All-Ages Reader: RAINA TELGEMEIER Adapts 80s Classics

All-Ages Reader: RAINA TELGEMEIER

Welcome back to Newsarama’s all-new series All-Ages Reader, where we take a look at the line between comic books and children’s books – and where they cross. Today, we begin a multi-part interview with two creators whose work has entertained two generations of girls…and, boys.

Ann Martin

In the 1980s, Ann M. Martin’s series The Baby-Sitters Club was one of the great hits of YA literature, selling 17 million copies and spawning both film and TV spinoffs before Martin retired the characters to work on other properties, including the Newbery Honor recipient A Corner of the Universe.

In the last few years, several of Martin’s BSC novels were adapted by cartoonist – and fan – Raina Telgemeier, for Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. Telgemeier recently won the Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens for her autobiographical comic Smile (A Dental Drama), the tale of her battle with braces and accidentally losing her two front teeth while growing up. It’s also been a huge bestseller of its own, and won a slew of YA literature awards.

Through Scholastic Books, we set up a conference call with these two creators to talk about their work, Martin’s return to her characters in the last few years, and the enduring power of the BSC.

Newsarama: Ann, what did you think of the BSC Graphix?

Ann M. Martin: When Raina started working on the adaptations, our editor showed me some of her early work. I remember how impressed I was with it, and how appropriate I thought it would be for The Baby-Sitters Club. She just seemed able to capture the expressions on the kids’ faces, and sure enough, when I saw the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea, it was just perfect.

Nrama: How much did you two interact during the adaptations? 

Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier
: It was through the editor, mostly.

Martin: He would communicate through Raina, and then through me.

Telgemeier: Ann would see every draft – from the thumbnails to the pencils to the final lettered pages – and every version, there would be some tweaking, which is normal for editors. For me, it was kind of a thrill to have her in on what I was doing!

Martin: I’m glad, because it seemed like there wasn’t much tweaking to be done. They stuck so close to the books, but added a nice visual spin to them. It was very interesting for me, because I’d never been through anything quite like that before. I’d written a couple of picture books, but I hadn’t gotten to work with the illustrators, so for me, this was a new experience, and a good one.

Nrama: Raina, the press info said that you actually proposed adapting the series to Scholastic…

Telgemeier: It was a series of conversations I had with the editors, and they asked about what series I’d enjoyed as a child, and I mentioned The Baby-Sitters Club, and they said, “Huh. That would be an interesting project, then. Would you like to try doing an adaptation?”

So it wasn’t exactly my idea, but they saw I was a fan, and that I might be good for an adaptation of the series. And it worked out.

Nrama: You were finishing Smile while you were working on the adaptations. Did you find working on the BSC books influenced how Smile turned out? 

 

Telgemeier
: I started the first Baby-Sitters Club adaptation…the same month I started doing Smile, I think. So there was really no separation of time between the two projects.

But I drew about 700 Baby-Sitters Club pages as a full-time job, and was doing one page of Smile per week for the web. So I feel my drawing style evolved over those 700 pages, and Smile has the same evolution, but it’s over a smaller number of pages (laughs).

My style used to be simpler. I used to rely on black-and-white, and while I was working on Smile, I learned to adapt to color on my end. I think I picked up some new techniques on my end, and learned to draw things I had never been required to before…like dogs, for example. (laughs)

There are a lot of dogs in The Baby-Sitters Club, and I’d never had to draw dogs before, so I wasn’t really comfortable drawing them. But now, I think I could draw a whole graphic novel about dogs. (laughs)

Nrama: Raina, what’s been the most interesting response you’ve had for Smile?

Telgemeier: The reception has been amazing – I’ve gotten so many responses from kids who have read it, and parents who say they’ve read it with their kids, and been able to share it together, which has been really, really cool to see.

Nrama: Ann, there’s obviously been a lot of visual representations of your characters over the years, from the paperback covers to the film and TV series. What was your reaction to Raina’s visualization of the characters, that more cartoony look, and did it influence you as you wrote the new book? 

 

Martin
: It didn’t influence the way I saw them in my head when I was writing the new book, because when I began the new book [a prequel to The Baby-Sitters Club titled, The Summer Before—ed.], it was about eight years after the series had ended, so I had to go way back to the first book in the series, back to when they were younger -- though by the time the series was over, they were only a year older than when the series began!

