Varian Johnson is the author of several acclaimed novels for children and teens, including The Parker Inheritance, for which he won a Coretta Scott King Honor; The Great Greene Heist, which was an ALA Notable Children’s Book; and To Catch a Cheat, another Jackson Greene adventure and a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. Shannon Wright is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Virginia; she is the illustrator of My Mommy Medicine by Edwidge Danticat. We asked Johnson and Wright to interview each other about their collaboration on Twins, a graphic novel that follows identical twins Francine and Maureen as they transition into middle school.
Varian Johnson: Okay, I just have to ask... what made you want to take on this project? And when you got all 240-something pages of my script, were you wondering if you’d made a mistake?
Shannon Wright: Haha! Look, I’m always wondering if I made a mistake, just in general. In terms of what made me take on this project, it was mainly the summary. I mean, also the fact it was Scholastic, but it was mainly your summary that did it. It felt like the most me thing and I was just in love with everything about it. I kid you not, but maybe a week or two before, I got hit up to do another graphic novel. I read it, I thought about it, but after sitting with it some, the premise was too heavy for me. I was a little scared I had just thrown away my chance at doing a graphic novel, but then Twins came along. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I had been praying to be given the opportunity to tackle a story that didn’t purely revolve around Black trauma since that’s mainly what I was being sent and it was taking a huge toll on me. So when I read through your story, read about these girls and how it was about some Black kids just doing the most mundane things, I think I did a happy dance.
Johnson: And I’m so glad you said yes! When I first approached Scholastic about the project, I was pretty adamant that the only way I would want to move forward was if I partnered with a woman of color—with a strong preference for a Black woman. And then, when I started asking around, your name was always one of the handful suggested. (Shout out to author-illustrator Nilah Magruder for dropping your name first!) So then, of course I had to start checking out your social media and your editorial work... and I liked even more of what I saw. But what really nailed it for me and the rest of the team was when you sent us those sample pages—especially the cafeteria spread. I remember talking to my editor on the phone right after we saw it, and we were like, “Case closed! Shannon is it!”
Wright: What’s so funny, I hit up Nilah afterwards (not knowing y’all had talked) to kind of fangirl and ask about you! I’m really glad it all worked out.
Johnson: She’s the best! Everyone should buy her books!
Wright: So I’m going to ask the most obvious question, but was Twins just your way of making a comic about being a twin or were there things you wanted this story to explore?
Johnson: Well, for sure I used a lot of my own childhood experience as a twin to inform the story—especially concerning Maureen’s issues with self-confidence. But in addition to Maureen and Francine, the book also includes this wonderful friend-group—all of whom are navigating the transition from elementary school to middle school.
I’m curious, what did you use to help create the world of Twins—from Maureen and Francine, to their parents, and even their friends?
Wright: So before I even began creating this world and these characters, I actually tasked you with some world building. We knew it was taking place in middle school, but I wanted specifics. What did the student body look like? What did the demographic of this friend group look like? Even though it’s a fictional world, where are we basing it around? I needed that foundation before I could start building, and you came back with those answers! We knew that we wanted the story to take place in a predominantly Black and Brown school, showcase students of color as the majority, and that included this friend group. Maureen, Francine, Tasha, and Nikki were described as Black in your notes with some specifications in their skin tone and features. You told me you wanted Monique to be mixed with Black and white and Richard was meant to be Mexican. With Amber, though, I think you listed her as Black too but otherwise gave me complete freedom with her, so I decided to make her a Black and Filipino girl! With the parents, they were kind of based around my own parents in terms of personality, but based on my Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv for looks. So once you gave me details on location, ethnicities, and so forth, it was a matter of doing my research and making this world feel as believable and lived in as possible. P.S.: thank you, Google Maps, for letting me travel to Texas virtually.
Johnson: Ah, that’s right! I remember sending you info about the Texas town (DeSoto), which I used to create their school and community. And I even remember sending you some images of what Maureen’s Cadet Corps uniform might look like.
