Since the time she could write, Raina Telgemeier kept a journal in a comic-book format, illustrating her emotions with words and pictures. After graduating from art school, she went to work in publishing while creating her own comics and selling them for a dollar at comics conventions across the country. A chance meeting with an editor at Scholastic led to her first book deal to turn the beloved young adult series The Baby-Sitters Club into graphic novels. Her bestselling first original novel, Smile, was published in 2010 and became an international best seller. She has published three additional original novels; her fourth, Ghosts, was just released.
Telgemeier sources her own life experiences to tell stories her young readers can relate to. Her message to them: normal stories are important.
When I was 9, I discovered comics in the newspaper and I instantly connected with the combination of words and pictures. I started drawing my first comics in about fifth grade. They were really just knockoffs of my favorites, which were For Better or Worse and Calvin and Hobbes. I instantly related to For Better or Worse. The kids in the strip were about the same age as me, and every time they talked about their thoughts and fears, or their school days, I recognized myself. Calvin and Hobbes made me laugh, and the characters were really fun to look at.
I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I decided to major in illustration as a way to work on my art and hopefully find a job after college. I took one cartooning class each semester as an elective and it was always the class I looked forward to the most.
I was one of two women in a cartooning class of 25. Most of the friends I made who were cartooning majors were dudes. And most of my favorite cartoonists were men. There wasn't really space yet for mainstream comics for women, and graphic novels weren't really a thing yet.
Most of my [male] peers were writing superhero comics or telling personal stories that closely resembled the story arcs in Wolverine. I had never gotten into super hero comics. I was making comics that were very personal and introspective. At around age 19 I started writing and drawing autobiographical comics. I wrote a short story about how I hated mosquitos, and another about driving around the mountains late at night by myself. They were very short and I tried to capture the time, place, and mood.
Upon graduating in 2002, I started working in the [book] publishing industry. I worked in design departments, but never anything creative. I helped facilitate the art directors during the layout process. I loved the book community, but as soon as I finished work each day, I went home and made comics all night.
I heard about the MoCCA Arts Festival, which was a small-press comics convention in New York City. I made friends with a lot of other self-publishers [at the festival] and discovered a whole community. It was about 50 percent female and I felt so welcomed. It was like a homecoming. I started going to small-press comics conventions [similar to MoCCA] and also larger ones like San Diego Comic-Con to sell my work to people, and network with editors and publishers.
I was writing short stories about my life - what happened to me in college, the parties I went to, what I bought at the supermarket that day, and stories about my childhood. I would just sit down at my desk and think, what do I want to make today?
I started writing my first mini-comics series called Take-Out, which was a series of vignettes, mostly about my life in New York City, my friends, and our little adventures. I threw in short stories about my childhood, too, and by the sixth issue I was drawing exclusively upon my kid memories for material. I produced seven issues between 2002 and 2005. Each issue was 12 pages long and in black and white.
I was still working in publishing and spending all of my time off working on my comics. A friend of mine helped me build a website, and I started selling the comics by mail order. At the conventions I passed out a little form that said "Send $1 in the mail to my address and I will mail you a comic in return." Pretty quickly I amassed a small fan base. Every time I would go to an event, I had the same people coming back to my table and asking if I had anything new.
In 2004 I met one of the editors from Scholastic at an art gallery party in New York. This editor said Scholastic was thinking of starting up a new [comic book/graphic novel] imprint. A few months later I met her boss at San Diego Comic-Con. When I introduced myself, he said he had already heard about me, and invited me to the Scholastic offices for a meeting.
I went in with several pitches, my portfolio from art school, and examples of my self-published work. They asked me what books I had been a fan of as a kid. I said that I had always loved The Baby-Sitter's Club. They said, "That's Scholastic property. What if you try doing that as a graphic series?"
I went home and I drew up a treatment of the story, sketches of the characters, and thumbnails, which are blueprints of a page broken down into panels. I preserved some of the dialogue from the books, interpreted it, and added visuals. Seeing my name in print accompanied by the Scholastic logo and alongside the words Baby-Sitter's Club was surreal. I'd seen my mini comics in lots of comic book shops before, but seeing my work on the shelf at a bona fide bookstore was a special thrill, as I grew up visiting bookstores with my dad to buy all of my comic collections.
My advances for the books were less than I was making at my full-time job, but I figured it was time to take a pay cut to follow my dreams. I was living in a very cheap apartment in New York with two roommates. I was in a relationship and we pooled our resources to scrape by. I was already good at cooking myself ramen and rice and beans, and that just remained the case for several years.
I liked making my own schedule and focusing full-time on my art. I was able to negotiate for a higher advance on my second contract, and after I did the four Baby-Sitter's Club books, I hired an agent who could negotiate even higher advances for me in the future.
