Gale Galligan is best known for their work on the bestselling Babysitters Club graphic novel adaptations. After several years and four successful Babysitters books, Galligan’s first original graphic novel will be hitting bookstore shelves on October 18. Freestyle follows breakdancing middle schooler Cory as he navigates his parents’ expectations and friendships with his dance crew in their last year of school together before high school. We spoke with Galligan about transitioning from the Babysitters Club to original work, childhood passions, and what’s coming next.
What was it like to transition to something totally fresh with Freestyle?
I first pitched Scholastic when I was getting out of grad school, and one of the things I pitched was Freestyle. Originally, they signed me up for two Babysitters books and two originals, and Freestyle was one of those. So it was always at the back of my mind. I’d been waiting for it for a long time and I was definitely intimidated to get to it!
It felt like when you have a little pack of four markers, then all of a sudden someone hands you a whole bunch more markers and says go to town. All of a sudden I could make whatever it is I wanted. If I didn’t feel like a story I made up was working, I could change it to literally anything. There is a lot of freedom in that, but it is also difficult at the same time because you really can do anything. So, figuring out what I wanted from this story, where I wanted to go with it, was pretty important. I had a great time. I’m really glad I got to do it.
With Freestyle, going from a visual medium like dance or a visual medium like yo-yo throwing to a static medium, was it challenging to illustrate something so centered around movement?
I actually went to undergrad thinking that I was going to be an animator. I knew that I love to draw, I knew that I love to tell stories, and here is the one job I know about that combines those things. I’d read a lot of comics but didn’t realize that people were getting paid to make comics. So studying motion was something I got into pretty early.
And it helped me a lot, even though I obviously didn’t end up getting into animation, just thinking about how to show people moving, acting, how to guide people’s eyes where I wanted them to be [on the page]. You’re trying to point someone to look at something on a screen in the span of 12 drawings a second. So that’s something that’s always been on my mind as I work on comics. How can I tell this kind of visual story, how can I take advantage of the medium I’m using?
Whether it was getting into breakdancing or getting into yo-yo slinging, did you do any particular research for this one?
When I was in undergrad, I did take some breaking classes. I had always seen b-boys on the street and thought, this looks like so much fun. I want to learn how to do this! And listen, I’m horrible. I’m very bad! But there’s something just so incredible about the craft itself that I am deeply fascinated by and love so much. The focus on individuality, on flavor, on kind of putting yourself out there, I really admire. So I’ve watched a lot of competitions online, listened to a lot of interviews.
For yo-yo, similarly, I fell into it. I was cruising around online as one does and stumbled across a competitive yo-yo video. This was the first time I’d really watched someone throw since the ’90s when it was a really big thing, right? You know, walk the dog, Eiffel Tower, super cool. But this was completely different.
The person had this whole routine set to music, it was on the beat. They were using their whole body, throwing the yo-yo behind their legs, over their head, behind their back and it was really dance-adjacent. You could tell they put this whole thing together and were thinking it through in such a cool way. And I rabbitholed so hard from there! I became deeply fascinated, I bought a yo-yo for myself, I started teaching myself online. Again, I was very bad. I was having a lot of trouble just figuring out how to do some of these tricks on my own.
That’s when I found out about the New York Yo-Yo Club. As it turned out, there was this whole club of people who just love yo-yos, and meet up every Sunday, and I walked on in. I was terrified. I had no idea what to expect, but they were super-duper welcoming. There were kids. There were adults, everybody just hanging out together, comparing tricks, showing off their cool yo-yos.
I started talking to this one older guy in his 60s about that one trick I’d been having trouble with, and he loaned me a yo-yo, saying, “Hey, I feel like you’ll probably have an easier time with this one. So I tried it and he was right. I finally started getting the hang of it. When I went to give the yo-yo back he was like no, just keep it.
That was something that really stuck with me. This group of people who all got together because they like this thing so much and are just really excited that other people are getting into it too. That was a feeling that I really loved and wanted to bring across in this book.
Freestyle is so deeply about finding your own outlet and finding your own way to navigate everything that’s going on in life. What was that hobby for you?
This will not come as a surprise, but it was drawing. I started getting into reading comics pretty young. My dad would bring home the newspaper and I got really into Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, The Far Side. I would try to draw my own comics inspired by that stuff. I’d do my goofy mutant cheeseburger comic and show it to my family, show it to my friends. And if they laughed, it was the best feeling in the world, and that meant that I kept on doing it.
Originally, Freestyle was called Breakaway and it was more focused on Sunna dealing with the grief over her brother’s death. In Freestyle, Imran is alive and he’s a little busy with college, but he is here! How much would you say Freestyle evolved over the years?
