By Anna Grace Askelson
“The Sprite and The Gardener” is a lush botanical story set in a world similar to our own with one notable exception; colorful flower powered garden fairies called sprites have the power to grow gardens. This beautiful story was created by two of Montevallo’s own, Rii Abrego and Joe Whitt. This May, Abrego (class of 2015, BFA in Drawing and Painting) and Whitt (class of 2015, BFA in Drawing) published the middle grade graphic with award winning indie publisher Oni Press.
The story begins when one particular sprite, Wisteria, moves to a new place and tries to make new friends. Soon, Wisteria finds a human girl and begins sneakily using her spritely powers to help grow her garden.
As a BFA student and lover of children’s comic fantasy I was delighted to talk to Abrego and Whitt about their work over email.
How did your experience at Montevallo impact the creation of this work? Did any particular classes, places, or clubs help push you towards graphic novels?
Abrego: In general, being surrounded by so many plants and flowers had a big impact on the book, so in that regard Montevallo (and the entirety of Alabama, really) inspired its inception. I’d initially wanted to focus on native species, but since the book would be read by kids all over, I thought it’d be best to go with some of the more widely known ones. The Birmingham Botanical Gardens really came in handy as a reference source in that regard, so huge shout out to them.
And I actually didn’t intend to get into comics! That happened post-graduation. But art-wise, classes with Joe and Misty Bennett had a huge impact on how I work, especially the figure classes.
Whitt: I think more than anything just the lush Montevallo campus made me more aware and appreciative of nature. Pretty much all the buildings are within a reasonable walking distance so every day you’re just ambling around looking at the nice trees and flowers, it’s great. I went to a green club meeting once in my freshman year but everyone was so charismatic I got intimidated and never went back. Respect to the green club, though. I love their plant sales and in general greenery.
Oni Press, the publisher, is a really cool indie comic company. What was the process of working with that publication company like?
Abrego: This might have been a mixture of both Oni Press being a smaller publisher and the book being fairly short, but the process was actually surprisingly laid back. I also appreciated that our editors always felt like they were genuinely excited about what we were doing.
Whitt: It was fun! Initially I was very nervous about having an editor try to compromise our vision or whatever, but it turns out editors are cool and can really help to punch up your story. Genuinely I don’t think the book could have happened without their input. Also working with Oni in particular was cool because Scott Pilgrim was my favorite comic in high school, so putting a book out under the same publishing house as it was a real bucket list moment.
Rii, I believe you’ve talked before about drawing a lot of inspiration from shojo manga, what are the names of some of your favorite mangas and mangakas?
Abrego: This question is always hard! As far as influence goes, I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it weren’t for Tokyo Mew Mew blowing my mind by introducing me to the concept of catgirls when I was nine. Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura were on tv back then, too, and they left a big impact. As far as favorite manga artists, that list is a mile long, but some that come to mind immediately are Yoshitoki Oima (To Your Eternity), Yuhki Kamatani (Shounen Note, Our Dreams at Dusk), Aki Irie (Go with the Clouds North by Northwest), Taiyo Matsumoto (Ping Pong), and Naoki Urasawa (Monster, Pluto).
I loved that the back of the book featured in process sketches. In particular, I loved seeing Joe’s thumbnail and then Rii’s finished sketch. What was the process of collaboration like on this project? Did Joe do more thumbnails/concepts and Rii do more final illustrations or was it split up differently?
Abrego: It was a little all over the place! I did a lot of the thumbnails myself, but Joe helped any time I got into a rut. He also really helped establish the initial feel of the characters and world and kept things from getting too serious. In general, I’d frequently check in and get his opinion on things throughout the entire process.
Whitt: So much of scripting and thumbnailing was done with both of us in the room, so it’s kind of hard to divide that up, really. I know there’s a handful of scenes that Rii had a distinct vision on so she would handle those on her own, but yeah. We’d script on a big google doc, get together and read over it, make sure everything sounded natural, then separate all the dialogue and images into panels, sometimes we’d each thumbnail the same page and then fuse both of them together. Once it was all thumbnailed, then Rii worked her magic and penciled, inked, and colored the whole thing. Every so often we’d look over it together and see if lines needed to be thicker or a color needed to be changed. Then came Crank! lettering, which, shout-outs to letterers, they are the unsung heroes of the comic world. Bubble placement and text arrangement can really make or break the finished piece, no matter how pretty the book is.
Wisteria has a difficult time learning to fit in when she moves to a new place, was this inspired by either of your childhoods?
Abrego: This is later in life, but I actually started homeschooling in 8th grade, so by the time I got to college I felt like a real weirdo. I had no idea how to insert myself into these new groups, and it felt like everyone already knew everyone else. I feel like that’s something most people can relate to, so it seemed like a natural way to set things up.