You know... that’s one interesting thing about graphic novels compared to picture books: figuring out what direction to give in a panel description versus what to hold back and leave to you to decide. At one point, I remember having to go back to one of those kitchen table scenes to plot out where everyone was sitting—and I ended up changing some of the dialogue and panels to make sure that what I was asking for could actually be shown on the page.
As someone who’s working on picture books and graphic novels, how was the process different for you?
Wright: Well for one, the involvement with my writers was like night and day. With picture books, it’s pretty hands off for the most part between collaborators. I get the script and take all questions and concerns to the art director or editor; they’re who I’m in contact with for the entirety of the project, with maybe some interactions with the writer here and there. But with Twins, we worked very closely together to craft it. I had never been that involved with someone on a project, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact this was your first stab at writing a comic and this was my first time with a comic of this magnitude. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page, pun intended.
I know you’ve written a ton of prose novels and I know that format is different from comics writing, but what do you think were some things that were the same and some things that were different?
Johnson: For sure, dialogue is always a big deal. When writing a book, I’m always thinking about what characters say and how they say it—when they use slang and when they don’t. I’m also thinking about layers in dialogue. In Twins, so many of the girls’ conversations seem to be about school and the election, but they’re almost always really talking about themselves, and how they see themselves in relation to each other. I approach things like that—dialogue and characterization—pretty much the same way, no matter the form. But there are other parts of the process that are entirely different, like breaking down a book by panels. Instead of setting up the panels as I went along, page by page, I would write out an entire scene with dialogue, and then I would go back and break it up into panels. I repeated this process at the end of every chapter, and then again at the completion of each draft. And you know, even though the script was shorter than a prose novel, I still went through at least 13 drafts of the book before you began the thumbnailing process.
But what was the process like for you once you started work?
Wright: We did go through a lot of drafts; I still have them all saved! In terms of my process, it was quite similar to how I approach my picture book and editorial work, but like... to the max. I always take time to do a read-through of the draft from start to finish. No notes, no highlighting passages, just me taking in the text with a clear mind. Then afterwards, after distancing myself from the text, I go back in and take my time reading things closely, marking paragraphs, pulling out key words and imagery, getting my questions together and really digging into the story. That’s where the fun begins, because my brain is now filling in these blanks, piecing visuals together, thinking about what I want these characters to look like, what I want the pages and panels to look like, what I want this world to look like.
Simultaneously, I’m doing research on practically everything! Clothes, hairstyles, architecture, and I’m just designing away. If you look at my pack of sketches, you’ll see some doodles of rooms and early character designs in the margins. So yeah, I do sketches for each chapter and get edits back before I move on to pencils, inks, lettering, flats, and coloring. Then with each of those steps I get edits back from my editor, and in this case some came from you, but not too much. You kind of trusted me to do my thing and I really appreciated that.
Johnson: Well, I wanted to respect your creative vision, and I figured the best way to do that was for me to shut up and get out of the way as much as possible. I remember getting those first thumbnails, and being amazing with how... real it all felt. So I have to ask, do you have a favorite spread or panel? (I have a favorite—but I can’t describe it without giving the story away!)
Wright: I think my favorite spread is still the one where they’re going head-to-head with each other in their bedroom. It’s so dramatic and extra and I love it.
Johnson: Yeah, that’s in my top five. For sure, the book has plenty of scenes with sibling rivalry. So... are you Team Maureen or Team Francine?
Wright: Hmm, Team Maureen or Team Francine? I think I’m Team Mom and Monique during most of the story. They seem to be “Team Over It.” What about you?
Johnson: Team Monique all the way. And maybe Team Amber. Or Team Curtis. Aargh—it’s so hard to pick! Do you have a favorite character outside of the twins?
Wright: It would probably have to be Monique, Amber, and Richard. Monique seems like the most sensible out of everyone and then Amber and Richard are just goofballs always at each other’s necks. Their friend dynamic feels very believable to me, especially as 11-year-old kids.
