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SDCC: Raina Telgemeier Brings a "Smile" to Fans' Faces

Although Raina Telgemeier is one of the best selling graphic novelists in North America right now, with four books on the New York Times graphic books best-seller list, she made sure her spotlight panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego was as accessible to newcomers as to longtime fans. And while she had won the Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist two days before, she stayed down to earth, talking about the nuts and bolts of making comics and encouraging the audience to make their own.

Telgemeier's panel, which was held on Sunday in one of the convention center's larger meeting rooms, was well attended, with many of the children in costume. The crowd applauded enthusiastically when Jennifer Holm, creator of the "Babymouse" graphic novels, introduced herself as the onstage interviewer -- clearly, there was a lot of overlap between their audiences.

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Holm introduced Telgemeier as "a creator who has owned the New York Times [graphic novel] best seller list for the past three years. She has four books on the list, and I'm going to go on the record and say she may possibly have five books on the list when the next 'Babysitters Club' book is released. Her work has fundamentally changed an industry. She is the Judy Blume of graphic novelists."

Telgemeier started the panel by recruiting two children from the audience to help her read a scene from "Sisters" as the panels flashed on the screen. ("Is either of you particularly good at screaming?" she asked, casting the appropriate child in the part of her sister Amara.) The pair enthusiastically acted out the bickering of the siblings, with Telgemeier playing her mother, her brother, and providing all the sound effects.

"This is for the parents in the audience, who are like, 'I don't know why my kid likes these books! I haven't read them," Telgemeier said at the end of the reading. "Now you have read a chapter of 'Sisters.' Now you know."

As a child, Telegmeier was a fan of the comic strips "For Better or For Worse" and "Calvin and Hobbes," drawing a daily journal comic from sixth grade through the end of college. She threw almost all of those comics away when she moved out of her mother's house, though. "They were my diary," she explained. "They were very embarrassing. I didn't want anyone to read about that time I talked to a cute boy between sixth and seventh periods."

Telgemeier attended the School for Visual Arts in New York City because they had a cartooning program. "I wrote all sorts of short stories about my life and collected them into something called minicomics, which just means a comic that you make yourself, by hand," she said, pointing out that there were many creators selling minicomics at this very show. She sold hers at comic book stores, online and at conventions, and that's how she got her big break: In 2004 she sold a minicomic to David Saylor, the editorial director of Scholastic's graphic novel line, Graphix, which is now her publisher.

Her first graphic novels were adaptations of the Babysitters Club books, done in black and white; there were four volumes altogether, and Scholastic is now re-publishing them in color.

And then came her big hit: "Smile."

"Smile is a true story of my orthodontic misadventures in middle school," she said. "I had a terrible dental accident, which left me scarred and disfigured and missing my two front permanent teeth! And that affected my social life, as you can imagine. So 'Smile' was about the journey from not having any two front teeth to having front teeth again and learning to smile again as a person."

She followed that up with "Drama," a fictional story that remained rooted in her own life and experiences. "This story is about kids on the stage crew, kids who like to be part of theater productions but not necessarily the stars of the show," she said. "There's a lot of people who go into making shows happen." In fact, she asked for a round of applause for the technician in the panel room. "Without him, my microphone wouldn't work, and you wouldn't see my image on the screen," she said, as the crowd clapped and whooped. "Those are the people I wanted to honor in 'Drama,' because they make a lot of stuff happen." The lead character in "Drama," Callie, is in seventh grade. Telgemeier said she was also a theater kid in middle school, often playing bit parts in the school productions. "I never tried out for the lead role," she said. "I always wanted to be in the background

Her fans wanting more memoirs, "Sisters," her third book, is another family story that jumps off from a single panel in "Smile" that shows her family going on a road trip. "I realized that was a pretty eventful road trip, and I could probably write an entire book about it," she said. "So that is 'Sisters.' It's about road trips with your family, it's about annoying siblings who sometimes realize that they have more in common than they think they do and have to learn to be friends."

Telgemeier then did a little show-and-tell of her work process: Her first draft is done as thumbnails, rough sketches with the dialogue in word balloons. "It has pictures, it has panels, it has word balloons, it has sound effects," she said. "It has all the components of the comic, I'm just not spending too much time here." Once the book is finalized, she does a tighter version in pencils (No. 2 pencils, in fact) and then inks it. The inks are scanned into the computer, and the lettering and coloring are done digitally.

One thing that has changed since the first book, Telgemeier said, is that she now does each step all at once. "With 'Smile,' I actually sat down every week and drew one page," she said. "I had an idea of where the story was going, and the major plot points that I had to hit along the way, but I produced art on a weekly basis. As a result, because that book took me five years to create, you can actually see my style change a great deal from the beginning of 'Smile' until the end."

Holm picked up on some of the period details of "Smile" and "Sisters," such as scrunchies and stone-washed jeans. "I am really fond of writing books about my own childhood," Telgemeier said. "The books take place from roughly 1988 to 1993, which was the best time for acid wash and Dayglo, and we had these shirts called Hypercolor, where you could put your hand on the shirt and it would change colors. But I was in middle school, so we were all weird, sweaty adolescents, so there were a lot of Dayglo armpits happening. I love being able to go back in time and depict the weirdness of the '90s.

"I have this great playlist from 1991," she added. "It is bad, bad songs, but they are just like, 'Yeah, I remember that time I was walking down the hallway!' Music really triggers memories for me."

Later, she explained why she liked writing books about tweens. "I think I'm mentally stuck being 10. When I turned 11, I was really mad. I was like, 'No, I don't want to grow up! This is great!' Everything was really cool when I was a kid. The world felt safe, and the world felt secure, but then when you enter middle school and you enter your teen years you start to realize that that's not true, and that things are hard, and that friendships that you took for granted for so long maybe aren't what you thought they were, and all the alliances start to shift... Because I have a little bit of perspective now, I can maybe subtly reassure my reader that it's going to get better."

When Holm asked if anyone in the audience wanted to be a comics creator, hands shot up all over the room. Telgemeier had some advice for them: Start small, as she did with her minicomics. "At the beginning of my career with Scholastic, the longest story that I had ever written was eight-pages long," she said. "But it's great practice to make short stories. If you can make a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, in as few as two or three pages, then you are getting your chops as a cartoonist together. It's also really great to say that you finished something, even if it's only three pages long... Try writing a moment in time with your characters, try writing the interactions between those characters, because that is where the best stuff comes from.

"Show your work to people," she added. "For so long, I didn't show anyone my comics and then I threw them away. I wish I hadn't."

Then, it was time to draw. Telegmeier stepped up to a drawing pad and invited the audience to suggest a setting and an object that don't normally go together. Chatting all the while, she quickly drew a cartoon of herself taking a selfie in Jurassic Park with an iPhone ("I'm now a character, an artist, and a real person who stands before you today," she noted).

Juxtaposing two objects is a great way to jump-start creativity, she explained. "If you ever get stuck, and you don't know what to write, you don't know what to draw, you don't know what the story could possibly be, take two objects and think of what might happen if you put those two things together

Telgemeier wound up the panel with a Q&A session, during which she revealed the title of her next graphic novel: "Ghosts." To squeals and applause from the audience, she showed an image of the book's main character, Catrina, and read an excerpt from the description:

"Eleven-year-old Catrina and her family are moving to the small coastal town of Bahía de la Luna because her younger sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn't happy about leaving her friends, but she tries not to complain because she knows Maya will benefit from the clean, cool air that blows in from the sea. As the girls settle in, they learn there's something a little spooky about their new town..."

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