Whitt: Not even childhood, for me. Honestly I had a hard time fitting in at college. Those first 2 years I didn’t know how to put myself out there so I mostly just stayed in my room or took walks at Orr Park. I was very fortunate to eventually meet a wonderful group of buds when I moved to Lund Hall my junior year, and I was able to break out of my shell a bit and talk to people. I also joined the Student Art Association that year, where I met more like-minded art majors, including Rii. That said, I don’t think this was a direct influence on Wisteria’s plight, but it definitely helped me get into the headspace of Wisteria when we were writing her.
I remember seeing the original short comic that Rii made online when I was younger. I always saw it as a kind of love story; was there an intention to include some LGBTQ+ representation within the story?
Abrego: I had definitely intended the original to be a love story! I didn’t want to erase that from the book, either, though it’s never explicitly stated. It’s a little more subdued, but I wanted it to be apparent to anyone who was looking that Wisteria was experiencing a crush.
This story feels like really optimistic slow fantasy, I’ve seen it compared a lot to Kay O’Neill’s work. What inspired this kinder, gentler approach to fantasy?
Abrego: By and large, the current form of the book’s story and atmosphere came about because we didn’t want to stray too wildly from the feel of the short comic. It’d probably be weird if it suddenly became action-packed or turned into a comedy! But we also knew from the beginning that it would be a short book, so something slow and laid back made the most sense from a pacing perspective. We also wanted to preserve a little bit of that fairytale feeling. (But like, the nice kind of fairytale, not the kind where people dance in hot shoes until they die.)
Whitt: I think before we started writing this, I was feeling very down and defeated. So when Rii approached me asking if I wanted to help write the story, I was very excited to channel my energy into telling a story that was uplifting and kind.
I was reading an interview with you two by Rachel Weiss in Pome Magazine and I saw you started working on the book in a yogurt bar inside a Books a Million. I have two questions; what is your favorite frozen yogurt flavor, and was this in Alabaster?
Abrego: It was actually the Books A Million in the Brookwood Mall, and while googling it to make sure I had that info right, I found out it closed down at the start of lockdown last year! That’s so sad!! It was a really lovely bookstore.
I hate to say it, but we actually didn’t even eat any frozen yogurt while we were there. We just bummed around and used their Wifi. Sorry and thank you to everyone involved.
Whitt: I will be honest, I’m not even a fro-yo head. I think I ate some once while on the roof of UMOM and I couldn’t even finish it. No disrespect to people who like the stuff, it’s just not for me. Maybe just vanilla, then? I eat plain yogurt sometimes, with granola in it.
Personally, I think the book is a touching and beautiful work of art for all ages. The art is spectacular and the muted color palate creates a wonderfully sunny mood.
The paneling in this book is very dynamic; full bleed images and different box layouts on each page create a visually compelling design that’s much more virtuosic than any other western children’s books that I have read.
Abrego and Whitt don’t just succeed at the layout, I also love the design of the characters. The characters are both diverse and sweet. I was particularly happy to see Hortensia, who is a plus-size sprite decked out in frilly white and pink.
In the interview, Abrego touched on the intention to include a LGBTQ+ crush in the work, which is subtle but evident. Kay O’Neill, an author working in a similar genre from the same publisher, has an admirable ability to include queer characters and values – community, found family, and companionship – in a child-appropriate and affirming way in their work and Abrego and Whitt follow in this same vein. It’s really beautiful to see an innocent and childish sapphic crush play out on the page.
References to shojo manga are spread throughout the novel, especially in the character’s eyes. Overwhelmed with sparkles drawn on the page, each character has an emotive and lovely gaze.
The story is very simple, but deeply relatable. Wisteria’s experience trying to fit in is realistic and bittersweet. The rest of the story has an upturn and a deeply positive ending, which is refreshing and comforting.
Readers who are less interested in art and more interested in story may not enjoy this book as much. Though very touching (I may have teared up a little), the story is communicated much more visually than through words. Personally, I think this focus on art creates a really atmospheric experience.
Readers who loved the book will be excited to hear that they can expect more collaborations between Abrego and Whitt in the future.
“While we don’t have any sequels lined up, it isn’t impossible! Though right now we’re in the process of thinking up something entirely new that I think will be super fun, so wish us luck!” said Abrego.
Anyone who loves gardening, fantasy, manga or illustration should purchase this book and hop into its rich environment.
“The Sprite and The Gardener” is available wherever books are sold.
Anna Grace Askelson is a writer for The Alabamian. She is a second-year art major with a passion for writing, fashion and design.