawings? Or did you handle both tasks at the same time?

DL: I think the way I work is quite different from other graphic novelists. I start by imagining a character with something unique about them. For instance, a lunch lady who is a witch. I draw that character in every situation that comes to mind. Then, I’ll write in her voice to see where that takes me. While I’m at the idea stage, I both draw and write, switching whenever I get stuck. The structure of the story happens entirely with words. Once I’m ready to go to final art, I do thousands of drawings. Eventually, I put everything together in Photoshop.

The thing that I allow myself to do it is to keep exploring throughout the process. I got this thought from auditing classes with film director Mike Nichols for four years. He talked a lot about how an actor works when putting on a play night after night to keep it real and not sound like words you’ve said a thousand times before. Each night, the actor discovers something new about the character, a new layer deeper down. It takes a long time to draw a 180-page graphic novel. I try and know more about the character every time I draw her.

KRC: THE LUNCH WITCH references several famous stories about witches. Were you always interested in witches? Was there one story in particular that drew your interest?

DL: I was born in Salem, MA but didn’t grow up there. Every time a new person found that out, I’d be teased about being a witch. I suppose that made me interested.

“Hansel and Gretel” is fundamental. It strikes deeply that the witch tries to eat the children. It’s powerful and frightening; that’s why I make fun of it in the book. Humor and fear go together.

KRC: Tell us why you chose the colors that you used for your artwork. Why so few colors? Was this always the plan or did your ideas for the art change along the way?  

DL: I like working with a limited palette. In this case, I thought the texture of the paper was the most interesting element to play around with and it also suited the topic. Originally, I limited myself to white, black, and several shades of the paper texture. Then I had the idea of adding stains to the paper as if the book was very ancient and had been spilled on a lot (see the question about the favorite class project). The stains become more colorful as the book proceeds and the action ascends.

KRC: Grunhilda and Madison end up having some pretty strange adventures. What was your own relationship with the “Lunch Ladies” at your school?  

DL: A member of my extended family was a head lunch lady in another school district. So I knew lunch ladies were real people who had children of their own, clothes that weren’t white aprons and, in this particular case, a husband who would make his false teeth come out to scare us.

KRC: Grunhilda has to deal with several angry family members when she goes against tradition. Have you ever faced a similar situation?

DL: The extended family members I mention above were mostly conservative and religious. I questioned everything, including the dogma of the church, but particularly anything that struck me as a stupid rule. So, yes, there was a lot of conflict. The good thing about having conflict as a young person is that you can grow up and use it in your stories.

KRC: Frogs, cats, spiders and bats are quite common in stories about witches, but you rarely see a witch with a pet dog. Why does Grunhilda have one?

DL: I think you’ve ferreted out my secret here. I adore dogs. As a reward, I’ll tell you another secret. Mr. Williams wasn’t born a dog.

KRC: Was there any cafeteria food you secretly enjoyed?

DL: I secretly enjoyed the grilled cheese. The other kids referred to it as “Axel Grease.”

KRC: Why did you decide to feature two main characters who feel like outsiders? Do you think that is a common feeling in schools?

DL: Doesn’t everyone feel like an outsider? Maybe not the popular girls, but I was never one of them. It wasn’t until I got into the art department in college that I felt as if I fit in. Then I looked around and saw another weirdo just like me, in fact, quite a few weirdos like me. I wanted Grunhilda and Madison to bond on that level.

KRC: Will we be seeing more of Grunhilda and Madison in any future books?

DL: Grunhilda will indeed have many more children to torment. Madison is being courted by an elite science school in another state. It remains to be seen if she decides to go or not. If she does, I expect that at least one kid in the incoming class will turn out to be a problem for the Lunch Witch. Then there’s the dog, Mr. Williams, whose attempts to control the outcome of events keep making everything worse. I’d keep my eye on him, if I were you.

KRC: What were your favorite books to read growing up?

DL: I read every book I could get my hands on growing up. The ones that stand out are A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, THE SECRET GARDEN, BLACK BEAUTY and D’AULIRES’ BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS.

KRC: Did you love fairy tales? If so, what was the appeal of them?

DL: My grandfather, who was German, gave me a book of German fairy tales and I was obsessed with it, reading it over and over. These weren’t the Disney versions, in which I had no interest, but the real stuff handed down generation after generation. There’s something primal and fundamental about these stories or they wouldn’t keep being told. They speak to our worst fears (being left alone in a dark wood with predators all around) and our most secret hopes (that someone will recognize our inner beauty and lift us up to rule the realm).

