Now in Color and with a Few Well-Chosen Words, Owly Returns

Back in print at long last, the "Owly" series is now in full color, with words. Here's how author Andy Runton adapted his beloved books.

Headshot Andy Runton
Photo by Andy Runton

After years of languishing in out-of-print limbo, Andy Runton’s “Owly” graphic novels have finally found a new home—at Scholastic. Fans will be pleased to see the return of these gentle stories that center on a big-eyed, expressive bird who’s always ready to lend a hand to those in need.

It’s been a long road for Runton. He originally published the books with Top Shelf Productions but left, hoping to expand the series’s reach. Then he was met with a spate of rejections from agents and publishers. “They felt that ship had sailed,” he says.

But a few people still believed in the books, among them Barry Goldblatt, who became Runton’s agent and helped bring the series to Scholastic's Graphix imprint. “It turned out that his son was a huge fan, and he believed there was still a place for Owly,” Runton says.

David Saylor, vice president and publisher of Graphix, had always loved Owly, too. “The books have such heart: Reading them simply makes you feel good. And the messages of kindness and helping others are needed now more than ever.”

The Way Home (first published as The Way Home & the Bittersweet Summer) was released earlier this month. Other installments will follow, and Runton has plans for a new tale. But there are a few changes in store. The books are now in full color—which Top Shelf, a smaller indie press, didn’t have the budget for. And though the original stories were wordless, with characters communicating in symbols and pictures, they now have text.

That decision wasn’t made lightly. Graphix editor Megan Peace says, “While adding color to the series was something we were excited about, adding words was a different story—it made us nervous, as fans have loved the wordlessness of Owly.”

When Runton started working on The Way Home, he included narration but no dialogue. But that choice felt distancing, as though readers were outside the story. So he crafted dialogue, which at times was challenging. “Sometimes using a symbol is a lot easier than writing a succinct four-word sentence. There’s not a lot of room in a speech bubble.” His years of visiting schools, where he interpreted what characters were saying as he “read” the books aloud, came in handy.

One thing remained the same. While Wormy, Mrs. Raccoon, and the other forest denizens speak in words, Owly still communicates with pictures—something that has long resonated with readers, including the Deaf community.

“A lot of people relate to the fact that he doesn’t speak, or he has trouble speaking, or however they see it,” says Runton, who had personal reasons for preserving Owly’s speech patterns. He was a struggling reader growing up, and he has always wanted to write stories that all kids, no matter their ability, could understand. “It was really special to me to have that self-esteem boost built into the book, because that’s what I wanted as a kid.”

Runton also includes pictorial “translations” of the characters’ words that keep the tales accessible to all readers. When Wormy tells Owly, “It’s very sunny today!” his text is accompanied by a picture of a beaming sun. “We thought, what if Owly has his own little language and the other animals are bilingual?” says Runton.

Thomas Maluck, teen services librarian at Richland Library (SC), appreciated the original books but welcomes the adaptations. “The use of words for dialogue and captions is a double-edged sword in Owly books. On one hand, a textless story invites purely visual interpretation to the point that a very young reader could understand every story beat without knowing a word. On the other hand, parents and caregivers who want to read Owly aloud now have options.”

Maluck adds, “I think it's great that Owly still communicates strictly in symbols and images, which reinforces to readers that he and his friends are able to understand different methods of expression.”

Images from Owly books

Adapting the books is a lengthy undertaking. After Runton marks up the original story and notes what text he’d like to add, he gets feedback from editors and then redraws each panel. The first Owly book was released in 2003, and he now notices mistakes that he corrects. “It’s mainly things like Owly got really big in this panel, why is he bigger than the teapot? I now have a better eye for consistency.”

But, Runton adds, “I made a conscious decision not to make it too polished.” For years, he worked as a graphic designer, producing precise computer-generated images; he wanted to get as far away from that as possible for Owly. His favorite comic artists embrace the flaws. “The lines weren’t perfect. They didn’t use a ruler. You could tell this was a very intimately created thing. Being able to see the brushstrokes, the fingerprints. That’s really special.”

So Runton still draws by hand. He started out hand-lettering the text, too, but every time his editors came back with grammar or punctuation changes, he was forced to redraw panels. He decided instead to scan the drawings onto a computer and apply a font he created based on his own handwriting.

Once the black-and-white drawings and words are set, Runton adds color, using Photoshop. Color has been one of his biggest hurdles. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with color. I had always been afraid of it.” He took his first steps in 2011, when he created picture books starring Owly for Simon & Schuster, but getting it right has taken time and a lot of experimentation. He attempted flat colors, then a cartoonish look, before settling on a vibrant, atmospheric tone. “I know what nature looks like, and that’s what I’m trying to capture.”

Working with Scholastic has been a sea change for Runton, who’s used to the do-it-yourself model of the comic book world. When he first published Owly, he had no agent and carted his own copies of books to signings. But while at a book launch for his friend Ben Hatke, who writes “Zita the Spacegirl” and “Mighty Jack,” Runton realized that signing with a big publisher had benefits—Hatke’s publisher, First Second, had taken care of details such as shipping the books to the store.

With Scholastic’s help, Runton is also excited to finally reach the bookstore market. Most Owly sales originally came from comic book stores, and during the series’s first run, Runton’s promotion efforts involved book signings and talks at comic conventions. But librarians and teachers have always been among his biggest supporters. He says that though some adults believe comics, especially wordless ones, have little value, librarians have always seen “what made Owly so special.”

Seeing Owly evolve over the past 17 years has been emotional—and rewarding. “It was heartbreaking when people told me, ‘It’s too late.’ I said, ‘I believe in this, and I believe in myself.’”

And though it’s been a winding path, Runton wouldn’t change a thing. “I don’t think I was ready years ago. I think it took reading the books aloud to kids and having experience with the characters and telling the stories. I think it all had to happen as it did. I’m thankful to Scholastic for taking a chance on Owly and helping him grow.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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