Alphabet Soup Interview with Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett

Alphabet Soup logo by Paul Morton
Nick Cross writes:
I’m joined by a very special double act today – Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett.

Jo and Cathy are both published children’s authors in their own right, but like Marvel’s Avengers they’ve come together to form a writer/illustrator super team!
The first result of their collaboration is an illustrated children’s book called Electrigirl which has just come out from Oxford Children’s Books, with the sequel Electrigirl and the Deadly Swarm due this August.

Cathy and Jo, it’s lovely to have you here on Words & Pictures – thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule, as I know you’re currently putting the finishing touches to the second Electrigirl book.

Cathy: Roughs for Electrigirl 2 are here, on the desk beside me. It’s looking really exciting and I love the new adventure Jo has written for our characters. Drawing them again is like visiting old friends.

Jo: Thanks for having us, Nick! I’m currently wrestling with the climax of Electrigirl 2, which isn’t quite working, but my editor has just sent over a long email with a GREAT suggestion, so I think we may finally have cracked it! Cathy and are REALLY excited about the publication of book 1!

Jo, I found a blog post that you wrote a year ago, which begins:

“I’ve been working on a project for a long time now. It’s never got beyond the first 10,000 words, and it keeps changing, but I SO want it to work. A few months ago, I got in touch with Cathy Brett, who is a super, super illustrator, and asked her if she’d be interested in working on it with me.”

That project eventually became Electrigirl. But where did the initial seed for the book come from “a long time” ago, and what made you then think of Cathy as a potential collaborator?

Jo: Well, I’ve searched my computer for the very first incarnation of the book (back then it was called MIGHTY GIRL, and then MISS AWESOME, before eventually morphing into ELECTRIGIRL) and I started working on it in early 2013, which I suppose isn’t THAT long ago really, but given the changes the book has been through, it feels like it! I think the initial seed came simply from watching blockbuster films like The Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman, The X-Men (all of which I love) and becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of female superheroes.

I have two daughters, and they were becoming indoctrinated into Barbie and the Disney Princess worlds – and I do NOT have a problem with ball gowns and beauty at all, but it seemed like there were no other appealing options for them. I wanted to create something cool and appealing that belonged in the superhero world, to show girls (and boys) that girls could be cool and fight evil too.

As for thinking of Cathy, that came about through Girls Heart Books, the multi-author blog I run. Cathy had been blogging, and putting up some of her incredible artwork, and I just went, ‘She is SO brilliant, I’d love to have her illustrate this book…’ I had no publisher at that point, and a concept that didn’t actually work as a book, but bless her, Cathy said, ‘That sounds really exciting!’ and off we went :-)

Both of you were signed with the same agent when you started work on the book. Did that make it easier to work together professionally and also to get feedback on the commercial viability of the concept?

Jo: Well... this is kind of a funny one, because neither of us is with that agent now! I should add that she was very supportive. I think Cathy and I would have been fine working together even if we had different agents, but it did help having someone else ‘on the team’ who was prepared to meet up with us and thrash out the plot – someone who had one eye firmly on the commercial possibilities. So in that way it did make it easier, yes – but in another way it was harder because our agent wasn’t very experienced in the superhero genre and didn’t quite ‘get’ some aspects of it – which made it harder for me to develop the plot in the way I wanted to. There were a few arguments…! But she was fully behind the project and did manage to get us the deal with OUP, so there are no hard feelings!

The text of the published book is interspersed with sections in a comic strip format. How did you decide on the structure of the book and when to switch from one storytelling style to another?

Jo: That was decided VERY early on. On the proposal for May 2013’s incarnation of MISS AWESOME, it says:

  • Concept: A story combining text and graphic sections as we follow the journey of Holly Hooper from average pupil to superhero, complete with laser vision and the power to fly.
  • Unique Selling Point: The book is divided stylistically: when Holly is being ‘an ordinary girl’, the story develops through text. When she is discovering and using her superpowers, the story is shown through graphic scenes, à la Marvel Comics style. There are also PalPosts, short messages that appear on an online message board.

A lot of that has changed, but the stylistic idea was there right from the start. I wanted something that would appeal to both comics fans and to more traditional readers. Plus, to be honest, I grew up with girls’ comics and have felt that in recent years comics are something that tend to be aimed at boys, so I wanted to bring them back to girls’ attention!

How long did it take from starting work together to having a polished manuscript ready for submitting to publishers?

Cathy: I think Jo and I have both learned from experience that ‘a polished manuscript’ is less important than getting the idea right. Although Jo had that great initial comic book/novel concept she described, she also thought that knocking ideas about with another story-teller would probably be more likely to turn that concept into something a publisher would go for, so she generously encouraged me to contribute all sorts of ideas to the pot, not just the visual ones. Later we did gravitate back to our specialist areas - Jo to words, me to pictures. I think the final proposal we put together was stronger for our combined expertise. It took a while though, about a year, because we were both working on other projects at the time.