In 2004, while I was working on the Baby-Sitter's Club novels, I was invited to become part of a comics-based website called Girlamatic.com. The editors proposed I serialize a weekly comic. The ongoing deadline was a perfect excuse - and [offered] just enough structure - to finally tell a story I'd been kicking around in my mind for so long. In sixth grade I was running home with friends after a Girl Scouts meeting and I tripped, fell, and knocked out my two front permanent teeth. I spent four and a half years getting surgeries, braces, headgear, and false teeth all in order to have a normal smile again. Middle school is not an easy time for anybody, so throwing extreme dental trauma on top of that meant that I had a very difficult time during my tween years. I was incredibly self-conscious, and I looked weird. It made me an easy target [for bullying].
By the time I was done with the fourth Baby-Sitter's Club book in 2008, I had already written and drawn about 120 pages of the story that would become Smile. Scholastic had been keeping an eye on the comics I was publishing on the website and they liked it.
Smile came out in February 2010, and it was an instant hit. It was selling really well at Scholastic book fairs, where the company marketed all of its books, and then it started picking up at bookstores and online booksellers. When it was published I was out with my old college roommates and we all geeked out and took a lot of photos [with the books at a store] and put them up on Facebook.
There was no proven track record in publishing that said this would be marketable work. There weren't any other graphic novels about adolescent girls' experiences. In 2011 Smile became a New York Times bestseller. It was incredible. It would have been gratifying enough to be on that list for a week. Smile just hit 220 weeks [on the bestseller list].
My biggest supporters within the trade industry were on board early. But there was a bit of reluctance too. Some people within the industry didn't think graphic novels were valuable literature. I got some pushback from educators and parents who thought kids were just sitting down reading trash. They didn't consider a book with pictures in it to be challenging or academic. "Girls don't read comics" was something I heard over and over again.
That feeling of not fitting in and having something wrong with you was really universal.
It is an evolving attitude. The more graphic novels that get published, and the more readers that embrace them, the more the general population sees their value. I get dozens of letters a month from parents, teachers, librarians, saying, "There's this kid in my life, and she didn't read. Then she started reading graphic novels, and now she reads voraciously." That's powerful. Comics are powerful.
I started getting a lot of fan mail from kids who read the book. A lot of times they'd say, "Did this really happen to you? Is it real?" Or, "I don't usually like books, but I like your books." I got a lot of kids who immediately wanted to write stories about their own lives. I hear a lot of dental stories, and kids who had accidents or back braces. No matter what the actual specific incident was, that feeling of not fitting in and having something wrong with you was really universal.
It's very rewarding when your work touches someone because it's a very long and challenging process to make the book. When an idea is accepted by the publisher, I'll sign a contract and start drawing thumbnails. Then I'll write and sketch 250 pages and then work with my editor on the story. Once everyone is happy - after two to four revisions, which usually takes me about a year - I'll start final artwork. I use better paper and nicer pencils and ink, and I redraw everything. I pencil first and that takes about half a year. Then I'll ink the book, which is tracing over my pencil lines with permanent ink. That takes four to five months. Then everything gets scanned into a computer and I have a colorist who colors in my work. The text is dropped in by a computer. The whole process takes about two years.
After Smile, I wrote a book called Drama that came out in 2012. That book pulled a lot from my experiences in theater when I was in middle school and high school, but it was fictional. After Drama was published, my fans wrote to me asking to know more about my personal story. In 2014 I published Sisters, which was a follow-up to Smile. I don't call it a sequel, but rather a companion book. It's about my life with my sister and parents anchored by a cross-country road trip that causes plenty of fighting. The next book I'm going to work on is another memoir. It will be about a book that I read when I was 10 years old and how it impacted my life.
I'm always thinking about the kinds of stories I want to tell. I have notebooks and documents with sentences written down or sketches of characters. Sometimes those ideas gel into a story very quickly. Sometimes it can take five or 10 years. I had been thinking about the characters in my new book, Ghosts, since 2002. I started getting really interested in Day of the Dead and how that tradition helps people process death in a way that celebrates life and memories. [Then, in 2012], I had a young cousin who passed away from a brain tumor. She was 13. She was this joyous, beautiful girl who was the one convincing everyone else that it was going to be OK. In Ghosts, the little girl Maya has cystic fibrosis. Telling this story helped me process the grief. I thought if I could write about ways to cope with illness, there would be tons of kids and families who could relate.
Kids read my books and they feel like I'm their friend. I know they look to me as a role model, and that's intense. I wish I could have one-on-one interaction with every one of my fans. If I can reassure kids that their real lives and feelings are complicated and we share that in common, that's wonderful. You don't need to be extraordinary in order to be recognized for your feelings and feel loved.
Get That Life is a weekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Check back each Monday for the latest interview.
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