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Webbed feet, bills and boomerangs Jarrett Krosoczka unveils his newest “Platypus Police Squad” book



Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Buddy cops.

It’s a popular theme for movies — the mismatched partners who come from different backgrounds and generations and are temperamentally at odds, as well. One might be a young guy or loner who consistently takes things to the edge, the other a veteran and family man who’s learned to pace himself; think Mel Gibson and Danny Glover from the “Lethal Weapon” series.

Couple that idea with the imagination and artistic talents of Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and what do you get? A pair of duck-billed platypus detectives who get on each other’s nerves as they fight crime in fictional Kalamazoo City, where the bad guys (and gals) make up a veritable Noah’s Ark.

Krosoczka, an acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator from Northampton, made his name with picture books like “Punk Farm” and the “Lunch Lady” comic graphic novel series, about a school cafeteria worker who’s also a secret crime fighter. In his more recent “Platypus Police Squad” series, though, he’s delivered stories that focus on his writing rather than his artwork — but in which his irreverent, affable wit is still in top form.

On Friday at 6 p.m., Krosoczka will visit the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley to debut his third book in the series, “Platypus Police Squad: Last Panda Standing.” He’s expected to be joined by South Hadley Police Chief David J. LaBrie, who will read from the new book. A pizza party is also on the agenda for attendees.

In a recent interview at his home, Krosoczka, 37, said the origin of the “Platypus” series, his first chapter books, goes back to 2004, when he talked to schoolchildren in Houston, Texas. It was about a year before publication of “Punk Farm” — that story is about barnyard animals who play in a rock band after Farmer Joe has gone to bed — and he drew a picture of the guitarist from the upcoming book, then asked the students what they thought the tale might be about.

“One student thought it was about farm animals who were cops,” Krosoczka said. “And I said, ‘No, it isn’t,’ but that idea — animals as police — stuck in my head.” When he got home (he lived in Boston at the time), he started making sketches of a few animals as police officers, settling on penguins in the end.

“They’re really fun to draw, and I liked the alliteration of ‘Penguin Police Squad,’” he said. In his original story concept, he had a whole city’s worth of penguins, including police, local government figures, residents and bad guys. But it took him some time to develop the idea in full.

“My books all begin in my sketchbooks,” Krosoczka noted. “I’ll typically be sketching things for years and thinking of story ideas before I show any of it to a publisher.”

In this case, Krosoczka, who grew up in Worcester, was thinking about writing something aimed at older readers. He wanted to center the narrative around two seemingly mismatched cops, partners of different ages and backgrounds, and he was inspired in large part by the buddy-cop movies he watched growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s. He wanted to create something along the lines of “Frog and Toad” meets “Lethal Weapon,” with age-appropriate material for young readers.

Out with the penguins

When Krosoczka showed his sketches in 2010 to his publisher, Walden Pond Press, he was told they loved the concept — but that the penguins would have to go. The waddling, flightless birds had been all over the media in recent years, from the documentary “March of the Penguins” to the animated film “Happy Feet.” Krosoczka would have to find another animal to fill the ranks of his police squad.

“I basically went through the alphabet to find another animal that started with ‘P,’ ” he said. “And since platypuses are such strange animals, I thought kids would really like it, plus they’d also be fun to draw.”

To get more ideas about how police work, Krosoczka drove around one night with a Northampton police detective; he also regularly picked the brains of two longtime friends and veteran officers, Corey McGrath and Chris Zengo, who serve with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology police and state police, respectively. And, he said, “I did a lot of reading about platypuses.”

Telling a story carried more by words than pictures proved challenging at first, Krosoczka says, but with help from his editor, he eventually found the narrative arc he was looking for and figured out how to flesh out his characters. “I had to learn how to get inside their heads.”

