Raina Telgemeier has established herself as one of the major cartoonists to emerge in the Twenty-First Century. In books like “Drama,” her adaptations of “The Baby-sitters Club,” and her acclaimed memoir “Smile,” she’s established a reputation as a masterful cartoonist who depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence with great depth and empathy.
Her new book, “Sisters,” is a companion volume to her earlier memoir, “Smile.” The book, out from Scholastic this month, looks at the relationship between Telgemeier and her younger sister, focusing on an eventful road trip the family took one summer. A powerful — and often hilarious — look at family life and the complicated relationships between siblings, “Sisters” is as expertly drawn as it is insightful.
CBR News: How did the book happen? Did you always intend to tell this story?
Raina Telgemeier: I never thought I would write a book that had anything to do with “Smile.” I thought “Smile” is my true story, and now I’ll write fiction. Maybe I’ll write something that’s auto-bio, but not something that ties in so directly with “Smile” and has a story for the same age range and with the same characters.
After “Smile” came out, people started asking me about a sequel. It gave me pause. [Laughs] I had to think about what other stories from my life would even be appropriate for a “sequel.” There’s a panel in “Smile” where you see my family taking a road trip one summer, and it says something like, I went with my siblings on a long road trip, and then the story goes on from there. That road trip was pretty eventful, and I started thinking about that and decided to use that trip as a framing device for exploring my relationship with my sister — who doesn’t appear very much in “Smile,” but she did get a reaction from people. People were very curious about her and wanted to know more about her character, so I decided to go there. [Laughs]
Did you let her know before you started, or ask her permission?
I brought it up maybe three years ago in conversation, and then I wrote the script — which for me means thumbnailing — and then I sent her a pdf of the thumbnails. I said, I need you to read this and I need you to sign off on this before I go any further. This is before I showed it to my editor. If my sister had said, I don’t like this and I don’t want this to exist, I would have put the kibosh on it right there and not published the story. Her response wasn’t so bad. She was surprised by some of it, but also remembered a lot of the anecdotes and even gave me some insight into some of the situations that are brought up in the book. The second draft reflected her point of view more than the first one did. She said she was cool with it. She lives across the country, so I don’t see her very often, but I got what I was hoping for which was her check mark, and then I moved on from there.
It’s from your point of view, but the book is very deeply sympathetic to her and unafraid to show you in a negative light.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] I think that’s important.
And when I say negative, I mean in the ways that all of us at fourteen could be seen as negative, from just about any perspective.
When you started working on the book, were you thinking about your relationship with your sister and the family dynamic that was part of that, or did your relationship with your sister become the main thread of the story as you wrote about your family life?
Just like I knew with “Smile” I knew I wanted to write about my teeth, I knew I wanted to write about my sister. I just started thinking back to funny anecdotes and things that we shared, and things that we didn’t share, all throughout our lives. It kept coming back to certain themes and the more I played with those themes, the more I realized it was more than just the two of us. Siblings are, more often than not, part of a family unit, and the family unit affected my relationship with her and our home situation and our parents’ situation. It’s impossible to separate those things from one relationship in a family. At least, it is for me. These elements just kept on presenting themselves in my mind.
Because I was using this framing story of a time in my life when a lot of things were changing, it seemed like it was important to include what was going on every day in my life at the time. A couple people have pointed out that there’s this problem presented towards the end of the story. That problem is that my parents’ marriage is starting to fall apart, and in the book, I don’t resolve that. That’s because the issue did not get resolved for several years. I didn’t want to jump ahead and have to put an epilogue in and say six years later, the way things shook out was this. They weren’t, to me anyway, part of the story that I was telling there in the moment. I tried to keep it from fourteen year old Raina’s point of view. That included confusion and fear and also some hope.
I obviously noticed that, but I never thought of it as problematic. It’s about you and sister and you two recognizing that you’re in this together.
I have to say, the early stories of your four- and five-year-old self wanting a sister are just hilarious and adorable.
[Laughs] Those memories are very strong. In fact, all of the memories in this book are some of my strongest memories from childhood.
That’s interesting, though I would imagine that some of these stories stood out because your parents would repeat them.
Yeah, family lore. I had a lot of family photographs to look at. I don’t want to say that I interviewed family members, but while I was working on the story, I definitely brought up in conversation, “Hey, what do you remember about the pet that we had when this thing happened?” Or, “What year did this thing happen?” I had my family available to me to help with some of the details.
When writing these autobiographical stories, are there scenes that you dread writing even though you know including them would make for a better story?
Always. When you write autobiography, there’s always going to be moments that make you cringe to remember. I think that my job in writing for young people,and writing about my own life, is to be honest. I want to include the things I’m not proud of. I want to include the memories that make the situation feel whole and rounded because nobody’s perfect. I think that trying to hide your bad memories doesn’t help you. I think it’s great to try to make sense of your past and the bad things that you did and try to make up for it. Not that I’m out to write only bad memories, but the good and the bad are interconnected. So yes, there are things I’m not proud of, but I’m also not interested in hiding those things.
