Spinning The Yarn

Untangling book publishing in a podcast

September 8, 2015

From left: Cartoonist Raina Telgemeier, Travis Jonker, and Colby Sharp discuss graphic novels on episode two of The Yarn.
From left: Cartoonist Raina Telgemeier, Travis Jonker, and Colby Sharp discuss graphic novels on episode two of The Yarn.

The process of turning a story idea turning into a freshly bound book can seem mysterious to many, but friends Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker have untangled the process with their new podcast The Yarn. In the podcast’s first season, which debuted in its entirety in mid-August 2015, grade school teacher Sharp and school librarian Jonker flew to New York from Michigan to talk to the people behind Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s recently released Scholastic graphic novel, Sunny Side Up.

American Libraries spoke with Sharp and Jonker to learn more about their creative process, the making of Sunny Side Up, and how educators and librarians can get involved with making podcasts.

American Libraries: What was the inspiration to start The Yarn?

Travis Jonker: Colby had the idea to try it. We kicked it around for a while and pulled from a couple different sources to arrive at a format we thought would work. The eight-episode season idea came from Netflix—we wanted it to all come out quickly so people could listen to the whole thing. The surprise element came from Beyoncé—she released her last album without any notice and we liked that idea.

Colby Sharp: I’ve always wanted to try my hand at an audio show, and I knew that if I was going to do one I wanted to do it with Travis. His style is so unique, and he’s always interesting. It took hundreds of messages between us to figure out what the show would look like. We didn’t want it to be an interview show, and we didn’t want the episodes to stand alone. We wanted the season to tell a bigger story.

Why did you specifically choose Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s Scholastic graphic novel Sunny Side Up to spotlight in the podcast?

Jonker: It was a fortuitous mix of relationships and timing. Colby had the idea to cover Sunny Side Up (are you sensing a trend here? Colby is an idea guy). It made sense because we knew Jennifer and Matt, and knew they would be wonderful to work with. Sunny Side Up was a bit of a departure from their Babymouse and Squish work, but the book contained elements of Jenni’s and Matt’s childhoods, which seemed like an interesting topic to explore. It also happened to be coming out in August. Colby and I both work for schools and the summer release date allowed us to dedicate time to the project.

Sharp: The evolution of graphic novels has been amazing. The way they are looked at is so different than 10, five, even two years ago. We wanted to celebrate that evolution. Jennifer is a friend. Her books are brilliant, and I knew that she would be okay with the ups and downs of two guys trying to figure out how to tell an audio story.

Sunny Side Up covers topics such as substance abuse and family issues in an accessible, compelling way. How can school and libraries also help students and patrons deal with difficult life challenges?

Jonker: Having books that don’t shy away from difficult subjects is the most important step.

Sharp: It’s one thing for a kid to listen to an adult talk to them about difficult issues, but when a kid can see themselves in the pages of a book, they can often relate a lot better to that.

How was the production process of creating the podcast (getting the equipment, figuring out how it works, contacting sources, navigating New York, etc.)?

Jonker: Looking back, it was a flurry of activity. Sound was a priority from the get-go, so we researched and bought equipment that we thought would help make things sound nice. We just sort of figured tech things out on the fly from there. Colby arranged the interviews in New York and booked everything. We had never interviewed anyone before, so I think we were both nervous about that. Once we had all the tape we start making the shows in late July and early August. This was by far the most time-consuming part, but time consuming in a good way. In an “I want to get this right” way, rather than a “When is this going to be over?” way.

Sharp: It was crazy! Sound is such a tricky thing. [Author] Kirby Larson’s son, Trevor, works for Major League Soccer, and he’s a bit of an expert when it comes to audio. He helped us figure out what equipment we needed to make things sound pretty good. We have a lot to learn when it comes to sound, but for a first try I think we did okay.

In the podcast, you speak with a variety of publishing industry people, such as editors, cover designers, illustrators, and publishers. What was the most surprising thing you learned? How can understanding the ins and outs of creating a book help librarians, teachers, and readers?

Jonker: For grown-ups, I think it gives an appreciation of the process, and all the work that goes into a book. For kids, I think it introduces them to parts of bookmaking they previously didn’t know existed.

Sharp: The most interesting thing I learned was how hard it was for Jenni to talk about these difficult family issues that happened 30 years ago. Seeing how hard it was for an adult to talk about something like this helped me realize how difficult it may be for a child in the middle of troubled times.

What did you take away from creating the first season of The Yarn?

Jonker: I have even more respect for good interviewers now (Terry Gross, you’re my hero). It’s a tricky thing to ask questions, listen intently, and try to guide the conversation in a natural way. I think we got better as we went.

Sharp: That, and each and every book in our homes, classrooms, and libraries has its own story that is much bigger than what you find in the pages within the book.

How can libraries and schools incorporate using podcasting and digital media in general (blogs, social media, etc.)?

Jonker: These things have opened up a lot of ways to connect with people. You don’t have to partake, but it can open up whole new worlds if you do.

Sharp: Kids need to be creating authentic work. Blogs, podcasts, and videos are the media they consume, so they should be the media they create.

What advice would you have for librarians wanting to start their own podcasts?

Jonker: Two things:

  1. Listen to other podcasts. Find out what you like and, just as important, what you don’t like. Colby and I had a bunch of “let’s make sure we don’t do this” conversations before we started.
  1. If you want to try it, put yourself in a situation where you have to go through with it. Schedule an interview; plan a trip; [do] something where you have to get started.

Sharp: Jump in! You’ll never be ready; you just have to get your hands dirty. You’ll fail a lot, and it can be pretty frustrating, but isn’t anything great that way?

What were the benefits of sharing a story and teaching with a podcast versus traditional methods such as using a book or lesson plan?

Jonker: Audio seemed the best way to tell about the people involved in the creation of one book. It could have worked as an oral history type of article perhaps, but the ability to hear the voices of the folks involved is more engaging.

Sharp: Almost everyone has a smartphone in their pocket. Our show allowed people to consume our content when it was convenient for them. They weren’t tied to a book or a computer. Audio is where it’s at.

Sunny Side Up is part of Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, and graphic novels are often some of the most banned and challenged books. Do you think it’s important to advocate for the reading of banned and challenged books?

Jonker: Absolutely. Since I started as a school librarian, the growing acceptance of graphic novels has been wonderful to see. The demand is there. The quality is there (see 2015 Newbery Award–honoree El Deafo by Cece Bell). They are turning kids into lifelong readers.

Sharp: Yes, because banning books is stupid, and we need to rid the world of stupid things.

What kind of feedback have you received? Has it been surprising?

Jonker: I can’t believe we tricked so many people into listening. We’ve both received a bunch of “way to go” messages and are thankful for all the kind words and support.

Sharp: People seem to like it! I’ve been surprised with the support our Season Two Kickstarter has had. People have been so generous.

What has surprised you most about this process?

Jonker: Learning Colby’s real name. But you’ll have to ask him what it is.

Sharp: How much I loved it. I can’t wait to get to work on season two.