When Dustin Hansen, a video game designer-turned-author, speaks to third graders — the target audience for most of his work — the question they always ask is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s happened so often that he’s turned it into a workshop when he visits a classroom.
“We take two random properties and see what it turns into,” Hansen said over the phone from his home in Ephraim. “So ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Care Bears’ — what’s that book look like? What would that story sound like?”
Once, he mashed together two random ideas — video games, and the old cliche of “the dog ate my homework” — for a classroom of third graders. “They just went nuts,” Hansen said. “I thought, ’These kids would eat this up and it’s something I would love to write.’”
Thus came the inspiration for Hansen’s first graphic novel, “My Video Game Ate My Homework,” a book for middle readers. Published by DC Comics, the title hits stores on Tuesday, April 28.
The story begins with Dewey Jenkins, a shy, dyslexic 13-year-old, and his protective twin sister, Beatrice (Bea for short), who live upstairs from their father’s diner — where they often hang out with their friends, the adventurous Katherine “Kat” Ortiz and the goofy Ronald “Ferg” Ferguson.
One Friday night, Ferg shows up with a busted game console, a prototype virtual-reality device that is first prize in their school’s science fair. Ferg begs Dewey to fix the console before the principal — who is also Ferg’s dad — notices it’s gone.
Dewey takes time away from his science fair project, an elaborate model volcano, to repair the game. When he does, the VR device switches on, sucks Dewey’s volcano into the virtual world, and beckons the four friends to enter the game’s mysterious realm.
The story is inspired, Hansen said, by his years working as an artist and writer for video games — including “The Sims” and “Madden Football," and a stint at The Void, a Utah-based company that creates site-specific VR game experiences.
Working on the room-sized VR adventures for The Void, Hansen said, made him explore “what’s beyond the TV, thinking how big games can get.”
At heart, the book employs the same storytelling techniques that good video games use, he said.
“What do you unveil at what point? What do you give a player as far as a skill set, or a new skill that they’ve learned or developed? And when do you give it to them so that they’re ready for the next challenge?” Hansen said. “That’s absolutely a huge part of my book.”
The heroes are 13 years old, Hansen said, because “I wanted the book to represent the readers that I knew would be getting their hands on it — your average everyday kids.”
Hansen started with the twins, Dewey and Bea, and then expanded the story to their friends, Kat and Ferg.
“I really loved that dynamic of having Dewey’s best friend and Bea’s best friend be along for the adventure. You talk differently to your friends than you do to your family,” Hansen said. “And I needed somebody who could be goofy enough to stick a glow stick up his nose. Dewey wasn’t that guy. But Ferg would.”
Hansen’s past books include the “Microsaurs” picture book series and “Game On!,” a history of video games. All his books have been aimed at grade school and middle school readers.
Creating books and games for young people has shown Hansen “how absolutely brilliant they are, and to never shortcut what they can do with their imagination.” Writing for that age group, he said, requires “that fine balance between not talking down to them and not reaching above them.”
An important aspect of “My Video Game Ate My Homework,” both in the story and the artwork, is taken from Hansen’s own life: Dewey, like Hansen, has dyslexia.
“It was never diagnosed when I was in elementary school,” said Hansen, who is 49. “I just was kind of the kid who was not good in school. I loved to build stuff, and I loved to create art, and I loved to tell stories. But reading was kind of my enemy.”
The heroes discover that “the game highlights all their strengths and weaknesses,” Hansen said — and, for Dewey, “he’s got to fight crazy things like gigantic flaming spiders and volcanoes that come to life, but he also has to deal with his dyslexia.”
Within the game, Hansen said, Dewey receives a “decoder lens” that helps him find a clue to overcome one of the game’s obstacles. The lens is a red filter, similar to the colored overlays some people with light sensitivity — including Hansen — use when reading. (DC Comics has made promotional bookmarks with red filters embedded in them, Hansen said, so dyslexic readers “can read the book even more clearly.”)
Hansen praised DC for being willing to experiment to improve the book’s readability. For example, speech bubbles are traditionally printed with black text on white space, a high contrast that’s difficult for dyslexic readers to handle. In this book, Hansen said, “none of bubbles are pure white. They’re off-white, and the text is brown. So is the line work. Just to lower the contrast in the book in general.” (Hansen’s 21-year-old son, Davis — who is also Hansen’s “hero and best friend,” according to the dedication — worked as a colorist on the book.)
“Comic books are, in general, fantastic for dyslexic readers,” Hansen said. “There are visual language clues that are in there. If you have a struggle reading, there’s a lot of context that can happen [with the images] on the page.” He added that dyslexic readers do well reading nonsense words — and the book uses “glurk” and “ka-sploosh,” among others.
Hansen and DC also experimented with typefaces, to find one that would work best for dyslexic readers. Typefaces with serifs, “the little tails and tags that stick out, tend to be pretty bad for dyslexic readers,” Hansen said. The book uses a font similar to Comic Sans — which is often maligned by designers for its cartoony, balloon-like appearance, but is also one of the easiest for dyslexic readers to handle.
Hansen’s relationship with DC will continue past “My Video Game Ate My Homework.” The author and publisher are announcing plans this week for a new young-adult graphic novel, “Sherwood,” to be released in fall 2021.
The title character of “Sherwood” is an 8-foot-tall dog, who might exist only in the imagination of Loyal Adams, a boy whose mother is dying. The dog appears not long after the mother of Loyal’s friends, Ravi and Mari, recounts a story from Hindu mythology about Shvan, a dog who carries the deity Bhairav to heaven.
“Sometimes in life, when reality becomes impossible, when everything around you is just too much — like now — sometimes the impossible becomes reality,” Hansen said, in explaining “Sherwood.” “You survive better by believing in something.”
And, depending on the response for “My Video Game Ate My Homework,” Hansen said he could envision further adventures of Dewey, Bea, Kat and Ferg.
“Once somebody starts playing with a property, it’s hard to let it go,” Hansen said.
‘My Video Game Ate My Homework”
Written and illustrated by Dustin Hansen; lettered by Corey Breen.
DC Graphic Novels for Kids; to be released April 28, 2020; trade paperback; $9.99.