Starting freshman year of high school can be a challenge for most kids, especially during a global pandemic. The transition is a bit smoother for 14-year-old Lucy Lareau, Moline, who is marking the imminent publication of her fourth graphic novel, written with her mother Liz.

Lucy is on a mission to inspire elementary-school girls to raise their voices and make a difference, through her two-year-old series, the Geeky F@b 5.  Her new book, “Food Fight for Fiona,” which addresses student hunger and food production, will be published Sept. 15 by New York City-based Papercutz.

The cover of “Food Fight for Fiona.”

“This book is so important, because in every single community, there’s a lot of hunger issues around, so we really wanted to get the message out so everybody can become more aware of this issue in America, and everywhere really,” Lucy said in a recent interview.

“I was completely clueless to this when we started this book. I learned a lot,” she said. “My school participates in a local student hunger drive, but I had no idea there was a food pantry in almost all of our grade schools. Our community foodbank hands out weekend backpacks every Friday to hundreds of students so they don’t go hungry over the weekend.”

September is Hunger Action Month and the USDA estimates there are 11 million U.S. children who live in food insecure homes, meaning they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.

Feeding America projects that up to 54 million people could face hunger this year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In our communities of eastern Iowa and western Illinois, that means almost 160,000 people — including 55,000 children, according to River Bend Foodbank (which supplies six food pantries in Moline alone).

“ ‘Food Fight for Fiona’ sounds like a fantastic way to educate kids about food insecurity in a fun, relatable way,” said Liz Dierolf, marketing and strategic communications manager for River Bend Foodbank. “It’s inspiring to see people in our community use creative ways to engage kids in helping hungry peers and advocating for support.”

Lucy Lareau of Moline and her Geeky F@b 5 characters.

Lucy and Liz (an award-winning public relations executive and former TV reporter) visited the foodbank in Davenport in summer 2019 to research the new book and volunteer for the backpack program. This year, that food is delivered to schools on Thursdays or Fridays (depending on what school district) and then the school decides how best to distribute to the students.

“The foodbank has this fantastic program, where scouting troops and community organizations, and just anyone can come and sign up for a weekend to fill these backpacks,” Liz said. “They do thousands a week. And you walk down a long line and pull everything, put it into a plastic bag and they have a certain number that go to every school.”

“We wanted to experience first-hand what was in the backpacks, and how that worked,” she said. “Just learn about student hunger in our community, and really showcase the Hunger Drive. It’s integrated into the plot.”

“It was like, time passes by when you’re doing that,” Lucy said of assembling food for backpacks. “We were there for like two hours, and it felt like 30 minutes. It felt really good to do.”

“Kids are helping and it’s this wonderful, easy way that kids of any age can help,” Liz said. “There’s something for everyone to feel they can help.”

“It’s just the coolest community project, a team effort to reach these kids,” she said. “We wanted to spotlight the Student Hunger Drive because our books are national. We have such a fabulous program, the only change we made in the book was, we made it a competition between the grade schools instead of the high schools.”

River Bend Foodbank is at 4010 Kimmel Drive, Davenport.

River Bend Foodbank’s Backpack Program provides 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners that a child can take home to have food to eat for the weekend. In some locations, the foodbank has a School Pantry right in the building so a student or their parent can take food home for the entire family.

“The burden of hunger falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable in society, which includes children, seniors, and minorities,” Mike Miller, River Bend president and CEO, said. “While 1 in 9 adults do not have enough food, it’s 1 in 6 children, and that was before Covid-19.

“Imagine being a child in school who does not know where dinner is coming from,” he said. “Those children have such a harder time being successful, not because they do not have the ability, but because they are hungry.

“With the Covid pandemic, not only is the situation worse by more than a third, but the largest hunger-relief program in the country is free and reduced lunch at schools,” Miller said. “With some schools closed, those children are even more at risk.”

Lucy, for example, said of the new year at Moline High: “It’s weird. I go into school two days a week, but only four hours, and the rest of the days are online.” She’s in band, math and honors English now.

“The irony is, we’ve got more people in need and not as much help or awareness,” Liz said of student hunger. “Covid is really challenging, especially for those who need resources the most.”

“Our characters struggle with, how can we be hungry when we’re surrounded by food?” she added.

Last year, 17 Q-C high schools raised enough food to supply 568,317 meals for the foodbank.

