by Sarah Diamond
Raina Telgemeier is an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist whose graphic novels for young readers have helped change the face of the publishing industry. Her works, which are published by the Graphix imprint of Scholastic Press, include Smile (2010), Drama (2012), Sisters (2014), and Ghosts (2016).
You were with Scholastic’s Graphix imprint right from the beginning. How has the industry changed since the publication of Smile?
I know, it’s incredible! But here I’ll point out that my first Baby-sitters Club adaptation was published in 2006, and Smile was published in 2010. So much happened in that four-year period. I was lucky to have a little crew of cartoonist friends from the beginning—we all tabled at conventions, worked day jobs, chatted on LiveJournal, and scraped by financially. We watched American Born Chinese become a National Book Award finalist and a Printz winner. The New York Times debuted the Graphic Book and Manga bestseller lists in 2009, which unfortunately no longer exists. Imprints were born; some stayed and some didn’t. We all hoped for the best.
By the time Smile hit the scene, it was…actually, it was still really quiet. The book debuted to little fanfare. It did well via Scholastic Book Fairs and word of mouth, but wasn’t easy to find in stores. It didn’t land on the Bestseller list for a year and a half. A lot of folks still pushed back against the idea of a graphic novel as a “real” book. Young readers definitely lead the curve in changing minds, and thereby changing the industry.
Now, graphic novelists receive Newbery and Caldecott medals, they are National Ambassadors for Children’s Literature, they headline conferences around the world and their first print runs are in the multiple millions. We are more likely to be recognized as “real” authors, and we constantly hear from kids who aspire to graphic novelist as a career. It’s awesome!
How long does a graphic novel project typically take to complete, from the first script to actual publication date?
It takes me an average of two and a half years. The x-factor is how much time I spend staring into space waiting for a story to click (while also scribbling notes and sketching characters or environments). Sometimes it takes a month, sometimes it takes a year. Once I know where I’m headed, I start thumbnailing, and that’s the first thing I really feel comfortable referring to as a “script”—comics are such a visual medium; I can’t tell a story without art and vice versa. My editor reads my thumbnails, sends me notes, and two or three drafts later (yes, that means lots of re-drawing!), I have a blueprint for the finished book. Creating the final art for a 200-page book takes me about ten months. I’m very methodical when it comes to producing the finished artwork! Scholastic has about a nine-month lead time between final deadline and publication, and in that time I scramble around doing promo stuff, catching up on life, and staring into space some more for my next project.
In terms of medium, what’s the difference between ’graphic novels’ and ‘comics’?
I’ve heard it explained like this: all graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels. “Comics” is what we call the storytelling medium. Words and pictures in sequence. A graphic novel is a long-form comic, published as a book, with a spine.
“Graphic novel” isn’t a perfect term, because they’re not all novels and they’re certainly not all quote-unquote graphic, in the traditional sense of the word (I think that term tends to scare some adults away from handing them to kids!). But our language is fluid, and we are starting to further break these books down into categories like graphic nonfiction and graphic memoir and kids’ comics. It’s all comics to me, but I’m cool with whatever gets the right book into the right reader’s hands.
Graphic novels seem to be leading the children’s book industry in terms of diversity (especially with POC, LGBTQ+, and disabled characters). Why might graphic novels be so successful in this area? Do you believe there are areas where the industry in general needs to improve?
Graphic novels can show without telling, so you can say a lot without being didactic. The medium is also perfectly suited to humor, which is one of the best ways to break down barriers and get kids reading. And empathy! Because we can see and feel what a character is thinking. The flip side is that it’s easy to open a book to page 73, see an image out of context, and make a snap judgment about the book. I think this is why graphic novels end up on the Banned Books list so often. They’re easy to read, which also makes them easy to judge.
I do think that most of the publishers producing comics are on the more progressive side of the industry. Comics get pushback so often from parents and educators who don’t think they’re real books, and the people who publish them are already familiar with the challenge of defending the craft.
There is always room for growth. We need more voices, and more megaphones for those voices. We need to break down stereotypes, value authenticity, welcome a variety of styles and subject matter, and continue to pass the mic. Until every reader can see themselves in a story, our work is not done.
Did you read comics or graphic novels when you were a kid? If so, were there any special titles which influenced your work?
I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much at the time (mid-80s to mid-90s). I devoured Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or For Worse, FoxTrot, Luann, and The Far Side in the newspaper. I read the trade collections to shreds. I discovered Lynda Barry’s work when I was in middle school. My dad gave me a copy of Barefoot Gen [the Japanese manga series by Keiji Nakazawa] that he ordered from Whole Earth Catalog. I read Maus [by Art Spiegelman] when I was 15 and Understanding Comics [by Scott McCloud] when I was 16. I became obsessed with Nancy in my early college years. I didn’t read a superhero comic until I was in my 20s. I didn’t know graphic novelist was a career path, because when I was growing up there was no such thing. BONE [by Jeff Smith] was the first long-form comic I read that made me go, “Oh, THIS is what I want to do!”
Do you have any advice for aspiring graphic novelists? How can an artist get their work noticed by publishers?
I’ve been drawing comics since I was about ten years old. As a young adult I made short story comics, publishing mini-comics, and eventually started putting Smile up on the web—one page per week. I drew comics for anthologies and nonprofit organizations. I apprenticed with Jason Little while he was working on his first graphic novel. I just put myself out there, and dedicated most of my free time to making comics and surrounded myself with like-minded folks. Nowadays, creators have access to social media and digital platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter that didn’t exist when I was getting started. There are dozens of publishers (and literally, millions of readers) hungry for content. So there’s no reason not to dive into that passion project right away. Make good stuff and people will find it.