When Victoria Jamieson’s first graphic novel, Roller Girl (2015), won a Newbery Honor, she was already at work on her second, All’s Faire in Middle School, which is due out next month. Jamieson remembers realizing that the award would mean her new book would have a larger audience—a thought she found both exciting and daunting. The tale stars Imogene, a homeschooled tween whose free-spirited upbringing makes adapting to public school a bumpy ride. Her parents work at the Florida Renaissance Faire, and Imogene is accustomed to the medieval sallies and playful showmanship of the Faire community. Yet she wants desperately to appear normal, even if it means denying the things she cherishes. PW spoke with Jamieson about the path that led her to graphic novels, her early days as a Faire groupie, and things that are hard to draw.
Were you an artistic kid?
Yes! My mom was an art teacher and there were always paints and crayons around, fabric for making stuff. I sewed a lot of flags, for some reason. I made a lot of stuffed animals, and I made clothes for my stuffed animals. I had a bear named Juliette and I made her a princess outfit.
My mom made crafts to sell and she made our clothes, much to my chagrin. She was the one who gave me the idea to go to art school. I went to an international magnet school with a baccalaureate program, and most of my friends were going to pretty high-powered Ivy League schools. She said, “You know, I always wished I had gone to art school.” That gave me permission to think about it. I feel pretty lucky to have her as a mom.
What kind of artist did you think you’d be?
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design thinking that I’d work for Disney and be an animator, but animation takes a really long time. I knew that already, but I kind of found it out again. You do a project all semester and you end up with a one-minute film. Also, in a big studio like that, you’re not telling the story yourself. You’re working on an eyebrow, or a tree, or a background character. It’s a huge collaboration.
After I graduated I got a degree in museum studies at the University of Sydney, and then I moved to New York. And then, on the same day, I got two offers: an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a job offer at HarperCollins. And I thought, “I’m going with the one that pays me money.” Although the internship at the Met would have been a dream, to walk through those doors every day.
What was that first job at HarperCollins?
I was a book designer. I wasn’t very good at it. Jackets are the worst. They’re so hard. You have to please so many people. So many people have to like your jacket.
I was working on stuff of my own at night. I belonged to a small group that was sort of like SCBWI. We met every other month and invited a different art director to come each time. I got to see that art directors were normal people, nice people, and to hear what they said. I met an editor there; she didn’t take my first picture book, but she gave me some really good feedback and made it a lot stronger, and the next editor I showed it to bought it.
You’d already solved a lot of graphic novel problems in the process of writing Roller Girl—how to pace the story, how to handle the character development, and so on. Was it easier to do the second time around, because you weren’t starting from the ground up?
It was way harder. It was so much harder. Roller Girl seemed to come together kind of naturally in some ways. This time, there was my own internal pressure. I was really trying hard not to write Roller Girl again. That held me up for a while. Because people said, “Oh, we love Astrid, she’s so great, she’s so independent, she’s so fierce!” But I was not fierce in middle school. I cared a lot about what people thought about me. As an adult that’s uncomfortable to admit. I decided not to shy away from that, but to dive into it. What role does that play in kids’ lives?
All those kids in middle school looked to me like they had their lives together. They knew what to do socially. Everyone wanted to wear what the other kids were wearing. I thought, “If I wear what they wear, I’ll feel confident and I’ll fit in. All the other kids are normal. I don’t feel normal. But if I look like them I will be.”
Did you take any wrong turns as you wrote?
Yeah! You can ask my editor about that. I had a whole other story I was working on. I was trying to write a story where Nancy Drew is an old lady and she moves into a retirement community and makes friends with a middle-schooler and they solve mysteries together.
It sounds great!
I thought it was, too, but I couldn’t do it! I was struggling and struggling, and my editor was trying to help me out, and she said, “You do really well with realistic fiction.”
She told you what your strength was, not where you were going wrong.
It’s true. It didn’t feel bad. I felt like she put me on the right path. It was right after my son was born and I was strolling him around in the stroller in a parking lot and talking on the phone with her, and she said, “That Renaissance Faire idea—maybe you should think about that!”
Where did that idea come from?
In my high school we had to volunteer somewhere, and one of my friends’ parents owned a shop at the Renaissance Faire. I used to go with two of my best friends. We just had the best time. We were supposed to be volunteering but actually we just laughed and ate a lot of sugar and were stalking this juggler that we had a crush on. The character of Kit was definitely based on that juggler. He’s still around; I went to a fair in Oregon a year or two ago and there he was.
You recognized him?
Of course I recognized him! You don’t forget your juggling crush. I brought him an early copy of the book.
So that was your opening.
Right. And letting myself write a character who was more like me. Looking at the other students, and thinking that how they’re acting is how I was supposed to act. That was the piece that had to work, the emotional side of it. Who is this character? What does she want? What is she afraid of?
Then I added her little brother. I love books that have annoying younger siblings. I love Ramona. And Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Felix is based on my little brother. The things Ramona did seemed really endearing when she did them, but when my brother did them, they weren’t so charming. I can’t count the number of times he locked me out of the house. There were so many windows in our house that didn’t close right. And he had a stuffed squirrel named Tiffany.
Once I got the gist of it down, it was a little easier. Felix looks like my little brother. Imogene’s dad looks like my husband. Having family members I could base things on was helpful.
I once read about a cartoonist who likes to draw her characters under duress—when they’re short of sleep, things like that.
Oh, sure! That’s something I demonstrate when I visit schools, how I draw characters when they’re angry. When kids show me drawings, their characters are always smiling. I tell them that it’s really fun to draw your characters feeling something. It gives rise to so many questions: What’s making them angry? What’s making them sad?
Is there anything you struggle to draw?
I talk about this with the kids, too! I don’t like drawing cars. And I always end up having to draw cars because you’re always in a car going somewhere. And bleachers! The benches have to be the right distance apart, where are the footrests, all things that you don’t think about! They’re really complicated.
Can you talk a little bit about the editor and art director you worked with and what they brought to the project?
Well, my editor was Kate Harrison.
Was she the one who steered you away from Nancy Drew?
That was her. She helped in a lot of other ways, too. I had given each of my characters a sob story. I wanted to give readers a glimpse of things not being as picture-perfect as you think they are. You meet someone who’s rich, but maybe their parents are angry and they’re not quite as happy in their big house as it looks like they are. Kate helped me find a line between hinting at it and beating people over the head with it.
And the art director was Jason Henry. He’s just a saint. Putting books together, especially graphic novels, there’s just a lot of work. He was always so patient and nice. The jacket for the book was pretty hard to come to, and Jason just kept throwing out great ideas and he never gave up.
And what about those medieval, Book of Hours-style chapter headings?
That was one of my favorite parts of the book. I’ve always loved illuminated manuscripts. I remember my mother helping me do illuminated lettering for a report about Eleanor of Aquitaine and thinking, “Wow! This is beautiful!”
Doing the research for them was really fun, researching the marginalia, the often dirty drawings monks put in, like farting butts. Middle schoolers would have loved that, but I didn’t want to be too crude. A lot of the time I felt like a monk myself, after I put my kid to bed, working alone at night.
What’s next? What are you working on?
I can’t say what’s next, but it’s in the mulling-over stage. And I want to write a story based on an old creepy Victorian house because I’ve just moved into one!
All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson. Dial, $12.99 Sept. 5 ISBN 978-0-525-42999-9