Monday, September 11, 2023

Q&A with Kate Wheeler and Trent Huntington


Kate Wheeler



Kate Wheeler and Trent Huntington are the creators of Team Trash: A Time Traveler's Guide to Sustainability, a new graphic novel for older kids. Wheeler is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post. Huntington is a sustainability expert.


Q: What inspired you to create Team Trash?

KW: Holiday House approached me and asked if I would be interested in creating a graphic novel about the history of recycling and of course I was thrilled. I knew that I didn't want to make a dry history book; selfishly it would be a lot more fun for me to draw if it had some fantastical elements!


So after some brainstorming with friends we came up with the idea for a time traveling robot that would take the kids to different parts of the world. Time Bot is one of my favorite characters so I'm happy that Holiday House was on board to take it in that direction!

Trent Huntington

TH: And I came to this project from a completely different place. While Kate is an amazing author and storyteller, I've dedicated my life and career to environmental sustainability. When Holiday House proposed a book all about recycling, I was very eager to take some of my knowledge developed working in corporate sustainability and apply it to a totally different use.


I never thought I would help write a book like this but with a partner like Kate, she made it easy.


Q: Did you need to do any research to create the book, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?


KW: I did quite a bit of research! Trent is the sustainability expert and I relied on him for statistics and ideas on important moments in history for sustainability, but in order to illustrate them I needed to know what people wore, what the buildings looked like, etc.


For instance, when the kids visit Japan during the Edo period, the hairstyles that Japanese children had were really interesting! It was fun to find reference illustrations from that period and try to stick in as many historically accurate outfits as I could.

TH: Even though I've worked in the waste and recycling space for years, we still had to do plenty of research to make sure we were being accurate with the historical representations.


Kate and I had worked on a shorter comic that included the story of the garbage barge, the MOBRO, so we were able to build off of that but there is plenty of information in the book that neither of us were aware of prior to beginning the research phase.


Interestingly, since we started this book in 2021, the part of the book that touches on how laws and government policy can affect plastic pollution was very much current events at the time.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “These snack-size history lessons—rendered in eye-catching color and easy-to-follow paneling interspersed with brief instructional guides—employ lightly slapstick humor to deliver digestible informational fare.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?

KW:  “Snack-size,” and “digestible,” is a great description for Team Trash. I think if the book were a snack, it would be a plate of carrots and hummus. Delicious and healthy, but not too heavy.


I think it's the perfect length for an educational graphic novel, and we were really able to fit in so many interesting parts of history. And I got to insert a lot of my own silly humor into the book. I think Team Trash really needed those moments of levity. Climate change and plastic pollution can feel really depressing!

TH: While the book is really focused on education, I hope that it does more than just inform and inspires young readers to act. When I was growing up in the ‘90s we were told “Reduce Reuse Recycle” was the best way to save the planet. This has the effect of making solving environmental degradation and plastic pollution solely a personal responsibility.


In the book, we try to challenge that narrative and let young activists know that it's actually more important to push for more system change through advocacy, policy and movement-building than it is to make sure you're the best recycler in your state.


Q: How did the two of you collaborate on this project?

KW: Trent has 10+ years of experience working in sustainability, so not only does he have the knowledge but more importantly he has so much enthusiasm about the subject. He was a great cheerleader and always had an off the wall idea when I was stuck.

TH: While I did help with some of the more technical and wonky parts of the narrative, Kate is the real reason that this book shines. She created the story, the characters and everything you see on the page was drawn and written by her. It's been great to be a part of making this book a reality but if readers enjoy it, it's all thanks to her.


Q: What are you working on now?

KW:  I'm working on my next middle grade graphic novel, Goat Magic, that will be out with Oni Press in 2025! Nothing to do with sustainability, but lots of fantasy elements and should be a lot of fun : ) I also had a piece at the end of August for The Washington Post about fast fashion and its enormous contribution to climate change. Not as fun as Goat Magic or Team Trash, but timely! 

TH: After a bit of a career pause to make this book a reality, I've returned to the world of corporate sustainability.


Currently I'm working for Kraft Heinz leading packaging sustainability projects out of their global offices in Amsterdam. I'm very busy trying to be part of the solution to some of the problems highlighted in the book but even when I'm not working I still take time to pick up stray cans off the ground and fish plastic out of the canals. 


Q: Anything else we should know?

KW: Yeah! Please let me know if you have any questions or comments about Team Trash, or comics in general. I love to hear from readers, especially aspiring cartoonists! You can contact me on social media: @kagwheeler  

TH: Yes, send all the fanmail to Kate!  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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