Cast of characters

The main characters in the “Platypus” series are detectives Rick Zengo and Corey O’Malley (Krosoczka’s nod to his friends). Rick is a young, fit platypus who, in the series’ first book, 2013’s “The Frog Who Croaked,” is fresh out of the Police Academy, about to start his first day on the job. Zengo’s a sharp dresser and seems pretty self-confident, but he also wonders if he can measure up to his grandfather, Lt. Dailey, a hero on the Kalamazoo City force in his day who was killed in the line of duty.

Zengo discovers he’s been paired with Detective O’Malley, seemingly his polar opposite — a pudgy, balding, middle-aged platypus who at first glance doesn’t appear too energetic, at least to Zengo. They don’t get off to a great start: Zengo spills his mug of hot chocolate all over his new partner’s shirt, then annoys O’Malley by grabbing the radio speaker in their squad car.

“Rule number one, rookie,” O’Malley says to Zengo. “No one touches that radio but me, got it?”

“I wanted to tell the story primarily from (Zengo’s) perspective, the idea of this clash of generations,” Krosoczka said. “That’s something kids can relate to. But along the way, they also learn how the other guy thinks and how different people get along.”

Indeed, the partners eventually come to respect each other as they make their way through a city teeming with anthropomorphic fauna, which allows Krosoczka to have some fun with stereotypes. The mayor is a shifty-eyed ostrich (a politician burying his head in the sand, anyone?). Hippos are bouncers and bodyguards. Derek Doherty, a pesky reporter who always seems to sniff out a story, is a chameleon, one barely big enough to carry the camera he sticks in people’s noses.

The illustrations enhance rather than drive the stories: a walrus construction titan in a hard hat, grim-faced platypus detectives clutching coffee mugs at the station, a surly kangaroo who’s trafficking in illegal, synthetic fish. There’s also a creature who’s heard rather than seen — a radio host and deejay named Monte Belmonte.

The author likes to spoof the hard-boiled dialogue and images of crime novels as well. The duck-billed detectives take down the low-lifes with boomerangs, not guns, and when they belly up to a bar, they quaff root-beer floats, not beer. But that doesn’t make them patsies. As Zengo says to one would-be thug, “You’ve got a problem, punk. If you want Pandini, you’ll have to go through me.”

Frank Pandini, Jr., is at the center of Krosoczka’s newest book in the series. He’s the richest critter in Kalamazoo, a panda bear/business owner who tries to atone for his father’s criminal past by funding city projects. But is junior really who he says he is? Now he’s running for mayor, and Zengo is assigned to help his security team — a dangerous job, it turns out, as someone is intent on stopping the big panda’s campaign by any means necessary.

Community-building

Krosoczka’s been drawing and writing stories since he was a boy himself, so it’s not surprising he has a real affinity for kids. He and his wife, Gina, have two of their own — daughters Zoe, 6, and Lucy, 3 — and for years he’s visited classrooms, in person and via video hookups, to talk about drawing and writing.

For the “Platypus Police Squad” series, he’s also teamed up with police departments for several appearances, inviting officers to read to children from the books, as in the event Friday at the Odyssey Bookshop. His website (www.studiojjk.com) also offers guidelines on how libraries can work with local police to host reading events.

“It’s a way of building community through books,” he said. “How often do cops get to interact with kids in this way? And how often do kids get to see cops in this kind of setting?”

He’ll publish his 30th book this fall — a picture book, “It’s Tough to Lose Your Balloon” — and he’s got other things on tap, like a fourth book in the “Platypus” series and a graphic-style memoir. He’s also planning film projects based on three of his books and series — “Punk Farm,” “Lunch Lady,” and now “Platypus Police Squad” — are in various stages of production in Hollywood.

The Hollywood projects all move in unpredictable ways, Krosoczka says, but “with three of them in the works, it’s nice to think the odds are better that something will make it through.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.



Jarrett S. Krosoczka will debut “Platypus Police Squad: Last Panda Standing” at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley at 6 p.m. on Friday. Pizza and kid-friendly activities are also on tap. Attendance is free, but the bookstore requests you RSVP by emailing RSVP@odysseybks.com or calling the store at 534-7307.