Like most comic novels for middle graders, the Tapper Twins books are illustrated—but they’re unusual in that most of the illustrations aren’t drawings, but photographs.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag. Even my stick figures look incompetent. And not funny-incompetent. Just incompetent-incompetent.
The second is that the photos work well with the premise: that the books are oral histories compiled by twelve-year-old Claudia Tapper from interviews with her friends. Like most tweens I know, if Claudia wants to visually document something, she pulls out a phone and snaps a pic…like this one of her family’s Upper West Side apartment building:
When I first had the idea to photo-illustrate the books, I can’t tell you how exciting it was to realize I could compensate for my total lack of artistic talent by using my phone. By then, I was nearly finished writing The Tapper Twins Go To War (With Each Other), so its illustrations came from a hodgepodge of sources—stock images, photos my son and I took around New York, the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt “V-J Day” photo that I paid WAY too much money to license, and a dozen screenshots from a fictional video game called “MetaWorld,” which may look vaguely familiar to fans of a currently popular game that also begins with “M”:
But in the sequel, The Tapper Twins Tear Up New York (about a scavenger hunt gone horribly awry), Claudia and her friends’ photo-taking is integral to the plot, and staging the photos was almost as important as the actual writing.
Which is how I wound up slugging my friend Trevor while wearing an off-brand Cookie Monster costume in the middle of Times Square:
Wait, I missed a couple of steps. Let me back up: at one point in the book, Claudia witnesses a fight between two costumed characters in Times Square—which I wrote into the story partly because it seemed like it’d make for a great series of photos.
Unfortunately, it was also logistically challenging. Here’s a fun fact: did you know it’s cheaper to buy an off-brand Cookie Monster costume than it is to rent one? I now own two. And I no longer have to worry about what I’m going to wear on Halloween for the next decade.
Then there was the issue of who would wear the costumes. Since I planned to take the photos myself, I needed two actors, and my budget didn’t allow me to actually pay anyone. So I recruited my wife and 12-year-old son, primarily because my 10-year-old was too short for the costume, and my 14-year-old adamantly refused to have anything to do with the endeavor.
We headed up to Times Square early on a Sunday morning, and at first it seemed like a fun family outing! Here are my wife and son suiting up in the plaza:
Then we started shooting, and the trouble started. It turns out that if you put on a costume in Times Square, tourists will assume you’re there to pose for photos with them. And when they don’t speak English, it’s VERY hard to explain that you’re not that kind of character. In the end, it was less of a hassle to just let them take the photos so they’d quit bugging us:
The second—and much more crippling—problem was the actors I’d chosen. It wasn’t just that they barely fit in the costumes. It was that my wife can’t throw a punch, and my 12-year-old’s attitude was terrible. He was convinced someone he knew was going to see him, despite our pointing out that A) he was unrecognizable as anything but a knockoff Cookie Monster, and B) nobody who actually lives in New York EVER goes to Times Square unless they absolutely have to, and certainly never on a Sunday morning. So my kid spent the entire shoot standing motionless like a statue, with muffled moans of “Can we stop now?” emanating from underneath his giant blue head as my wife poked him with the lamest fake punches I’ve ever seen:
So I had to reshoot. Fortunately, my friend Trevor is not only game for just about anything, but works near Times Square—and so does Trevor’s wife’s equally game cousin, Jesse, who agreed to take the photos while Trevor and I went at each other. We convened at 8:00am on a Thursday and got a bunch of great shots, including this one capturing the stunned reaction of some guy on his way to work:
Unfortunately, we had to wrap up early when a deranged loiterer chased us from the square while threatening us with ACTUAL violence, as opposed to the fake version we were staging. But that’s a story for another time…and probably a less kid-friendly web site, because the things he was yelling at us were pretty inappropriate.
Hope you like The Tapper Twins Tear Up New York! And if you visit Times Square, keep an eye out for deranged loiterers! It’s a lot safer than it used to be…but it’s still Times Square.
(Many thanks to the good people at Nerdy Book Club, where this post originally appeared.)