The story unfolds: Children’s book author Tom Angleberger discusses his process

Tom Angleberger will sign copies of his new book, Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall!, at Over the Moon Bookstore on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy subject Tom Angleberger will sign copies of his new book, Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall!, at Over the Moon Bookstore on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy subject

The idea for the Origami Yoda series began when Tom Angleberger stumbled across an origami Yoda on the Internet. “I was a huge fan of Star Wars—and an origami folder,” he says. So he tried to replicate the origami Yoda he found online.

“The one I made was not as good as the one on the Internet,” says Angleberger. “Mine was simple and worked as a finger puppet and I thought, what if a kid took this to school to talk to people? I wasn’t thinking of a book to write.”

How to make an origami Yoda. Courtesy of T. Angleberger

This Saturday, you can find the New York Times bestselling children’s author at Over the Moon Bookstore in Crozet for the launch of his new book, Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall!

Angleberger, who grew up near Staunton and ran cross-country meets in Charlottesville as a kid, now lives outside of Roanoke. He says he “started writing and drawing my own comics in the seventh grade and never stopped doing it. For a long time I thought I’d be a comic book writer and/or illustrator. Writing children’s books has brought me back around to where I’m writing about comic book characters.”

The anthropomorphic character of Rocket Raccoon first appeared in Marvel in 1976, while Groot, an extraterrestrial who resembles a tree, appeared 16 years earlier. Both are presumed to be the last of their kind, and someone, Angleberger says, had the idea of teaming them up together as members of the Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy in 2008, on which the 2014 film of the same name is based.

He generates ideas by rethinking the characters he writes about. “I am very lucky that I’ve gotten to play in some really amazing sandboxes,” says Angleberger. “I wrote a total of eight Star Wars-related books and anytime you run out of ideas you just watch the movies again and think about how you would play with the toys. For Rocket and Groot, I had certain things I wanted to do and let my imagination run wild. Anything I thought of, I tried to just go with it. There are no rules with them.”

For example, the book he is working on now was inspired by headlines about self-driving cars.

“Anytime I get in my car and use GPS it gets confused, I get confused,” Angleberger says. “And I can’t figure out how the car can drive itself if the maps don’t work. So I just thought, ‘What if there was a planet where self-driving cars went crazy?’, like there was a giant glitch. Rocket and Groot go to a planet with crazy self-driving cars.”

This is how all of his ideas seem to begin, with the two important words, “what if?”

He also draws from his own experiences. I bring up the fact that on his website he lists Asperger’s as his superpower. “The whole [Origami Yoda] series is based on the experience of going through school being dramatically different, strange, annoying. Being so different, so weird, it all added up into these books. Even though it was very difficult going through it, it provided great source material.”

In the fourth and fifth books of the six-book Yoda series, The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett and Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue, the middle school student characters protest standardized testing and the fact that their electives have been taken away. “I hate standardized testing,” says Angleberger. “I think it’s the worst idea ever. So I asked myself, ‘What if kids said: You know what? We’re not going to take the test.’ The kids would form a rebellion. Star Wars is all about rebelling against evil empires.”

All of his books contain themes of friendship, inclusivity, the pursuit of justice and the triumph of the underdog. There is also at least one strong female character in each of his books. I ask whether his wife, fellow children’s author Cece Bell, is the inspiration for these female characters. “She is a strong female character herself,” he laughs. “She is very funny and very determined. Veronica, the tape dispenser [in Rocket and Groot] is also funny and determined. I just felt like having a female character in the mix would open up things, and it really did. Now, there are no human beings in this book. People say, ‘The female character is a talking tape dispenser?’ But there are no humans, no men, no women. There are space piranhas, robots, a talking tree and a crazy raccoon. No rules.”

He is looking forward to revisiting the area and meeting the kids growing up here today. “The Charlottesville area is lucky to have a store like Over the Moon. We don’t have one in this end of the state. I think it’s awesome.”

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