Liz Montague's magical book series draws inspiration from Richmond

July 26, 2021

Arts

Liz Montague is known for her pioneering cartoons in the New Yorker, and the 2018 Richmond grad recently landed an exclusive three-book deal in April with Scholastic for an illustrated series about the Brooklyn School of Magic — an idea she’s had since her sophomore year.   

“What if we reimagined a Harry Potter-esque series, but set it in America, in the city, and there are actually Black people in it?” she wondered. So Montague created a drawing of a winged Black girl holding a wand while riding the Brooklyn School of Magical Transit that resembles a subway train. She chose Brooklyn mainly because her father grew up there. But the borough is also where her parents first met in school, and it’s still home to many family members. 

The Scholastic books will follow 10-year-old Rose Vera’s adventures as she learns about her community and tries to overcome anxieties about not feeling like she’s good enough, Montague explained. It’s a familiar struggle. 

“I’m dyslexic and reading was just kind of hard for me,” she said. That began to shift when she discovered books with little illustrations and larger fonts. She gravitated toward the Junie B. Jones series, the Ramona series, the Baby-Sitters Club, and children’s novels by Sharon Creech. She appreciated their female leads but found that the characters were overwhelmingly white and suburban. “I really wanted to create books for that age group that were actually diverse.” 

Montague drew inspiration from the University of Richmond’s Gothic-style buildings and from her professors, especially Jeremy Drummond and Tanja Softic in the department of art and art history. A microfiction creative writing class her junior year with English professor David Stevens opened up new possibilities as well. 

“I never thought of myself as any type of writer, whatsoever, and the freedom of the class helped me embrace it,” she recalled.  

Besides the Scholastic series, Montague’s book deals now include a graphic novel for Random House and a picture book about the cartoonist and activist Jackie Ormes. In September 2020, Google featured her slideshow Doodle celebrating Ormes “from her beginnings as a self-taught artist to a powerhouse cartoonist and humorist whose work continues to inspire.” 

Publication of the first Brooklyn School of Magic book is set for fall 2023. For the series, Montague said that much of the magic is based on nature and the environment, but with some “extra zest.”

“Accessible agriculture is my jam because it’s like printing your own money, being able to grow your own food,” she said. Farmers market season recently started up again in Philadelphia so she’d stocked her office mini fridge — the same one she had at Richmond — with a fresh kale salad and strawberries. That produce fuels her work bringing the cast of characters and their magical world to life. 

When she considers who will read about Rose when the books come out, Montague pictures kids and adults — anybody, really, who needs to get away from it all and spend time in a gentle space. “I hope they feel like the sun is shining a little brighter the next day,” she said.