Rex Ogle has written three memoirs (Free Lunch, Punching Bag, and Abuela, Don’t Forget Me), but his latest is a departure. Four Eyes, a graphic narrative with illustrations by Dave Valeza, takes on lighter subject matter—although the narrator, bullied for wearing unstylish glasses, might disagree with that description. Ogle spoke with PW about adopting different literary formats for the different chapters of his life, the ways bullying has changed, and how his family has reacted to his work.
In Four Eyes, your family comes across gentler than in Punching Bag. How do you go about portraying different aspects of your life through different lenses?
It all comes down to the thesis of the story. With Free Lunch and Punching Bag, I had themes of poverty and domestic violence, respectively, at the forefront. Whereas with Four Eyes, I wanted to tell a different story. The focus wasn’t on difficult subjects. So while it’s hinted at in between the pages, it doesn’t come across overtly. Life isn’t always one thing or the other, so I felt confident telling a different side of my life. In many ways, I can look back on my childhood and say, “Oh, it was awful,” but there were also happy times, a lot of which had to do with my abuela and my friends. And so with Four Eyes, I chose to focus on the happier elements of my childhood. And I’d like to think that, while neither book is 100% black or white, both ring true to my experiences.
Rex’s mother and stepfather are complicated characters with strengths and weaknesses and struggles of their own. How do you approach writing adult characters in books for young people?
When writing for young readers, I think being honest about who adults are is the most important piece of the puzzle. Readers want the truth, and they want the vulnerability that comes with it. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I had to delve in and make sure I was creating a 360 version of someone and not just covering one’s faults or one’s strengths. I had to cover both. It’s easy to craft a one-sided version of someone. But to be truly honest, every character needs to be fully fleshed out.
This story takes place before anti-bullying initiatives were part of school curriculum. Do you think kids are kinder or more respectful of differences now?
Speaking with my nieces and nephews, there are still bullies out there—they just find different ways of being cruel, usually through social media. I do hope that youths are better, or at least better equipped to deal with people who would mock them or hurt their feelings. I also hope books help with that—either by building empathy or providing advice on how to stay strong.
Abuela’s story about growing up in more extreme poverty puts things in perspective for Rex, but Rex’s gratitude doesn’t feel forced. How did you develop the characters so that the ending landed convincingly? Were there intentional choices you made to ensure this aspect of the story didn’t feel trite?
Writing a memoir is a strange process. With fiction, you can make up whatever you want. But when crafting nonfiction, it comes with a certain responsibility for the truth. I had to carefully pull emotional truths from the past and make them into a story arc. My abuela was always a strong force in my life, so ultimately it made sense to draw on her history in my evolution. She was such a good person, and she made me better by proxy. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say my fantastic editors helped me along the way.
How does your writing process differ when collaborating on a graphic novel vs. working on prose or a story in verse? How involved were you in working with Dave Valeza on the illustrations?
It’s so different! A story in verse comes out with intense fluidity, almost like swimming in the ocean, where each stroke presents itself. Prose is much more difficult, and, of course, the author shoulders the whole responsibility of tone, dialogue, plot, etc. But with a graphic novel, the work is shared with the artist. The manuscript is a lot to write, but ultimately the heavy lifting falls on the artist. And I certainly can’t take credit for Dave’s amazing artwork. While I gave the art direction, he was the one who ran away with it and made my story come to life.
How have your family members reacted to your memoirs?
It’s been a mixed bag. My mother had a very hard time with Free Lunch and hasn’t spoken to me since. I imagine reading Four Eyes would be a different experience because I treated her character with more gentle care. My grandmother was, of course, much more appreciative of Abuela, Don’t Forget Me, though with her dementia, she had a hard time understanding it was going to be a book. But with her passing, the only opinion that really matters to me is that of my brother, who has been ever supportive. We’re super close, and when I’ve sent him pieces and parts of the early draft of Four Eyes, he was beyond tickled to see himself portrayed as a youth. His being happy makes me happy.
Four Eyes by Rex Ogle, illus. by Dave Valeza. Graphix, May 2 $24.99 ISBN 978-1-338-57497-5; paper $12.99 ISBN 978-1-338-57496-8