You may not be proud of them, but you’re not ashamed.
No. But the thing is, I don’t know if the other people I’m writing about would agree. [Laughs] I made sure to show Amara the draft and ask, is this okay? Can I put this out there?
You didn’t ask your parents?
I did not. I didn’t show it to them until it was done. Their response was actually really positive. They both said, this is a good story and this made me laugh and I really enjoyed reading it. My mother was a little bit concerned that this was airing dirty laundry and it shows certain people in my family in a bad light, but thus far, the response has been universal understanding. People see themselves in the characters. People see themselves in both the good and the bad moments in the story. That’s another thing I’ve learned from “Smile,” that the more specific you get, sometimes the more universal the response.
Your sister has a good line in the book when she asks your mom why you and she have to get along, because she hates her siblings. I mean, we all get the speech from our parents when we don’t get along about how we only have each other and all that.
Blah blah blah. [Laughs]
What’s interesting about the work I’m doing right now is that now I’m closer to my parents’ age. I see all these stories about my childhood through their eyes as well as my own, and as a result, I think my parents end up being more involved as characters in the stories than they necessarily were in my life at the times I’m writing about. I also enjoy it. I like being able to relate more to my parents and see the things that I went through from a different point of view, but I try not to let that into the writing.
I try not to let that be a voice as the author telling the kids, this is what it was like, this is how it should be and this is what it’s going to be like for you. With “Sisters” in particular, I tried to keep narrative voice out of the story. I guess if I had left the narrative voice in, it might have made for a more satisfying conclusion? [Laughs] Things don’t always end the way you think they will. I tried deliberately to avoid it. I personally think I made the right decision, but I’m really interested to hear what kids are going to say.
Braden Lamb colored the book. Did you talk about a lot about details, how to set off the older scenes or other elements?
A lot of the art direction came from “Smile.” Stephanie Yue colored “Smile,” and she chose most of the palette for that book, but I was always there to say — because it’s my life we’re talking about — actually, this thing was this color. Raina would never wear that color shirt, the walls should be like this. The flashback sequences in “Smile” had a sepia tone, and I really liked the way that scene turned out, so that informed how we were going to do “Sisters.”
Braden was basically given a lot of reference from “Smile,” but then there’s a lot in “Sisters” that doesn’t appear in “Smile,” including a cousin’s house in Colorado and scenes where the car is in the desert and scenes where the car is in the mountains. I’d pull photo reference and say, I’d like this scene to feel hot and this scene to feel cool and this scene to feel foggy, and then Braden took charge and did a good job with it. I was really happy with the way the colors turned out.
Is it a very different process than something like “Drama?”
Yes and no. Working with different colorists yields different results. Everybody’s got their own sensibility. It’s hard to quantify.
How did you decide on the cover image?
We knew it would be something involving smily faces. It was going to be a companion to “Smile,” and it needed to reflect that very clearly in the imagery. A lot of ideas were thrown around. In the end, the designer I work with at Scholastic, Phil Falco, figured out that putting the headphones on one smily and having the other smily be angry was the way to go. I can’t take credit for it. As soon as we saw that, everybody agreed — that’s the one.
When it was announced that “Sisters” would get a big print run, did you have a response?
I have no control over that. That’s not my area of expertise. My agent told me and I said, cool.
After this many years working with Scholastic, you trust them.
They have all sorts of people who work for them and help them to figure out this stuff. I get to take advantage of it, obviously, but I don’t have to be involved in the planning, I don’t have to be involved in the marketing. They come to me for approval on visuals but they come up with all the stuff behind the scenes, which is wonderful.
Have you started to think about the next book?
I have, but it’s too early for me to talk about it. I’m working on another book for Scholastic. I have a two book contract. It was already negotiated by the time I started “Sisters.” I have turned in an outline, and now I’m working on the script.
Since for you a script is a thumbnail, is an outline just a lengthy, written description of the book?
Yeah, it’s, this is what’s going to happen in the book, these are the characters, this is the setting, this is what I’m going for. For me, that’s just an idea. It’s not a story until I start the thumbnails. I don’t know who the characters are, yet. I don’t know the things that they’ll say, the ways they’ll react. Not until the thumbnails start to come together do I start to learn.
Are there a lot of changes between the outline and the final draft?
Usually the most change happens at the thumbnail stage. I’ll do a draft that I feel good about and turn it into my editor, and then we’ll work through the story that way. That’s usually where the most changes happen. Sometimes I think a scene is working really well, or an arc is working really well, and editors will come in and say, actually, this should not be so prominent and we think you should consider taking out this character. [Laughs] That’s happened every time I’ve done a script with Scholastic.
But they also respect my decisions, and if I feel strongly about something that they don’t, I am welcome to argue my case. I’m always happy with the final results. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work. That’s part of why it takes two years for these books to come out. We do all that stuff, and then I have to draw the thing!
The book launch party for “Sisters” will be held September 7 at 4 PM at Book Court in Brooklyn. For more information about that and other “Sisters” events, go to goraina.com
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