KRC: Have you always loved drawing?

DL: I’ve always liked to draw. My grandmother spotted my talent, claimed it was inherited from her, and paid for me to have art lessons from the time I was 10. I liked that even better, drawing with other people. I still get together with other weirdos, I mean, comic book types, and we all draw.

KRC: Can you remember a favorite art class project?

DL: There actually was an art class project in my past that influenced THE LUNCH WITCH. In kindergarten, our teacher took all of our daily art projects (I remember one with a robin and one with a cuckoo clock) and pasted them on the cardboard-colored pages of a scrapbook. The paste warped the paper over the years so that the scrapbook wrinkled and expanded out of its covers. It may have gotten wet at one point. It became my inspiration.

KRC: You studied filmmaking and used to work in advertising. How have your past experiences influenced your career as a children’s author and illustrator?

DL: Advertising taught me how to make my ideas work. The writers I was partnered with taught me a great deal about how to write. Filmmaking taught me about storytelling. I basically draw my graphic novels as if they were storyboards for a movie. I got to graphic novels in a roundabout way, but it was the only way I could’ve gotten there.

KRC: What has the response been like since the first Lunch Witch book came out?

DL: School children and librarians tell me that they love the book. Of course, that’s what they say to my face!

KRC: What has been your favorite fan response?

DL: My favorite fan response was from Lucy Simonoff who was inspired to draw.

Editor's Note: Big thanks to Lucy Simonoff, who gave Kidsreads permission to share her photos below!


KRC: Did having the first book out in the world change how you approached KNEE-DEEP IN NICENESS at all?

DL: Some of the reviews really explained very clearly the story I was telling. Better than I understood it myself. It’s rather helpful to know that your instincts are working. And I really like knowing when the story is communicating and when it’s not.

Another thing about having the book done and out in the world, is that just by taking the book to completion I’ve learned to trust the process of creating even more. Some of the best jokes come in at the last second before the book went to the presses.

KRC: In the second book, after Grunhilda has already made friends with Madison and her heart starts becoming medically/visibly nice, her witch aunts arrive to really shake things up. Tell us about these three witches. Are they based off real people? Real aunts, perhaps?

DL: The ancestor aunties are the antagonists. They are my favorite characters as well. If I think about it, the behavior of the Aunties is a lot like my experiences at church where many old women were happy to point out what I was doing wrong. Some of these ladies were related, some weren’t. I was never sure which was which.

Each ancestor has a bit of my history in her. Hedwig, in the traditional garb of the Black Forest, is straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ Fairytale, but also part of my family comes from that area of Germany. Tituba is the famous Tituba from the Salem Witch Trials. I was born in Salem. Histamine, in a polka-dot dress, looks quite a bit like my Great Grandma Miller. And so on. But once they’re on the page, they take one a life of their own.

I like the idea that when they come into the world they try to disguise themselves like modern, living people. But somehow they get the era wrong; hence the bouffant hairdos.

KRC: Also in book two, Mr. Williams --- in an attempt to assuage Grunhilda's loneliness --- casts a spell of niceness. Typically niceness is depicted in sunshine and rainbows, especially in children’s books. In your book, however, it appears as a terrifying storm cloud consuming Salem. Why is that?

DL: It’s interesting that you see Mr. Williams as trying to assuage Grunhilda’s loneliness. I saw it as Mr. Williams trying to keep her witchy so that the ancestors (of whom he is deeply afraid) don’t come and straighten her out. But you’ve picked up on a point. Because Grunhilda has to be mean, she is isolated from humanity and therefore, lonely. Which is one reason why she keeps falling for kids. Just like I said above, readers tell you things you didn’t know.

As for the cloud, the truth is I kept trying to make it pink and it just felt wrong. So I went with my instincts and made it lavender. Now I’m going to justify the scariness of the cloud by saying it’s from Grunhilda’s point of view. Creativity at work!

KRC: Where will the Lunch Witch series go next?

DL: In the next book, the ancestors will invade the Salem school to keep Grunhilda on the straight and narrow path of wickedness. Unfortunately, they leave a passage open to the underworld and several children disappear down the hole. And did I mention The Lunch Witch is in development as a film?

KRC: Are you working on anything else right now?

DL: I’m also working on a series called “American Ghoul.” It'll be looking for a home with a publisher soon.