Dustin Hansen spent years creating video games before becoming a writer and illustrator, andd now he’s making his DC debut in a middle-grades story that combines a “cliché” excuse with the world of gaming – My Video Game Ate My Homework.
The book centers on Dewey Jenkins, a 13-year-old kid who’s not doing well in school. But when his video game (spoilers!) eats his homework, he and his friends get drawn into a funny, fast-paced adventure that ends up teaching him about himself – while readers get some fun references to video gaming abound… including that of World of Warcraft‘s Leeroy Jenkins.
Hansen has been published before with the Microsaurs chapter book series and the book, Game On! Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More. But for his DC debut, he decided to focus on middle-grade readers because of his own history struggling in school.
Newsarama talked to Hansen to find out more about the creation of the book, why he identifies so strongly with main character Dewey, and what it’s like when four friends enter the virtual world of My Video Game Ate My Homework.
Newsarama: Dustin, how did the opportunity to work with DC comic about? Was this something you pitched?
Dustin Hansen: Yeah, I came up with the idea on my own, and my agent pitched the book to DC. At the time, we had no idea what they were doing in this space, so it was a long shot. But we had great timing because they were looking for something like this.
So yeah, it was a little bit of kismet, and I think, with the book world, that’s what happens. It’s a lot about timing – where everything lines up great.
I’ve worked in the video game industry for 25 years, and I’ve been creating content specifically for this age group my whole career – so both in video games and in the toy industry and even film and in books. Middle grade has been my focus.
So I’m combining my love of video games and my adventurous, over-the-top, crazy love of middle-grade novels, which is why I love them so much, because they’re so much fun. It just seemed like a great fit.
Nrama: So how did you come up with the idea for this unique story?
Hansen: Yeah, you know, it’s funny – this really happened. I was talking with a third grade class and we were talking about coming up with new ideas. That’s usually the biggest question I get from kids, is how do you come up with the ideas? So I have a workshop that’s specifically geared toward that.
And one of the things I have the kids do is combine two ideas. So, like, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jurassic Park. What would that look like?
So we come up with fun ideas like that. You know, Star Wars and Care Bears. What would that look like?
I was doing the workshop with them, and they were pitching all kinds of fun ideas, and you know, kids just have the craziest, wild ideas. It’s just so much fun to do it. And while I was in there, I had this idea of mixing these two worlds – it’s almost a cliche, you know, “My dog ate my homework,” and instead of it being a dog, it’s a video game.
I was in that pitch with them when I started thinking about this book.
Sometimes when an idea happens, you just know. It’s the right thing. And this one just felt like the right thing.
I loved the idea, from the very beginning, that the title of the book is kind of a spoiler. You know what’s going to happen! The video game’s going to eat your homework. But it’s the how that’s fun.
So that’s where it started.
Nrama: Let’s talk about Dewey Jenkins, the 13-year-old kid who’s at the center of this story. How would you describe him?
Hansen: Well, if I’m being honest, there’s a lot of me in Dewey. Our writers and artists do that a lot, whether they intend to or not. But I’m dyslexic, and when I was in third grade through sixth grade, I was kind of the “bad reader” kid. Nobody diagnosed it. It was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so it was a long time ago. And it wasn’t common to be diagnosed as dyslexic.
I just really struggled with school. It was super hard for me. But I found other things that were fun for me to do. I loved to build stuff. I loved to draw. I loved to tell stories – stories have always been a huge part of me.
So Dewey kind of came from that. Having him have a twin sister that is excellent at school, while he’s not, kind of gave me an opportunity to vocalize it between the two of them, which I really liked, for them to have some of those quieter conversations about what’s it like to really struggle with this?
Those are discussions I’ve had with my sister when I was growing up.
So there’s a lot of me in that book. And I really love that.
For Dewey, it’s a daily challenge. And for him to step into this video game thing, which is a really, over-the-top adventurous challenge, reading is still a part of it.
So he kind of brings his daily challenges into the video game – as well as dealing with spiders and volcanoes and things like that. So he’s got more than one challenge to deal with.
Nrama: He travels into this virtual world, where he has to overcome all those challenges and solve several puzzles to get back home. But he doesn’t go there alone. Can you talk about the other characters in the book – not only his sister, Beatrice, but also his two friends that come along: Ron “Ferg” Ferguson and Katherine “Kat” Ortiz.
Hansen: Yeah. Usually when I start a story, I’ll start sketching characters that I think would kind of work together. And I had been touring for a previous book, and I just really wanted a group of characters that represented the kids that I had been talking to.
So first, I had the twins – Dewey and Bea – who we just talked about. But the other two characters, I just felt like needed to fit in with that group. It’s just like something was missing, you know?
Dewey needed a best friend in Ferg, and Bea a needed a best friend in Kat.
I’ve always loved that dynamic from a family, where you bring your friends together with your family, and you can kind of become a group. And they really are – they’re super tight; they’re all the same age. But they all bring their own special kind of mojo into the game, and into the book.
One of the things that was fun for me to play with in the book was that the game – it eats his homework, obviously. But the kids have to enter the game too. It’s kind of a virtual world they go into.
And the game itself kind of takes your weaknesses and strengths and plays with those to make those part of the game.
And so having characters that are diverse in how they act and their personalities and their background really made it fun for me to play with, to kind of accentuate those things in the game, to really highlight their strengths and weaknesses.
Nrama: Let’s talk about your artwork in this book. You have a background doing middle grade books. Does your audience influence your style? How would you describe the look of the book?
Hansen: This is the first thing I’ve done in a long time where I was really able to do my own stuff, completely from soup to nuts. I’ve been working in film and games and toys for a long time. I was able to build my own stuff.
It’s super bright and colorful – that’s definitely a huge part of it.
And the color itself tells a story within the game, which is a lot of fun. The more intense things get, the more bright and intense and dangerous the colors get.
But I’d say, stylewise, the characters are pretty whimsical and very cartoony. Even though, my entire career, I’ve been drawing realistic monsters and football players for the video game industry, this was my chance to really push my style, which is a lot more playful and more personality-driven.
I absolutely love subtle changes in personalities and posture and those kinds of things, to really help tell a more complex story that it might appear at first.
Nrama: Then to finish up, after reading through the preview, I’m sure this is something parents would enjoy. Any final pitch to parents and middle grade readers?
Hansen: It’s definitely focused for young readers. That’s my goal. We have some pre-release copies, and I heard from a mom that has a third grader who read the book in a single sitting. And it’s the first book he’s read in a single sitting. And that was the best thing I had ever heard. I was doing cartwheels, because that’s what I want, is to really focus on that third-grade reader.
But I’m also a nerd too. And there are a lot of little Easter eggs and hints in there to either classic games or classic comics of the past. Like even Dewey and Bea – their last name is Jenkins. And their dad is obviously named Leeroy Jenkins, even though I never mention it. Right? It’s just a fun World of Warcraft nerd thing that parents might pick up on.
My focus is that second- or third-grade readers, because that’s when I fell in love with comics as a kid. So I’m hoping it will bring some reluctant kids in that might have some struggles with reading, and these visuals will help them. But I think it’s a fun book that will appeal to a lot of people.