Cynthia Copeland is the bestselling author and illustrator of more than 25 books for children and adults, including the photographic picture book Really Important Stuff My Dog Has Taught Me (Workman, 2014) and the Dilly’s Adventures series for young readers (Millbrook). Her debut middle-grade graphic memoir, Cub (Algonquin, Jan.), takes places in 1972–1973, when the then-12-year-old job-shadowed a local news reporter. Beth Vrabel is the author of The Reckless Club (Running Press Kids, 2018) and the Pack of Dorks series (Sky Pony). Drawing from her career as a journalist, Vrabel’s new book, The Newspaper Club (Running Press Kids, Mar.),kicks off a series about a group of kid reporters. We asked Copeland and Vrabel to interview each other about their new middle-grade books and their backgrounds in journalism.
Beth Vrabel: How awesome that we’re both bringing stories about strong, brave reporters to bookshelves! Your love of journalism is deep rooted—I read that you began your own newspaper as a kid, sharing it with the people in your neighborhood. This is exactly what The Newspaper Club kids do in their New England town! How much, if anything, in Cub is inspired by your own experiences?
Cynthia Copeland: Wow, flashback to The Talmadge Lane Tattler, the neighborhood newspaper I started when I was 10! I paid my brothers (who were eight and six at the time) a penny a week to report the news to me, so as you might imagine, it was a bit thin on news and heavy on jokes, riddles, and limericks. Our biggest scoop was when Mr. Marin had an accident with his station wagon and then had it repaired before anyone in his family saw the damage; as soon as he glanced at that headline, he quickly bought up every copy of the paper!
Cub is a graphic novel based on my time as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper in Connecticut in the early ’70s, when I was 12. A hip, young female reporter agreed to mentor me, and so two or three times a week we set off in her rickety VW Beetle on a reporting adventure. As a backdrop to my story, prominent journalists were covering significant national issues: Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, Earth Day marches, and the presidential election of 1972. It was an exciting time to be reporting the news!
Fast forward to today, when journalists—and journalism—are under attack. Not only are reporters personally threatened, but the industry is in peril as financial instability threatens to shutter many news organizations. The real crisis, of course, is in local news coverage. In fact, just as Cub published, I learned that the main office of the very newspaper at the center of my story closed after 145 years.
I hope young readers of Cub come away with an understanding of the critical role that journalists play in a democracy, an especially complex issue today as we are all bombarded with information, much of it from unreliable sources. Within the context of an exciting series of stories with compelling characters, are you hoping to convey some larger messages about the current state of journalism in The Newspaper Club?
Vrabel: Sounds like the Tattler lived up to its name for poor Mr. Marin!
As readers follow The Newspaper Club reporters’ debate about what comprises a news story and how it should be shared, my hope is that they’ll develop expectations of fairness, accuracy, and objectivity for the media they consume. [Protagonist] Nellie grew up in a newsroom; she has a keen appreciation for reporters’ passion, commitment, and especially ethics. Her father taught her that everyone has a story, and that every story is important. In my experience as a reporter for my hometown newspaper, this was a daily lesson. My neighbors entrusted me with something precious—their story—and I had a responsibility to get it right.
I’ll never forget when a tornado ripped through town. A recent college graduate, I had been a reporter less than a year. My editor said, “Looks like it’s going to be at this intersection soon, head there. If you need me, I’ll be on the roof.” I learned a lot about commitment on that day... and also that I might be better suited for the features department. The next day, my mom called me. “You won’t believe this, Beth!” she said, and then began to read my own article back to me. She had been so absorbed she never read the byline. That’s another aspect I hope The Newspaper Club readers will take in—that journalism knits us all into a shared experience. It breaks my heart to think of small-town newspapers closing their doors, and the isolating effect of no longer having those shared stories.
But in order for Nellie and the rest of The Newspaper Club reporters to be successful, they have to convince townspeople that they’re a “real” newspaper. Being taken seriously is a big hurdle. In Cub, Cindy struggles not only with being seen as just a kid but also because she is a girl. Cynthia, what prompted you to include female empowerment as a theme in Cub?
