'I always wondered why the girl didn't save herself," Ursula Vernon said about the fairy tales she read as a kid. "I mean, why doesn't Snow White just whack the evil queen instead of relying on the prince?"
Vernon decided to retell fairy tales with a strong female hero. In her popular Hamster Princess series, Harriet eagerly rescues anyone in danger.
Often, though, the high-spirited hamster creates the very situations she must rescue herself and others from.
In "Whiskerella," the fifth book in this hilarious series, Harriet takes on a bossy fairy godmouse. The godmouse wants Ella, a pretty hamster, to go to royal balls and meet a prince to marry. But Ella doesn't like any of the rude princes she meets. And she hates wearing the magical glass slippers! They pinch her feet.
When she tries to help Ella, Harriet and her best friend, Wilbur, are in for a big surprise. They, too, are transformed by the fairy godmouse! Harriet must figure out how to break the spell while dealing with newts, cucumber sandwiches and heaps of glittery fairy dust.
Brave Harriet isn't based on any childhood pets, Vernon said. But growing up in Salem, Oregon, and Phoenix, Arizona, she did have one rodent friend.
"Squeaky was a lovely rat," Vernon said by phone from the coffee shop where she likes to write in her home town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. "He was clean and snugly, and he liked to ride on my shoulder."
Vernon now has very different pets: two dogs, four cats and four chickens.
The chickens adore her husband, and she loves watching them follow him around.
"It's like I married a Disney princess," she said, laughing.
Vernon writes and draws the pictures for her funny illustrated novels.
"I write the story first," she said, describing her process. "It usually takes about two months for the story, which I then show my editor and revise before creating the art. The illustrations can take five months or more."
Vernon is now finishing the illustrations for the sixth Hamster Princess book, "Little Red Rodent Hood."
Harriet is an especially fun character to work with, Vernon said, because the sturdy hamster "charges forward and wreaks havoc." Things happen with Harriet around!
As a kid, Vernon was more like Wilbur, Harriet's cautious friend. "I was shy and followed the rules," she said.
She liked to daydream and play video games. Vernon was also a fan of fantasy and science fiction, especially, she said, "novels by Robin McKinley and anything to do with 'Star Trek.' "
Those childhood interests inspire many of her projects as an adult, including "Castle Hangnail," the Dragonbreath books, and "Nurk," the tale of a courageous shrew. Vernon also creates webcomics and graphic novels for adults. Like her work for kids, those often feature talking animals with big personalities.
For young people interested in creating books and graphic novels, Vernon offers some advice. She knows it's helpful because she followed it as the teenage writer of what she called "long terrible novels."
"Just write," she said. "Most writing is revising. You can't fix the writing till you have the words on the page. And that goes for drawing. Keep drawing — and then draw some more."
What: Ursula Vernon will speak and sign books, as part of a panel on "Humor and Heroics" with Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, creators of "The Real McCoys."
Where: Hooray for Books, 1555 King Street, Alexandria.
When: January 30 at 6:30 p.m.
How much: Free. To join signing line, attendees must buy a book at Hooray for Books by one of the authors.
Best for: Age 7 and older.
For more information: Call 703-548-4092 or check the website hooray4books.com.