But they felt younger, looked so much younger on the covers, and I had visualize them as younger characters in that part of their lives, which was so long ago for me, even if it wasn’t that long ago for them.

It was interesting – as the series progressed originally, from 1986 to 2000, the way the looks of the characters evolved on the book jackets and in things like the TV show and the movie and things like board games.

But it was all very realistic up until the graphic novel, like you said. But I really liked it – I’m biased, as my father is a cartoonist, so I was all set to like Raina’s drawings, and when I did see them, they were perfect for the series.

Nrama: Raina, when you had to go back in your childhood in the late 1980s for Smile, what were some of the challenges?

Telgemeier: Well, I only have a set amount of reference photos from that period of my life, because there were no digital cameras back then – my parents would take a roll of film, and then maybe six months later they’d use another roll of film.

You can go online and search for things like “1989 clothes,” but it’s hard to get a lot of reference for these things, so I had to rely on my own memory. And a lot has changed in San Francisco since that period, and I had reference for some things and not for others, so again, I had to guess at things.

But it’s not intended to be a time capsule. It has kind of a timeless feel, and if you know when it took place, you can catch all these little references in it, but they’re not overt.  

 

Nrama
: I associate that time period of the late 1980s in my own life with Ann’s books a lot – what do both of you remember about that time, just the feel of it, the popular culture, and how things have changed since then?

Martin: Well, for me, it’s going to be a lot different than for you or for Raina because I was a lot older! (laughs) In 1986, when the first book in the series came out, I was 31.

For me, personally, it was a very exciting time in my career. I had just left my last full-time job, and I was going into freelance writing full-time, and the first book came out and it was a hit right away, which nobody had expected. For me, personally, it was a very exciting time in my adult life and career.

In terms of popular culture and things like that…gosh, I don’t know. I was never a big TV watcher, so I don’t know much about TV shows or things like that. I was, however, just talking with someone today about the hideous fashions from the 1980s.

Nrama: There was that awful period where everything was pastel.

Martin: Oh, and that came on the heels of Day-Glo…

Telgemeier: You tried to capture as much of that as you could in Claudia, right?

Martin: Exactly. Claudia’s fashions were a little bit over-the-top. For me, what I really remember about the late 1980s was that my career was taking out in this unexpected way and it was very exciting, but Raina, for you it must have been very different. Raina, how old were you in 1989?

 

Telgemeier
: I was 11 years old, and still reading The Baby-Sitters Club at 11. I was up to book #75 or so before I realized I was older than the characters now, and thought it would be a good idea to give them to my sister. (laughs) But I never gave them up completely.

The time in my life when those books were most important to me was between ages 9 and 12. That was also about the same time I discovered comic books and comic strips. So I was reading the paper every day, and seeing comic strips there, so it was all about The Baby-Sitters Club and my Calvin & Hobbes collections and my For Better or For Worse collections, my trifecta of reading material at the time.

I tried to chronicle what I remembered most about that era in Smile – like, The Simpsons started airing in 1990 or so, which was right at the start of the decade, and I became a huge Simpsons fan. And The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, and I was just smitten with that movie, and decided that I wanted to be an animator.

I was turning into a teenager, so everything felt very emotionally charged. I liked rap music back then. (laughs) I wanted to be into fashion, but I was never the kind of person who could keep up with fashion trends, and I could never style my hair the way everyone else’s was – my hair was very thin, so I couldn’t do like the sprayed bangs everyone else was into.

When I was doing Smile, I was looking back at pictures of myself and going, “Thank goodness I couldn’t do the sprayed-bangs thing! Everybody’s so embarrassed by that hairstyle now, but I was never cool enough to pull it off!” (laughs)

I was kind of a cross between Kristy and Mary Anne among The Baby-Sitters Club characters. I was shy, but I was also kind of a tomboy, and I was really good at sticking my foot in my mouth even though I was shy. (laughs) Though because Claudia was an artist, I related to her too – there was something I could relate to in every character in that series.

Next: More with Martin and Telgemeier as they discuss writing for kids – and the question of whether something is written for “boys” or “girls.”

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