In her timely middle-grade graphic novel Wildfire, Breena Bard introduces an eighth-grader, Julianna, whose family is displaced to urban Portland when a fire destroys their rural Oregon home. Bard spoke with PW about developing complex characters, being a climate activist even as an introvert, and choosing what to show and what to leave out.
You live and work in Oregon, where wildfires have caused grief and hardship recently. Did a specific event lead you to write this story?
I’ve been living in Oregon for 13 years, and the change in climate patterns has been noticeable. Specifically, in 2020, there was a week when we didn’t have fires in Portland, but the county just south of us had an evacuation warning and we all had to stay indoors. For an entire week we sealed the doors with tape because the air quality was off the charts toxic from the wildfires coming nearer. That was definitely a wake-up call.
I’d already been playing with a sequel to my debut, Trespassers, but now the stakes seemed a little higher. The week of the toxic air quality, I had a call with my editor, Andrea Colvin at Little, Brown. Because I had previously written a story about the redwood forest, Picket Line, she asked, “What if you did another environmentally themed story?” Things started to fall into place. It was that magical moment for writers where characters that I’d been [developing] were ready to jump in and tell this story.
What’s your artistic process as a comics creator?
My first step is kind of a free flowing from brain to sketchbook. This book was maybe one and a half sketchbooks filled with incredibly loose drawings and no edits whatsoever. I don't even share that with my editor. I go from that and create a script, which looks a lot like a screenplay with some specific comic instructions. Once we have the story dialed a bit more, in the script stage, then I move on to the pencils, the more specific drawings, and do the inks on top of that. I did this book entirely digitally, and I had the pleasure of having a colorist, Andrea Bell, who did incredible work.
When the story begins, Julianna sees boys playing with fireworks, and the resulting wildfire quickly destroys the forest and people’s homes. Julianna’s family suddenly is living in a rental home, lamenting the loss of their backyard chickens (although their pet cat and goats are spared). Why did you decide to leave much to the reader’s imagination?
Wildfire was written for middle grade readers, and I didn’t want to dwell too long on such a traumatic event. You can give a quick summary or give hints of what’s happening without having to spell it all out, and it also leaves more time to explore the aftermath. Personally, even for me, it was emotionally heavy, going back to that time and trying to put myself in that specific mindset. We didn't lose our house to a fire, but there was a lot of anxiety and fear.
I think there had to be some touchpoint of actual life lost, and I didn’t want to take it any farther than the chickens. In an earlier draft, I think again for my own peace of mind, one of the characters says, “We eat millions of chickens a year anyway,” to put it on the level that they were livestock, for food or for eggs. But to a kid, especially if you have a heart for animals, that doesn't make the loss any less. It felt necessary to ground it in real life, and certainly there are stories that are worse than that.
Julianna’s friend Carson, who was among those who started the fire, ends up at her Portland middle school. How did you sort out the relationship between those two teen characters?
The Carson character was a stand-in for the human activity that causes these fires. You hear stories of this every fire season, and it’s easy to turn all of your anger toward those individuals. In the first draft, that’s exactly what I did. He was pretty much the scapegoat, even though he did do something wrong. Andrea encouraged me to flesh out my understanding of him and come with a little more compassion toward that character. Granted, he made a horrible mistake and we repeat that throughout the book, but everything was set for the mistake to be far worse than it normally would be. In my rewrites I made sure that Julianna and Carson had some history, and maybe that makes it easier for readers to understand why she would give him the benefit of not turning him in right away or even just hearing him out.
Your story also investigates post-traumatic stress and mental health. Why did you show Julianna becoming emotionally overwhelmed at climate protests, even though she is angry about the tragedy and is directly influenced by an outcome of climate change?
I wanted to honor the huge range of experiences that kids and adults have. Her parents make the point at various times that activism can be a great outlet for processing your rage or your trauma, but sometimes it’s just one too many things on top of everything else you’re dealing with. I drew from the George Floyd protests, which were a very big ongoing event in Portland, and I wanted to show that there are many ways to be involved that can be impactful. I also wanted to give Julianna the space to process things in the way that was best for her own mental health.
What’s next for you?
It's another middle grade graphic novel. I don’t think I can talk about the specifics yet, but I will say this: for my own mental health, because Wildfire was a heavy book to work on, I wanted to make a tonal shift but stay with an important topic.
Wildfire by Breena Bard. Little, Brown Ink, $24.99; $12.99 paper (Sept.) ISBN 978-0-316-27768-6