Raina Telgemeier’s YA graphic memoirs—Smile, Sisters, and her latest, Guts (Scholastic, September)—are so relatable, hilarious, and comforting that you may want to cancel your plans for the day and read them in one sitting. Through expressive illustrations and funny, honest dialogue and narration, she captures how it feels to be a preteen or teen.
Telgemeier has also written two fictional graphic novels (Drama and Ghosts), four illustrated adaptions of The Baby-Sitters Club series, and the new interactive journal Share Your Smile. American Libraries spoke with Telgemeier about her creative process, how graphic novelists became champions for unrepresented voices in publishing, and her advice for aspiring artists.
You wrote two books in 2019: Guts, a memoir set in 4th and 5th grade that’s a prequel to Smile, and Share Your Smile, a how-to guide and journal that helps readers develop and share their own stories. What was your process for creating two different kinds of books in the same year?
Two 2019 releases wasn’t necessarily the plan—that’s just the way it worked out. Guts was in development for about two years, while Share Your Smile was a culmination of the work I’ve been doing over the past decade. My readers ask for advice and guidance about making comics all the time, and it was nice to be able to design a manual just for them.
Many readers will identify with and appreciate Guts for its gentle and accurate portrayal of living with anxiety and panic attacks. Anxiety disorders affect 25% of youth 13–18 years old, and many often suffer alone. What was your biggest hope in creating Guts?
Thank you! Being a kid swallowed by fear and anxiety felt so isolating. If I had had a book like this, it would have helped me enormously. I make books for the kid I was, knowing there are other kids (and grown-ups) out there who will see themselves in my stories. The more of yourself you share with others, the better.
Share Your Smile gives aspiring writers and artists tips and prompts on how to tell their own stories. What tools or resources helped you tell your story when you were younger?
I was lucky to have teachers (and parents) who valued writing, art, poetry, and music. Time to create was a huge gift, and it’s the thing I wish I had had more of. I’d encourage aspiring writers and artists to try different tools, formats, and confines. Write a complete comic in a single page, try using ink without penciling first, use a new size or shape or texture of paper. Tell a wordless story. Create a comic with just words, no pictures! Time to play and experiment can lead to interesting results.
What role have libraries played in your life?
My family went to a couple of local branches in San Francisco regularly, to do book report research and track down volumes of series we wanted to read. My parents are both book people, and we owned a lot of books, but we also lived in a small apartment and didn’t have infinite space.
Who were your favorite authors growing up? What are you reading or watching currently?
My big three growing up were Beverly Cleary, Ann M. Martin, and Judy Blume. I still love middle-grade books—Jason Reynolds, Celia C. Pérez, Mike Jung; we are living in a golden age! I also love nonfiction and psychology. I just read Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and loved every minute of it. TV-wise, I’m finally catching up with this decade and watching The Good Place.
According to the American Book Association, visual storytelling is booming. US print sales of comics and graphic novels increased 12% from 2006 to 2018. Why do you think graphic novels are so popular? What changes have you noticed in the industry over the years?
The graphic novel industry didn’t even exist when I was younger, and I had no idea whether there was an audience or a market for my work. All I know is that comics were the perfect combination of words and pictures, the exact right vehicle for expressing the stories in my head. They work well for so many different kinds of learners, and it’s endlessly gratifying to hear from kids who say, “I don’t like reading, but I love graphic novels!” Whatever that magic element is, comics and graphic novels have it.
Why do you think graphic novels have been so successful in highlighting more progressive and diverse voices in children’s publishing?
Graphic novels and comics were on the sidelines for a long time, which meant they attracted voices outside of the mainstream. So many cartoonists hone their craft and build their audiences online, where anyone can tell any kind of story, without concern for whether it’s marketable. DIY cartoonists were able to gain large and authentic readerships all on their own—it was only a matter of time before the publishing industry took notice.
Drama, which includes LGBTQIA+ characters and themes, has been on the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom’s annual list of the most frequently challenged books for three consecutive years. What was it like to be on the list again?
Every time I’m on the list, I get quietly angry. There’s nothing steamy about Drama—there is one kiss between two boys and a lot of blushing. The boys are in 8th grade, and most 8th-graders I know are loaded up with hormones and anxiety and dreams. Acting as though queer kids don’t exist erases their humanity, when they should feel seen, understood, and empowered. The upshot of the list is that people who maybe weren’t paying attention to my work before, suddenly do—so my sales numbers always go up! I just hope that boost in sales translates to the book landing in more kids’ hands.