It’s been a busy year so far for Ben Hatke, a talented young artist and writer who has not only seen the publication of his first book, Zita the Spacegirl, but also celebrated the arrival of his fourth daughter, Ronia Francesca, born in February. Hatke, his wife Anna and their four girls live in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with several chickens and a cat.

Hatke is the featured children’s illustrator in the March print edition of BookPage, and I think his illustrated Q&A is one of the cutest ever in this long-running series. Here's a sampler (click to view the full Q&A):

 

Zita the Spacegirl is a graphic novel for middle-grade readers (in the 8-to-12-year-old age group), whose feisty heroine is transported to another planet and must find her way home. Hatke's expressive drawings capture Zita's unshakable spunk as she survives menacing robots, a giant mouse and a destructive asteroid. When I found out that Hatke has a daughter named Zita, I assumed that the girl had been the inspiration for the fictional character. Here’s the real-life, adorable Zita, who is turning six this week (happy birthday Zita!):

And here’s Zita the Spacegirl, preparing to save a distant planet:

As it turns out, the character of Zita the Spacegirl came first — she had already appeared in some of Hatke's web comics before daughter Zita was born in 2005. And the place that inspired the name of the character and the real-life girl is nowhere near the Shenandoah Valley.

Read on for more about Ben Hatke and a chance to win a copy of Zita the Spacegirl, a great choice for feisty young readers everywhere.

 

We contacted Ben at his home near Front Royal, Virginia, to find out more about the inspiration for his first book.

Can you tell us about your daughter Zita and how much of her real-life personality you tried to include in the fictional character?

I should probably start by saying that the fictional character of Zita came first. My daughter Zita was born at a time when I had done a few Zita the Spacegirl webcomics, but wasn’t thinking there was a Zita book on the horizon.

The name comes from the region of Italy where my wife’s father was born. In a nearby town there is a bridge with a beautiful statue of the Medieval Saint Zita holding an apron full of flowers. I sketched that statue the first time we visited and I still have a soft spot for it.

As for personality, my little Zita is one of the sunniest, most joyful people I’ve ever met. She’s sweeter than the Zita we meet in the book. The big similarity between real-life Zita and book-Zita is that they are both very impulsive. They would both push every Big Red Button that came their way.

The truth is that quite a few of Zita the Spacegirl’s character traits are based on my wife’s personality. Anna is strong and loyal and brave and she’s sweet but fierce at the core. Also she has poor impulse control. I fell in love with Anna in college when she “accidentally” threw eggs at someone.

What does Zita think of having a book (and a character) named after her? And what do her sisters think?

For a short time I worried a lot about Zita sharing a name with a character in a book I made, but I realize now that there’s nothing to worry about. She has such an overflowing personality of her own.

As for competition, the girls seem to treat the fact that real-life-Zita and book-Zita share a name as one of life’s funny coincidences. They argue as much as any siblings I think, but not about that. Yet.

I work at home and I think that it’s been a really interesting experience for them to see the whole process of the books becoming. My eldest daughter, Angelica (8), spends a lot of time writing and drawing her own stories. I overheard her in the car yesterday telling Zita about a character called Star Chicken who arrived on our world when her egg crashed to Earth. Apparently one of Star Chicken’s powers is that she lays colored eggs.

What’s it like to be the only man in a house with FIVE women?

Ha! What a question! It’s absolutely great. There are a few scary moments when I realize that the girls will all one day be teenagers.

What kind of reaction are you getting to the book?

This is my first book, so keep in mind that I don’t have much basis for comparison. I think it’s pretty hard for a new book from a new author to get attention, but there have already been a big handful of very positive reviews online.

I’ve also had a few chances to give the book to real kids in person, and seeing your “target audience” right in front of you, eager to tear into something you wrote and drew -it’s great. The story seems to grab kids right away. It’s also helpful that the book starts in such a way that you can follow the first part of the story (finding the button, Joseph getting pulled through the portal, Zita’s choice to go after him) pretty easily without dialogue. It was my way of trying to draw the reader in.

What promotional events do you have coming up?

April is going to be my busy month! I’ll be in New York for the MoCCA Comics Festival on the 9th and doing a signing there on the 10th. Also on April 10th I’ll be doing a little comics workshop at the Suffolk County Library. Later in the month, April 28th, I’ll be in Chicago’s Anderson’s Bookshop.

Then in June I’ll be at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans. I’m excited for that one.

What’s next for Zita the Spacegirl? Any future books in the works?

Oh yes! I am currently finishing work on Zita 2. The one thing I can tell you about this next book is that it’s got plenty of robots.

A CONTEST!
We have three copies of Zita the Spacegirl to give away. For a chance to win, leave a comment with your answer to this question: Who was your childhood hero?
UPDATE: This contest is now closed. Thanks for all the great responses!

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