“With Covid, we are working with the schools to increase food distributions, including drive-thru, no contact, Mobile Food Pantries right in the school parking lots during this time of severely increased need,” Miller said. “And we are making extra efforts to reach disproportionately impacted populations, for whom the struggle is twice as hard.”

Through the Student Hunger Drive, students rally around a significant community need – hunger – as they plan and execute their own food drives over a six-week period. The emphasis is on nutritional food and the students set their goals and work hard to exceed them while enjoying friendly competition with other area high schools. Students also learn about volunteerism through this hands-on experience.

During the 2019 Student Hunger Drive, students from 17 area high schools provided 568,317 meals to help feed the hungry in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

Last fall, Pleasant Valley High School took home 1st place in Division A, Alleman High School in Division B, and Morning Star Academy in Division C.

Because of the pandemic, there is no Student Hunger Drive this year, which makes Lucy and Liz’s 54-page, colorful tome all the more timely and crucial. The next Hunger Drive is tentatively scheduled for early 2021, according to the foodbank.

Geeking out starting at 9

Lucy began working on her book odyssey at age 9, in the fourth grade. Her own experience and concern that girls in her class weren’t raising their hand during math, inspired the mother-daughter team to create the Geeky F@b Five graphic novel series.

Lucy debuted Volume 1, “It’s Not Rocket Science” in 2018. The books are illustrated by Ryan Jampole, targeted at kids ages 8 to 11, and typically take six months each to produce.

Lucy and her mom Liz pose in 2018.

The middle-grade series follows five diverse girls who learn, “When girls stick together, anything is possible!” Throughout their adventures, the Geeky F@b 5’s main characters discover their unique STEM talents to help solve social issues such as student hunger, endangered Monarchs and honeybees, shelter animals, and rebuilding a rickety school playground, among other adventures at their fictional school, Earhart Elementary.

The stories are based on Lucy’s experiences and celebrate a growing movement of young people enthusiastically raising their voices and dedicating their talents to solve social and community problems kids care about.

The mother-daughter duo hopes to inspire girls to achieve their dreams and find strength in friendship. Lucy sums up her characters’ enduring challenge of mustering courage:  “The girls have great ideas, but they learn that by discovering their talents and sticking together, they can persuade their school and community to take action!”

“Our books were written to be a small voice inside every girl’s head that whispers, ‘You’ve got this!’” Lucy said, noting while her mom writes the script drafts, she edits for voice and attitude. “I put it through a kid’s brain or they wouldn’t be funny!”

Papercutz co-founder and CEO, Terry Nantier, says the Geeky F@b 5 series “provides a platform to engage young readers — girls in particular — and empower them to ask questions and get involved in their world.”

“Graphic novels are a unique medium for girls and boys to engage and explore their identities as well as to consider alternate realities and life lessons through fiction, fantasy, humor, or in Lucy’s case, storylines from her own life experiences,” Nantier said.

The geeky quintet attacks hunger in their latest adventure.

The third book, “DOGgone CATastrophe,” encourages fostering of shelter pets and was released in October 2019. All stories explore the adventures of five girls and their pet cat, Hubble, at fictional Earhart Elementary located in the non-fictional central Illinois community of Normal, Ill.

Each book explores a different social issue the girls care passionately about and want to help solve. Lucy Monroe and her older sister, Marina, are the new kids in school. The series’ characters each bring a unique STEM talent to the group: Lucy, a 4th grader, is passionate about saving wildlife, even though she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.

Her 6th grade sister, Marina, is an athlete who dreams of becoming a Martian astronaut. Musically talented fourth-grader Zara “Zeke” Kumar sings in her portable microphone and is a math whiz. Sofia Martinez is an aspiring computer coder and artist who designs fashion apps, while the youngest character, A.J. Jones, loves to build and fix machines and dreams of becoming a robotics engineer.

The gang’s mascot is a snarky Himalayan kitty named, “Hubble,” who thinks he’s smarter than humans, based on the Lareaus’ real cat Hubble, who passed away a couple months ago at age 12.

Lucy volunteering at River Bend Foodbank last year.

In volume 1, on the first day of school, Lucy launches herself off the rusty monkey bars, which break, and she falls flat on her face. The principal closes the aging playground and the school bullies are mad. What’s a new girl to do?