Did your agent send out a textual manuscript to editors or a hybrid version including the illustrations and comic strip sections? And did you experience any resistance from publishers to the idea of a writer/illustrator team?

Jo: She sent out the full text manuscript with, I think, four or five sample pages of illustrations. We didn’t experience any resistance from publishers to the idea of us as a team. Though ELECTRIGIRL was turned down by – if I remember correctly – five other publishers.

Cathy: We were prepared for that, though. We knew it wouldn’t be for everyone. Strange as it may seem, not all publishers ‘get’ illustration - commissioning editors tend to be very word focussed, even in children’s books - and in our concept the visual elements were crucial. We got the right publisher in the end.

Professor Mcavity illustration from the Electrigirl submission package

Once you’d secured your contract with OUP, how much further redrafting work was needed for both the text and illustrations?

Jo: Oh God. Too much, is always my response. I hate editing. Er, another three drafts of the ms? Plus line edits after that? I’m not sure. I’ve mentally blocked it out.

Cathy: It was tricky for me too. The illustrator usually gets commissioned at the end of the editing process, when the book’s pages have already been laid-out by the designer/typesetter and you get presented with a load of blank spaces to fill with pictures. This project was completely different. It was great to be developing characters and drawing key scenes right from the beginning, almost as Jo was writing them, but pulling it all together so the pages worked and my images actually meshed seamlessly with Jo’s text was a complicated job. We couldn’t have done it without the brilliant Holly Fullbrook, designer extraordinaire at OUP.

An Electrigirl design meeting

What’s your favourite way to collaborate with each other? Do you like to meet face to face, or are you able to do everything via email?

Cathy: Jo’s in Oxford and I’m in the middle of Surrey so, unfortunately, face-to-face only happened a few times, but we e-mailed A LOT!

I’ve seen from your blog, Jo, that you already have your Electrigirl outfits ready for school and literary festival events. What are you most looking forward to about appearing in public as a team?

Jo: Oh, doing events with someone else is so much more fun! It’s just nice to have someone else to get nervous with and to pass audience questions over. It’s nice to share the responsibility. But I’m particularly looking forward to doing some drawing in our events – Cathy is going to teach our audience members how to draw a superhero, and I’m going to have a go too!

Cathy: Jo’s right. I think we make the perfect team and our events are going to be great! Jo is fantastic at the presenting stuff and getting everyone excited, I tend to communicate by drawing stuff. I did an event with another author a couple of years ago and as she talked I drew sketches on a flip chart of what she described. We hadn’t really planned it that way but it worked brilliantly and I LOVED it! More importantly, so did the audience.

Cathy and Jo at the Electrigirl book launch
(Note Cathy's custom neon sunglasses!)

Finally, it’s great to see Electrigirl doing her bit to correct the gender imbalance in the world of superhero storytelling. Who are your favourite female superheroes?

Illustration by Albert Uderzo
Cathy: Weirdly, I’ve never really been into superheroes but I did have a comic book obsession when I was about 11 or 12 for 'Asterix The Gaul'. I loved the stories which were hilarious but it was the wonderful illustrations by Albert Uderzo that I adored! It irritated me somewhat that ALL the characters were male (apart from a few outrageous fishwife or bimbo stereotypes) until I was given a copy of Asterix and Cleopatra. Cleo was an instant hero. She was feisty, moody and she had a big nose. Like me!

Illustration by Jamie McKelvie
Jo: Ms Marvel! I recently read the first volume of her adventures and OMG they are BRILLIANT. She’s a Muslim female superhero, trying to deal with her teenage problems as well as, you know, saving the world from peril and all that. AWESOME. And I also have a sneaking fondness for Disney’s Tinker Bell. I know she has a stupid outfit, but she’s an inventor and an explorer, with a quick temper and great imagination. In terms of a role model for little girls, you could do a lot worse!

Great choices! Ms. Marvel is also one of my current favourites - both a great comic and culturally significant too.

A big thank you to Jo and Cathy for joining me today and go check out their book!


Next week on Alphabet Soup:

Tommy Donbavand will be telling us what it’s like to have the coolest job in comics: writing for the Bash Street Kids!

Nick Cross is an experienced word juggler, Undiscovered Voices winner and 2015 honours recipient of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.

Nick's most recent children's short story Todd Tempest Investigates can be found in issue 11 of Stew Magazine. He also blogs regularly for Notes from the Slushpile.


  1. Completely love the whole idea of this - it's on my TBR pile ....

    1. I'm reading it at the moment, Kathy. The narrative style is very interesting - not just the switch between prose and comic, but the fact that the voice also changes between first and third person.

  2. Lovely to read this piece and find out what Cathy is up to. I studied some of the same subjects with her at school in Leatherhead all those moons ago : ) What an inspiring and fun way to co-create! Perhaps it might spark some more SCBWI collaborations...

  3. I was at this place last week. This is such a joy as a place for food! I had a beautiful time here. Venues in Houston reminded me of another center in Memphis, Tennessee. A beautiful, wonderful place that had excellent atmosphere.


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