Terri Libenson is the creator of The Pajama Diaries, a slice-of-life comic strip about a family with two teenage daughters. She shifted gears with Invisible Emmie, a middle-school graphic novel told as a mix of an illustrated diary format and comics, recounting the story from two points of view. Since then, she has written and drawn five more books, including Remarkably Ruby, which Balzer + Bray released this week. Ruby appears in Libenson’s earlier books as a nameless girl who is always rushing to the bathroom (the other characters call her “Baked Bean Girl”), but in Remarkably Ruby, Libenson gives her a name, a personality, and a story all her own. PW spoke with Libenson about the evolution of her bestselling series and what makes Ruby a special character.
How did you make the shift from the parental point of view, in The Pajama Diaries, to the child’s, in Invisible Emmie?
I approach the kids’ books similarly to the comic strip—that is, autobiographically. But instead of writing from my adult viewpoint like I did with the strip, I write from the viewpoint of my inner 12-year-old. I don’t recall the day-to-day details from that time, but I remember my feelings as a shy, artistic kid. That—and recalling childhood friends’ personalities—helps create the voices of these characters.
When you wrote and drew Invisible Emmie, were you already thinking of a series?
At the time, I wasn’t really thinking farther ahead than Emmie. I didn’t want to get my hopes up! But after the success of Emmie and Izzy, I had more of a vision. Not so much story-wise, but I knew that if it became a series, I’d want to keep rotating or introducing new protagonists. It keeps the writing process fresh, interesting, and challenging.
When Ruby first popped up in the books, we didn’t know her name, but she quickly became familiar as a running gag. At what point did it occur to you to tell her story?
Young readers often send me suggestions for main characters, as well as titles. I love seeing whose stories they’re most interested in, and they’re often on par with my own ideas. In the last few years, I’ve had many requests for Ruby, aka Baked Bean Girl. That’s how I knew she deserved her own story. She’s endearingly quirky and I love how her personality emerged along with Mia’s, who is quite opposite but also a fun character—very organized and type A, like myself.
By the way, it’s explained in Remarkably Ruby why Ruby’s always running to the bathroom—aside from her meal choices, of course. There’s an anxiety factor that I wanted to explore.
It can be painful to read about cringy preadolescents. How do you approach writing those awkward scenes?
Firsthand experience. I lived those moments and apparently, I have no shame. Sort of kidding. I just try and do it delicately with the addition of humor for some levity. It’s that particular blend of cringe, empathy, and humor that I love navigating around.
Your books have an unusual format: illustrated chapters alternating with comics that are done in a different style. How did you come up with this, and why does it work for you?
I originally wrote Emmie entirely as an illustrated novel—mostly text with small illustrations mixed in, no comics. I would love to take credit, but my agent [Daniel Lazar at Writers House] suggested adding the graphic novel parts. It was a genius idea because the two styles really differentiate the characters’ chapters.
At first, I was mad at him for giving me more work to do. But I quickly changed my mind; as both a writer and illustrator, it keeps the process engaging and avoids monotony. Thank you, Dan!
The characters in your books are in middle school, but what about your audience? When you think about a typical reader, are they in middle school or younger?
They tend to skew a little younger, about fourth to sixth grade. My characters are mostly in seventh grade. Therefore, I have to keep things pretty PG.
There are some touchy topics that don’t come up much in your books. You have lots of characters of color, but they don’t seem to experience prejudice or exclusion; the one gay middle-schooler we’ve met is very quiet about it; and while it seems like some characters might be described as having ADHD or being on the spectrum, that never comes up. Why have you chosen not to include these issues in your books?
As I mentioned above, I always have drawn heavily on my own experiences, and to a degree, my daughters’, in writing both my comic strip and this series. And my focus has always been friendship drama, crushes, and family relationships. While I have created a diverse cast of characters in these books, I don’t think I’m best positioned to address specific issues of race, sexuality, or neurodiversity—there are so many authors who do such a brilliant job in these areas, and who share those identities with their characters.
That said, I am always striving to improve representation in the books. I want my stories to reflect the diverse world that we live in—and for every reader to feel welcome.
What do you want your readers to take away from Remarkably Ruby?
The takeaway is that relationships can be tricky, people are layered, and so are feelings. In other words, things aren’t always as they seem. Also, poetry really rocks!
And will we see more stories about Ruby and the rest?
I just wrote the first draft of Book 7, so yes! This time, it’s about a girl and a boy, one of whom is a very familiar face. And I hope there will be more after that. I absolutely love writing these books.
Remarkably Ruby by Terri Libenson. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May $19.99 ISBN 978-0-06-313919-0; paper $13.99 ISBN 978-0-06-313918-3