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World Palindrome Championship medalist releases graphic novel 'Otto: A Palindrama'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

No panic - I nap on. Go hang a salami - I'm a lasagna hog. And finally, do geese see God? Don't worry, I have not lost my mind. I'm just rattling off some palindromes, words or sentences that read the same forward and backward. They all came from a new graphic novel called "Otto." It's by Jon Agee, who, in addition to being an author and illustrator, is a World Palindrome Championship medalist. Jon Agee joins us now. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

JON AGEE: Hi there, Scott.

DETROW: So before we get into anything else, what do you need to do to win a World Palindrome medal?

AGEE: (Laughter) Well, apparently, I didn't do enough because I came in second. But we had certain constraints. One of the constraints was to make a palindrome which used the letter Q.

DETROW: Oh, which feels like a harder one.

AGEE: I know. I came up with a pretty good one. It was using, you know, the fellow in "James Bond" films Q. So - and it also uses James Bond's other name, 007. So the first part of the palindrome was 007 saw Q's DNA. Lands. Q was 700.

DETROW: (Laughter) So whether you're in a competitive championship or not, what is your general approach to writing? Like, do you start with one word and build out? Do you start with an idea? Like, I can't even imagine how to begin thinking of something beyond, like, the title of the book, "Otto," like, a basic one like that. Like, I don't even know how I would begin. What's your process?

AGEE: Well, for me, it's always been just looking at street signs, store signs. You know, I could be stuck in traffic behind a Subaru, you know, and I turn that word Subaru backwards, and it spells urabus, but I suddenly realized, oh, if I put a D between Subaru and urabus, I get Subaru Durabus.

DETROW: (Laughter) I noticed that sign in the book.

AGEE: Yeah, I had to use that. Yeah. It's not just about the palindromes. It's so much about pictures they conjure up in my mind, you know.

DETROW: Do you remember what that first appeal of palindromes was for you? Was it the puzzle, the solving process, just the sound of saying them out loud? What was that first draw?

AGEE: (Laughter) It was part of the sound because they - often, they do sound kind of interesting and odd. One of the early ones I wrote was Mr. Owl ate my metal worm. I love the sound of it and the look of it. But then, you know, what did it mean? So I drew a picture of a metal bird explaining to a doctor that this poor owl lying in bed had eaten its metal worms. So it all made sense.

DETROW: What are some of your favorite palindromes from either this book or from your period of time collecting and writing them?

AGEE: Well, early on when I was just, you know, a young palindromest, an ingenue, I took the word salami - I can't remember if it was salami or lasagna, and I turned it backwards and I tried to turn it into a phrase, and I came up with the phrase, go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog, which forwards and backwards, I couldn't believe it, said the same thing. In this latest book, there was one that I did, which I really like, a newish one, where the boy Otto is in a cemetery and he is looking at the tomb of an elderly woman. Her last name is Noone. You can tell from the design on the tomb that she's designed lots of clothes. And this woman's standing next to just a big gravesite.

DETROW: Yeah.

AGEE: And she says to the kid, she says, no one made killer apparel like Dame Noone. And I thought that was a good one. Yeah.

DETROW: And I like on that page that that's the center panel, and the rest is this kind of zooming in and out of them just standing there and walking away. It's just kind of a scene with one palindrome in the middle. I liked that page.

AGEE: True (laughter). Well, the book was obviously not just palindromes, but so much of it was designing how the pages would look, how the - how this story would unfold.

DETROW: So I feel like we have to end this conversation by noting that December 2021 is a month with a lot of palindromic dates - next Wednesday, 12-22-21. How are you going to celebrate?

AGEE: Well, I know. It's like - I'll be with my dad in Brooklyn. I'm going to visit him. Maybe we'll have a lasagna. That's what we'll have to have on the 22. Yeah.

DETROW: That's Jon Agee. His new graphic novel is "Otto: A Palindrama." Thank you so much for joining us.

AGEE: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.