Johnson: Yeah. I initially based Richard and Amber on writing friends, but both characters changed a lot as I drafted the story. Still, I was able to work in a few Easter eggs. For instance, I name-dropped my kids and a nephew in one of the scenes. And Master Sergeant Fields is named after my high school Air Force Junior ROTC instructor. What about you?
Wright: Wow, so I put a lot of Easter eggs in the book. I won’t list them all because I’d love people to figure them out and guess, but I want to share specific ones. One of the people I dedicated this book to was my best friend Brandon, pretty much another brother to me who unfortunately passed away last summer. He’s someone who was one of the biggest supporters of me and my work. He was almost always over at my apartment to the point he got to witness firsthand my ups and downs with drawing this book. He was also a phenomenal graphic designer, just out of this world, so I wanted to honor him and have him be a part of this story by including some of his work. In Curtis’s bedroom, there’s a GO! and KEEP PUSHING poster on display, two phrases he was known for among our friend group. Then there’s a sticker placed near the end of the book that says DON’T STOP. I wish he could have been here to see the final product, I planned on dedicating it to him either way, but I know he has continued to be with me every step of the way. I’m very happy with Twins and I know Brandon would be very happy with and proud of it, too.
Johnson: I’m so glad that he was able to see your work on the book. He sounds like the type of friend that everyone should have in their corner. And maybe that theme of friendship is one thing I hope readers can take away from Twins. Maureen and Francine are at odds for most of the story, but at the end of it all, they’re still sisters. They still love and support each other. But it’s difficult when it feels like the people you’re the closest to—the people you love the most—are pushing you away. It’s tough when it feels like they don’t need you anymore. Change is hard!
Wright: Change is hard! Ain’t that the truth. I think what I want readers to get out of our book is that change is new, change is scary, but change can sometimes lead to discovering things about yourself you might have otherwise never confronted; and to remember that everyone around you is feeling that shift and uneasiness that comes with change, too. You’re not alone in any of this, no matter how young or old you are. But ultimately, I think I want readers to have fun with the world and characters we’ve created. I want them to get a kick out of the friend interactions, the family drama, the colorful panels, and the writing because I know I did (but I’m also biased, haha).
Wright: Before we part ways, Varian, I need an update on your daughters having the final book in their hands. Did we do a decent enough job? Are we in the clear now? I know your oldest has been waiting and I’ve been anticipating her feedback.
Johnson: You know that my oldest has been waiting for this book for years. Well, Twins is my 11th book—and for each one before this, whenever my shipment of author copies arrived, I always opened the box in private. (It’s kind of a silly tradition, but I always feel like that’s the last time that a book is “mine” before it’s out in the world.) Anyway, for the first time ever, I let my daughter open the books. And she was astounded. She kept saying, “It looks so good!” She and a friend are going to read the book next month, and then we’re going to have a little book club. It’s the first time she will have read anything I’ve written, and I am simultaneously living in a state of dread and excitement.
Did your parents say anything when they saw the book for the first time?
Wright: My mom was just amazed by the craftsmanship and the amount of work I did. She was like, “This is the most work you’ve done, right?” She flipped through the pages and just had this big smile on her face. When my box of books first arrived, my dad did complain about how heavy they were, but was laughing the whole time. Like my mom, he was amazed and couldn’t stop telling me. He told me he was very happy with the clarity of my artwork and said he didn’t have to guess what was what, especially as an old man. He said, “Shannon, I’ve always liked your artwork and I still do.” They both told me they were proud and that means the world to me.
Johnson: Shannon, we’re all amazed by your artwork. Thanks for being my partner on this long, winding process.
Wright: Haha, thanks for being my partner too, Varian.
Twins (Twins #1) by Varian Johnson, illus. by Shannon Wright. Graphix, $24.99 Oct. 6 ISBN 978-1-338-23617-0