I originally started working on Freestyle as my thesis for grad school. Originally, I had less of an idea of the middle grade market. I conceived it as more of a young adult series. When I talked to Scholastic, they were like, “Hey, listen, we love this concept. But how do you feel about it in terms of that direction, that age idea? Are you committed to these people being in high school? What is your sense of what you want the story to be?”
I thought about it and realized the core of the story was that feeling of growing into yourself, of feeling out who you are, while becoming part of a group that can be stronger together. Being a good friend. And that isn’t something that's necessarily tied to any age range, but it is something that works really well in middle grade.
So I went back and revised my concept a little bit. I felt like if I want to talk about these things, it might actually make more sense. If Cory is dealing with all these different expectations from his family, from his old friends, maybe Sunna is dealing with other kinds of expectations, where she’s comparing herself to her brother and it just makes things a little bit less complicated story-wise. I felt like that would be a good way to thematically bring things more together, and I’m genuinely really glad with how it turned out.
Each of the 8 Bitz crew members – they’re all their own people. You managed to find some space for each of them to have their own individual stories or these moments where they’re working through their own thing. Was that a difficult balancing act?
It was really important to me to show that kind of friendship and also to have them be people. I think that, again, the Babysitters Club was a really good training ground for that. But also I was drawing a lot on my deep and abiding passion for manga and anime, because sports stories do so well with that. When I was working on Freestyle, I was watching a lot of this volleyball anime Haikyuu!! which is all about this high school volleyball team getting to know and trust each other and becoming really good at volleyball together. And as it progresses, you get to know every single character. You know what type of volleyball they’re best at. You know what they’re worried about, what they’re really trying to do as individuals.
It’s something that I really admire and wanted to work on myself. I did a lot of thinking about who these people were, what they were doing in their free time, and what they each brought to the group as a whole. Because people are different in a group than they are on their own, and I wanted to kind of explore that. It was definitely tricky trying to make sure that I gave each of them a little bit of time while not feeling like a really long fantasy epic, where you go off to another character and everyone’s like, “Hey man, what’s happening in the story though?” I wanted to keep the main story flowing at all times. I hope I did a good job of that.
What do you hope that readers take from Freestyle?
I just feel like if I am looking directly into my phone at these children, I’d say, if there is something you really like? That’s awesome! Go for it. Make your thing, enjoy your craft, find people to talk about it with. I know that sometimes it can be hard to put yourself out there, it can be hard to feel like something is worth doing or like you’re good or worth it. But I think that there’s something so wonderful about just taking joy in anything, whether it’s loving to learn about mushrooms or trying to make cheese or growing a plant or dancing or yo-yo. It really is amazing that there are so many things that people can get into and share with each other, and the sharing is always going to be so worth it in the end.
As you mentioned, Freestyle was part of a multi-book deal with Scholastic for two original graphic novels, and one of those is what is tentatively titled Hazel. Can you talk a little bit about that or what else is coming up for you?
I have actually put that project on the back burner for now. I’m going to keep on developing it a bit more because it is a broader concept fantasy that I’m super excited about, but need to cook. So I swapped in a story that I was also excited about. Now I’m working on an untitled story inspired by my childhood—not memoir, but memoir adjacent. I moved around a few times as a kid because of my Dad’s work. When I was growing up we lived in Florida briefly and then moved to Bangkok, Thailand and Frankfurt, Germany and then moved back to the States to northern Virginia right in time for me to start middle school, so I was dealing with a lot of feelings.
I’d always been really excited to move. I was always super ready, because I felt like every single time I did something super embarrassing it was time to go. Let’s drop everything. Let’s bail. New life, new me, let’s party. And then Dad was like, “Hey, so we’re living in Virginia and we’re going to stay right here, and you can go to school forever.”
So I had to figure out how to make but also keep friends. I had to figure out what all the 50 states were; that was horrible. And I also got to deal with a lot of cultural identity feelings. Growing up going to international schools, everybody’s from somewhere else. Everybody looks different. And then you move to a place where there’s a lot of white people and they are a little bit confused why you’re kind of Asian looking, but not really. My mom is Thai, my dad is white. All of a sudden I had this whole other conception of how other people saw me and also what I needed to do as a person to survive. It’s a story that is inspired by that but definitely not about me. So please look forward to that as it continues to develop and hopefully it comes out in a few years!
Freestyle by Gale Galligan. Scholastic/Graphix, $24.99 Oct. 18 ISBN 978-1-338-04580-2