From toddlers to pre-teens, kids are often told what to do with their complex thoughts and emotions. Often times the suggestion is mistakingly to ignore them, or suppress them for a later date that never arrives. Over a long duration, that pattern of behavior could affect the ability in developing empathy, compassion or coping with grief.
Laura Knetzger’s graphic novel, Bug Boys says it’s okay to have these emotions, that it’s okay to embrace them, even show them to others. Today, Penguin Random House is releasing a new hardcover collection of Bug Boys for $13.99 wherever you can buy comics and books.
Bug Boys stars two young beetles, the sweet but impulsive Rhino-B, and the calmer and adventure-seeking Stag-B.
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They live inside a mushroom house in Bug Village, where they try to navigate all of its places and species of bugs while finding answers to philosophical questions they face. There’s also the chance that they’ll encounter giants who want to take them away from their home.
But it’s not all deep and despair. In fact, it’s quite the contrary in that it’s full of bright, silly fun and humor that hits the sweet spot of early to middle grades. That all of this is rolled into an all-ages book is astounding and she spoke to Monsters and Critics all about it.
“When I started Bug Boys, I wanted to do my own take on the kids’ comics I grew up reading,” Knetzger told Monsters and Critics. “I was always open to Bug Boys changing over time, to cover different genres and topics than usual kids’ books.”
“I’m more interested in asking ‘What is missing from the Bug Boys universe? What questions do I want to ask in Bug Boys and what story can I write to address that? What would be new and fun for the bugs to do?’ [rather than] making Bug Boys fill a void in the publishing world.”
Knetzger writes, draws, and letters the entire book with colors from Lynde Lyle, showing that every situation has multiple sides and perspectives and no matter what obstacle lies ahead, friendship can conquer all.
Rhino and Stag handle some weighty stuff and even though it’s clear that they’re young in experience, they are impressive in their comfort level in expressing what they’re feeling. Whether it’s elation or depression, they pick each other up, both physically and emotionally.
When asked about exploring these facets of her lead characters, Knetzger said she aimed to make talking about mental health both age-appropriate and digestible for kids.
“When someone is hit with a mental health issue, it can be much bigger than what they’re ready to handle, so having the building blocks of how to understand it and talk about it is important,” Knetzger explained. “We tend to think of mental health as an issue for adults, but children can struggle with it too, and having a vocabulary to talk about it can help them.
“As an author, I feel it makes writing the story much more fun when the characters open up about their feelings. Writing scenes with withdrawn characters slows the pace of a conversation a lot. The characters in Bug Boys are also just a trusting bunch.”
Originally published in individual issues by Czap Books, Penguin Random House is collecting the series starting with Bug Boys: Volume 1, which collects the first 12 issues, and the stories range from a dozen pages to a sprawling epic like The Quest for Honeycomb where Stag-B and Rhino-B help mediate the war between the bees and termites.
They realize the dangerous situation they stumble upon but with encouragement and bravery are able to overcome those initial fears and through adversity, managing to break the cycle that older generations have repeated and failed. Knetzger created these stories long before Greta Thunberg captivated our thoughts and decisions but it’s hard to read this story and not to think about how inspirational the next generation can be.
“I wanted to make a story where Rhino-B and Stag-B had to step outside of their safe home and engage with some forces much bigger than themselves and get a sense of how the past created the circumstances of their present lives. I wanted to show how Rhino-B and Stag-B as characters who would act in scary situations and try to make a difference.”
Knetzger’s cartoony art is whimsical and first and foremost expressive. She leaves room for the finer details to be completed in each reader’s minds but each character has a unique look, voice and motivation.
Some might be familiar with the Narwhal and Jelly book series, which is similarly built on the power of friendship. But hungry readers may want to know where a good place to leap to and Bug Boys makes that transition easy.
Kids who love Pixar films is another group who comes to mind after reading the story titled Bug-Napped! which shows how, in dire situations, that there are multiple perspectives to consider. Also, compassion and sympathy can be genuinely felt, even towards creepiest of crawlers.
“Considering different perspectives, especially non-human ones, is one of my main inspirations for making Bug Boys,” Knetzger revealed. “I want this comic to encourage readers to think about the stories from each character’s perspective, and hopefully keep an open mind enough to consider what life would be like for a non-human being.”
“Bugs mean a lot of things to different people because there are a huge number of species of insects, many of whom play huge roles in our ecosystems. Without bugs, we wouldn’t have flowers, fruit, nuts, or many other foods. Living with bugs is why our world is so rich and beautiful. I want readers to maybe get a new appreciation for the pleasures of nature and living, and understand that beings that look and live very differently than humans are a part of that pleasure.”
In Under the Great Chrysalis, there’s a mysterious chrysalis that hangs above Bug Village and never at any time does it open up or anything come out of it. That’s all by Knetzger’s design as she explains her decision to have a big, unexplained mystery at the center of the town.
“I never want to resolve the mystery. I want kids reading Bug Boys to get comfortable with the concept of benign ambiguities, things about life that are never going to be nailed down. I don’t mean to say ‘don’t be curious,’ but rather, ‘Be prepared to hear contradictory answers to the big questions, and to hold in your mind that contradictory things can both be true.'”
It’s this presentation of wonder, and charm that will make you want to devour all the adventures of the Bug Boys by yourself or even better, with your family. If you’ll allow yourself to indulge in your giddy side then be ready to laugh silly.
Bug Boys shows that life’s lessons don’t always have to be so hard to manage and when they do prove to be more difficult, this comic is a reminder to lean into what your heart is telling you.
Bug Boys Volume 1 is available today through Penguin Random House and wherever books are sold for $13.99.