Copeland: What an unbelievable experience! Imagine how eagerly the people in your town—like your mom!—waited for the morning paper to find out exactly what happened! People are affected so intimately by local news and yet too many communities are left in the dark now, with no coverage at all. And without that baseline of shared information you referenced, how can we expect people to make educated decisions? I worked as a reporter for a Boston-area newspaper chain after college, and I understood the important role I played in the communities I covered. (I never wrote about anything as exciting as a tornado, although I did go deep into a maximum-security prison to cover a story one time!)
The theme of female empowerment arose organically in Cub as I sifted through my memories of that school year. Not only did Connecticut ratify the ERA in the spring of 1973, but the reporter who was mentoring me was an inspiring feminist—probably the first true feminist I came to know well—who encouraged me to see the world through that lens. (Of course, women were vastly underrepresented in news organizations then.) And my dad, who was so loving and kind, was also very old-fashioned, and envisioned an exciting and challenging future for my brothers that he didn’t envision for me. One of the panels in my graphic novel shows my mom and me washing the dinner dishes as my brothers and dad sit at the table and discuss “important” issues of the day. I wanted to address the concept of gender equality to show young readers how much progress we’ve made in half a century—while acknowledging the significant gap that still exists!
Beth, I’d love to hear more about your own experiences as a journalist, and how they informed some of the storylines for your series.
Vrabel: I love that scene with the dishes, Cindy! It’s a simple moment that tells a much larger story about the world at that time.
And, oh yeah, my experiences definitely inform the storylines. My first newsroom experience was at The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student-run independent newspaper. We students made all editorial decisions from content to design. We had some incredible scoops and kept the town paper on its toes. We also took ownership of our mistakes. I learned so much in that off-campus basement! Once in a while, we’d go to the printers and watch our paper come straight off the presses. I love that Nellie, Min, Thom, Gordon, Charlotte, and Gloria share a similar moment.
In The Newspaper Club, Nellie gets a “spine-tingly” feeling that sends her reaching in her back pocket for her reporter’s notebook and pens. That was one of my favorite things about being a reporter. Cindy seems to share that love of curiosity throughout Cub. What’s something else readers should know about Cindy?
Copeland: Great question! Readers will initially know Cindy as a quiet seventh grader who prefers to stay in the background; they will follow her journey as she gains courage and finds her voice through her job as a cub reporter. I hope they will notice how the confidence she develops from her experiences reporting the news enables her to speak up in social situations—and also makes her a more sought-after and interesting friend!
In fact, I hope Cub inspires young readers to pursue their own interests outside of school, whether writing, art, dance, music.... The self-confidence kids gain from engaging in activities they love helps them navigate social issues more easily and puts middle school drama in perspective. Having a full and fulfilling life apart from school reminds kids that the world is bigger than their seventh grade hallway.
It’s always interesting to answer questions about the characters in Cub given that they are all based on real people! Do you feel a special connection with any of the Newspaper Club members? Is there one in particular who reminds you of a young Beth?
Vrabel: As hard as I try, I’ve never managed to create a character who isn’t reflective of at least a part of me. I feel the strongest connection, though, to Nellie. I was a painfully shy kid; at one point, a classmate asked me if I even knew how to talk! I fell in love with writing pretty early, at about age 10, when I wrote my first short story. It was the first draft of the first story I had ever written—it was terrible! But having an entire page to fill, uninterrupted, with my thoughts was so powerful. I fell in love with the idea of being a journalist around then, too, pretending I was a reporter tasked with covering the stories around me. Like Nellie, when I had a notebook in my hand, I felt brave, stronger. I totally agree with you that we all need to find something that helps us navigate and keep perspective.
Thank you so much for this chance to chat with you! I can’t wait to see Cub and The Newspaper Club on bookshelves next month!
Copeland: What fun this has been! I hope our stories inspire young people to think about the importance of quality journalism, especially today—and maybe even contemplate a future for themselves as news reporters!
Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland. Algonquin, $12.95 Jan. 7 ISBN 978-1-61620-848-6
The Newspaper Club (The Newspaper Club #1) by Beth Vrabel. Running Press Kids, $16.99 Mar. 10 ISBN 978-0-7624-9685-3