Creating “Geniuses” — my upcoming fantasy novel series

Giacomo press image

I’m thrilled to finally be able to announce what I’ve been working since Korra wrapped. I’m writing and illustrating a 3-book middle-grade series! The first book, Geniuses: The Creature and the Creator, will be published in Fall 2016 by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s.

Here’s the synopsis:

Set in a Renaissance-like fantasy world, Geniuses explores the concept of “art as magic,” where an artist’s creative genius is actually a living creature, a real-life muse that inspires and protects him or her. Because the leader of this world sees the Genius as a great and dangerous power, anyone with a Genius is captured, to ensure he or she doesn’t become a threat to society. Many have their Geniuses destroyed, and subsequently, become ghosts of their former selves, doomed to live a life without direction, inspiration, or original thought.

But a talented few are keeping their creativity and their Geniuses alive at a secret studio, where young artists like 12-year-old Giacomo learn how to harness their Genius’ power. But before Giacomo’s training is complete, he and his fellow students set off on a life-or-death quest to find the mythical Creator’s Compass before it falls into the hands of a rogue artist, who plans to use the Compass to destroy the world.

And here’s more backstory on the project:

The journey of creating the world of Geniuses has been a long and meandering one that began over ten years ago. And it all started with a single idea: Art as magic.

Little did I know these three little words would set me off on a quest to figure out how to tell an entertaining story that could express that concept. There were many false starts and wrong turns on the way to creating this book. More than once I gave up on it, abandoning what I had written to the recesses of my hard drive. But inevitably, a few months would pass and a new idea would spark my imagination, or a new angle on the story would present itself, and I’d dive back into the world.

One of those important sparks was when I learned about the origins of the word genius. In a book about Da Vinci, I discovered that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a genius wasn’t a person, but a spirit that protected and inspired artists. Ah ha! I thought, what if in my story, the artists had living muses? I immediately pictured them as winged bird creatures, rushed to my laptop, and continued to write.

But while that idea provided a lot of momentum, I still floundered. I was also more than a little busy with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, so any writing I did was either at night or on the weekends. In my mind, my story about artists and their Geniuses was a fun, personal side project that may or may not become publishable one day.

Then in 2014, as Korra was winding down, I began to think about what I really wanted to work on next, and it wasn’t another animated show. I challenged myself to finish the “art as magic” story I began so many years ago and find a publisher who could help me get it out into the world. So I’m thrilled to be working with editor Connie Hsu and the team at Roaring Brook.

The point of all this is to say that when I came up with this idea ten years ago, I didn’t think it would amount to anything, much less become a published book. But my Genius spirit prodded and inspired me to keep working on it, even when I thought the idea was worthless. I’m glad I listened to it and I hope the book inspires others to listen to their own creative muse, in whatever form that takes, and create what is meaningful to them.

Over the years working on Avatar and Korra, I’ve heard from and met so many wonderful fans who have shared how the Avatar universe inspired them to overcome a struggle in their life, to follow a dream, or achieve a long sought-after goal. I realized how transformative and impactful stories and characters can be in a young person’s life, and I hope to continue inspiring and entertaining people with this new world.

It’s also fun to draw again and I’m excited to illustrate the novel as well as write it. Done in a style of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, the illustrations will be images from the main character’s sketchbook, 12-year-old artist named Giacomo. During the last few years working on Korra, my time was spent working more on the writing side of production than the drawing side, so my sketching skills are a bit rusty. But I’m confident I can draw as good as a 12-year-old (albeit a really talented 12-year-old!)

Art has been the driving force through my whole life and career. I was drawing as far back as I can remember, and probably before that. And although I’m now known for my work in animation, my early artistic heroes were painters like Picasso, Dali, and Pollock.

In high school, as I became more serious about art, I hungered for stories about artists, but they were hard to come by. I read biographies of painters, but in the fictional realm, only The Fountainhead and My Name is Asher Lev provided stories in which the artist was the hero. My hope with the Geniuses series is to give kids the type of book my younger self would’ve loved growing up — a novel where artists are heroes, where creativity and inspiration can lead to a life-changing adventure, and where art is magic.