About-to-be eighth grader Bina. has been good friends with her neighbor Austin since they were small, but this summer Austin’s off to soccer camp and the cold shoulder he’s been giving Bina is obvious—he won’t answer her texts. The way Bina copes with their changing relationship and the solace she finds in writing and playing music is at the heart of Hope Larson’s graphic novel All Summer Long, due out on May 1 from FSG. After Larson’s A Wrinkle in Time adaptation, scripts for DC Comic’s Batgirl, and a series of fantasy-historical novels co-created with Rebecca Mock, this contemporary, slice-of-life story represents a shift—and one she’ll continue to pursue, since there are two sequels in the works. PW spoke with Larson about how the project took shape, how she’s trained herself to do outlines, and whether it’s possible to be an artist without walking on the dark side.
For me, the thing that stood out most in All Summer Long was Bina’s fundamental strength and her faith in her own musical ability. Did you have that feeling about your own power to draw as an adolescent?
I did—I’ve been writing and drawing for as long as I can remember. But when I was Bina’s age, I didn’t have the strong personality she does. The theme of being an artist is really what the whole book is about for me. I’ve played with it and written about it before, but I haven’t faced it head-on. It can feel kind of self-indulgent to write about an artist when you are an artist. But since I’m not a musician, Bina’s world is not my world and not my creative space, so it’s easier to treat.
So many of the story’s little moments seem as if they could really have happened – all those babysitting interactions, the moment when Bina climbs through Austin’s bathroom window to get the spare key to her house that she knows he has. Are those details autobiographical? Or are you the kind of writer who’s able to spin stories about characters you just dream up?
I think I’m somewhere in the middle. A lot of elements are things that I’ve experienced and stored away, maybe not even consciously. I try not to mentally go back in time to my own tween years because it was so brutal. A lot of the character stuff that I’m doing extends an emotional thread in the character’s own life. Or I like to bounce the characters off each other. I also think a lot about structure when I’m writing—what’s the best way to move this scene to the next scene? I don’t know where the idea of having Bina break into the bathroom came from, but the goal was to have her break in. I came up with the idea of Austin having a key. Why would that happen? It’s so that something else about their relationship can be revealed.
You’re thinking five steps ahead.
It is very strategic thinking, yes!
This is a different kind of project from the ones you’ve worked on recently, for a younger audience than a work like Batgirl—were you conscious of having to tone things down?
I don’t feel like I need to have a bunch of curse words in books for younger readers. I can still get at the story I want to tell. And then younger kids get to read it. I can fly under the radar that way. Sometimes when you want to include those subversive elements, it’s easier to do if your books look sanitized on the surface.
Would Bina and [Austin’s older sister] Charlie have gotten into deeper trouble if this had been for an older audience?
Sure! The whole arc that I’m working with is her progression as a musician and getting more involved in the industry scene, and I’ve been reading tons and tons of history of punk rock compiled from interviews in the voices of the people who were there. There’s a very dark version you could tell; there’re drugs, violence, a dark undercurrent, but that’s not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to make it accessible and fun. It doesn’t all have to be people OD’ing on heroin in some hotel.
It’s kind of like Dig!, this documentary made in the ’90s about these two bands, the Dandy Warhols, who were middle-class kids, and a band called the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Those kids were all from difficult family situations and had it really hard, and the documentary is about how you can treat art like a job and not go down that road, but it helps to have a stable foundation under you to do that.
Is that why Bina’s parents are really solid?
I wanted Bina to have supportive parents. I thought about how in L.A., so many adults are in the industry, so they have creative or creative-adjacent jobs. Bina’s mom is an art director/graphic designer, and Austin’s mom picks music for TV shows. Everybody’s parents have cool jobs and the kids don’t care about it. It doesn’t matter. You’re still the boring, out-of-touch parent. It’s such an L.A. thing.
I hadn’t thought about that. But yeah—Austin and Charlie are jocks, and their mother is so disappointed that they’re not into music, and so happy to find out that Bina is.
Can you talk a little about the way the story ends with a beginning, with a girl accepting Bina’s invitation to join her band?
Those are the endings I’m always drawn to, endings that are beginnings, whether or not you get to tell the new story or not. And this time we do get to tell that story. There is more of the story to tell, and I had a lot of support at the publisher, so All Summer Long is going to be a trilogy. We’re actively working on the sequel right now.
What was the original impetus for the project?
I was finishing up Knife’s Edge with Rebecca [Mock, the illustrator] and I was figuring out where to go next. I didn’t know what my editor [Margaret Ferguson] wanted to see from me. I like to have some kind of target to aim at. “Drawing myself” and “contemporary” were the two things we came up with. I came back with a list of five ideas and Margaret shared those with acquisitions, and I got this call from my agent—“They didn’t like any of them.” But they liked some elements of all of them, so what it finally came down to was a contemporary book in summertime about a boy and a girl having friendship problems. I took elements from the outlines they’d rejected and built them around the outside of this framework.
I’d worked with Margaret since A Wrinkle in Time, and we did Compass South and Knife’s Edge with her, but during this project she left and went to Holiday House.
Oh, that could be difficult...
No, it wasn’t like that—we had gone through copyediting and everything but the finishing touches. And we finished up with [editor] Joy Peskin.
What role did Margaret play as the project unfolded? Were there any places where you got stuck and she helped you figure out what to do?
Well... not really. I sent her an outline. She asked me questions and shared her thoughts about what wasn’t working, and I revised it. Then I sent her the script. She’d edit it at every stage. And then there’s copyediting, which is like five rounds of nitpicking! I can’t really think of a place where I got stuck and she solved the problem, though. I usually muddle through. I more often go to her with questions like, Can I do this? Is this acceptable for a middle grade reader?
What do you mean about sending her “the script”?
I write full scripts. Every single page [of the graphic novel] is in the script. There’s a description of the action, the dialogue, and the sound effects. I didn’t use to outline. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. But then I worked on a bunch of TV pitches. Writing Batgirl helped, too. Twenty pages every month for two years will really whip you into shape! That’s how I write for myself now. I do it for every book.
Wow, really? Sometimes artists who do graphic novels talk about how difficult it is to do the first stage, where they’re drawing it all out, how agonizing it is.
It does sound agonizing, and that’s why I don’t do it. It’s a lot easier to throw away five pages of script than five pages of drawing! It’s a learned thing. It’s not natural. I had to figure it out, but I was determined.
It’s been a while since you’ve placed a story in the real world with no fantasy elements. Maybe since Chiggers (2008)? Were there problems you had trouble dealing with then that you’ve learned how to deal with now?
Oh, sure! I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years at this point. Looking back to those early books, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t have a game plan, or a structure, or an awareness of the industry. The biggest challenge when I was writing All Summer Long was that I’d been writing much more high-concept stuff for Batgirl, and animated stuff for TV, and it was like, “How do I tell a story that has as much drama as those other books do?” I had to scale it way down to day-to-day life. That was the hardest. It felt so small after all those very plotty, fisticuff-type stories. I feel like I’m learning all the time.
What comes next?
I’m drawing the first sequel to All Summer Long. Rebecca and I are working on a fantasy-historical graphic novel that’s due out in 2020—we don’t have a title yet. And I’m working on a spec screenplay. I get to experiment with different kinds of stories, and basically I do graphic novels for real work.
All Summer Long by Hope Larson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30485-0; trade paper $12.99 ISBN 978-0-374-31071-4
See PW’s Summer Reads roundup for more of our picks for the best summer books for children of all ages and interests.