The first book in the series was released July 31, 2018 (when Lucy was 12) and premiered at the American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute that June in New Orleans. And on that conference’s heels in the same city, the Lareaus served on a girl-power graphic-novel panel at the American Library Association’s annual conference and exhibition.

A fan of graphic novels by female authors such as Raina Telgemeier and CeCe Bell, Lucy first got the idea for her books when she was 8 years old and wanted to encourage other girls to pursue the STEM-related career fields (science, technology, engineering and math) she was into.

“I loved math,” she has said. “I wanted to do something about it. Like my brother — when I was really little, he made a ‘Lucy Be Quiet’ machine. It didn’t work. Hopefully, this works.”

Attacking an “invisible” problem

In the new book (available in paperback for $7.99), Lucy decided the GF5 girls would focus on helping their new friend, Fiona, at their own school. Like Fiona, kids usually don’t like talking about their hunger, so they created her little brother, Freddy, who loves food and can’t stop talking about it, Lucy wrote in a personal note at the end of the book.

“Fiona thinks he has a big mouth and is not ashamed at all. But what’s important is that the GF5 wanted to help their friends and all kids who depend on their school food pantry!” she wrote.

“I just want them to feel like they are being heard, without them saying anything,” Lucy said in the interview. “That they know we’re thinking of them and trying to help. I want them to respond, hopefully gratefully, but I just want them to feel understood.”

In the book, they felt the freedom to express thoughts kids may be thinking but not saying to other characters. The story highlights Fiona, living with her brother and father in a motel because he’s out of work.

Lucy is starting her freshman year at Moline High School.

“The fact she’s living in a motel is something she doesn’t want to talk about,” Liz said. “We had to navigate this issue in a very sensitive way, but also bring attention to it, that people could see just how average and normal these families are.”

“We wanted the girls to feel empowered to help her, without being patronizing,” she said. “Kids don’t talk about this. So do you help a girl who doesn’t want to talk about it, who’s embarrassed? We had to find techniques and ways of telling the story that shine a light on the issue, while respecting the dignity of everyone.”

“It’s probably the hardest story we’ll tell in the series,” Liz added.

“When you read this, you can tell a lot of thought and a lot of time went into this,” Lucy said, noting she usually writes a note at the end of each book.

“We encourage everyone to support their local food banks, because they’re bearing the brunt of that need,” Liz said. “Even in Moline, they are providing food from local farmers. The districts are really in tune to this. What was really shocking for Lucy and me was, to understand there are hungry students and families we walk by every day and we don’t even know just how prevalent this issue really is.”

“It’s food insecurity – meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is going to come from,” she said. “That’s a very stressful place for a young person to be, because it’s very hard to learn when your tummy is rumbling. The district, especially when we’re only meeting half-time, they’ve been very good about setting aside time for community families – not just students – to come and pick up milk and fresh food.”

Lucy and Liz in New York City in September 2018 for the Brooklyn Book Fair.

“It’s an invisible problem; it’s not something you see,” Liz said. “It affects just a great number of people, especially kids.”

The mom-daughter duo is just about done with Volume 5, based on a summer vacation they took this year.

“It’s gonna be awesome,” Lucy said of the next book, to be released next spring. The first four were based in her school and solving a problem they see.

Liz asked Lucy what to do next, and she wanted to do a road trip. They wrote to address climate change and the environment, and chose Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee). Book 5 is about the girls going on a camper to visit and learn the importance of protecting the environment.

When they visited the park this summer, they met the head of science and cultural resources, and she has a Ph.D in forestry, “and really inspired us with her love of science and all the amazing science that’s going on in the parks,” Liz said. “They’re really living labs; it’s not just, go on a hike and see if we see a bear.

“They’re studying everything from air pollution to insects and fire, and discovering new species,” she said. “There are over 100,000 species in that park, and it’s 800 square miles. It’s the most visited park in the United States, because of its location to the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. Within a day’s drive, 40 percent of the United States can get to that park.”

“Kids that age, that is that age of wonder; they want to see the mountains, the geysers,” Liz said. “We’re looking at national parks as a way of branching off a little bit for the girls, to learn about the different challenges that each of the parks represent.”

“We’ve probably got three books going on at once,” she said. The plan is to finish the series by the time Lucy graduates in 2024.

To learn more about the series, visit www.geekyfabfive.com.

Advertisement

Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.