Three creators of children’s comics came together at BookExpo for a panel that focused on the category’s continuing evolution and booming popularity. Hosted by the Children’s Book Council Graphic Novel Committee on May 29, the event featured artist Catia Chien, Eisner Award winner Raina Telgemeier, and author-illustrator Sara Varon. The discussion was inspired by “Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age,” a recent exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., which was curated by the panel’s moderator, Leonard S. Marcus.
Kicking things off, Marcus described the power of comics to pull in people of all ages, interests, and reading abilities. “So many non-readers have become readers because of graphic novels,” he said. Each of the panelists shared why they enjoy working in this popular medium. Telgemeier, who is known for her autobiographical novels Smile, Sisters, and the forthcoming Guts (Graphix, Sept.), said, “The graphic novel is one of the most personal forms I’ve encountered. Part of it is the combination of words you are seeing and feeling—it puts you in the story.” Chien, whose work appeared in Kazu Kibuishi’s anthology Flight, Volume Three (Ballantine, 2006) and a number of picture book collaborations, finds the graphic format liberating. “It’s so unique and open. I love the freedom and the range of subject matters.” Robot Dreams (First Second, 2007) and New Shoes (First Second, 2018) author Varon said her background in animation led her to comics, adding, “It’s nice to be able to show a story and not have to say it.”
Marcus observed that one of the first things that struck him about many graphic novels was the diary-like feel. Telgemeier said that, growing up, “I was always drawing in my journal. Twenty years later, I wondered, ‘Let’s see if people are interested in stories based on real life.’ ” Chien has also found that journaling “is a big part of my experimentation.” For her part, Varon said the intimacy of the form offers “a way to show characters and the world inside my head.”
Next, the panelists discussed the transformations they’ve seen in the industry since their debuts. When she was starting out in the late ’90s, Varon was encouraged by the presence of “great indie publishers” such as Top Shelf Productions and Drawn & Quarterly. Chien commented on how that segment of the business keeps getting bigger, with entire imprints devoted to children’s comics—from Macmillan’s First Second and Scholastic’s Graphix, to the new Random House Graphic imprint. Gone are the days when comics were only available at comic book shops.
Telgemeier remarked on the role the internet is playing in the development and discovery of new talent. “I think if the internet had existed when I was 10, I’d have been a cartoonist then. I envy the kids of today.” Marcus noted the shift in gatekeepers’ attitudes towards comics; teachers, librarians, and booksellers have come to embrace the graphic novel as a valuable literary form that promotes visual literacy while it entertains. As evidence of this change, Marcus pointed to the Library of Congress’s appointment of graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2016–17.
Opening up the conversation to questions from the audience, the panelists shared their views on some of the new approaches to marketing kids’ comics. “Publishers are behind us,” Telgemeier said, citing the prominent Graphix signage at this year’s BookExpo. Chien added, “Publishers understand the format. There’s distribution and so many ways to be a part of [the community].” Graphic storytelling is also more visible on bookstore shelves. Barnes & Noble, for example, has created a separate graphic novel section for young readers.
Finally, the authors gave further insight on their workflow. Telgemeier said that the text and images “come together. I can’t separate the two.” When Chien embarks on a new project, she said, “It’s a mixture—mostly images, and I fill in the gaps with words.” Varon “starts with the character, which is an image,” and builds from there. All agreed that comic book-making is a labor-intensive process.
In closing, Telgemeier quipped about her reaction as an artist “when kids read your book in 50 minutes—it’s like ugh.” But she now views this kind of voracious reading as “a badge of honor. It shows you’re doing the work.”