All-Ages Reader: RAINA TELGEMEIER Writing for Boys vs Girls

All-Ages Reader: RAINA TELGEMEIER

Our three-part conversation with The Baby-Sitters Club creator Ann M. Martin and Smile creator Raina Telgemeier, who adapted Martin’s books for Scholastic, continues today. In this section, we talk about writing for kids when you’re no longer one, and the question of whether the BSC was for boys or girls…

Newsarama: Ann, you’ve been writing for kids for several decades now. How do you feel your writing has evolved over the years?  

 

Ann M. Martin
: In terms of my own writing, and how it’s evolved, I loved working on The Baby-Sitters Club and the other series. It was really one of the most fun times of my life. I think I learned a lot about myself as a writer during that time.

But by the time the series ended in 2000, I was really happy to let it all go. I think both myself and my editors felt that since the characters hadn’t aged in quite a long time, it wasn’t as fulfilling to write about them anymore, because they simply couldn’t change in a lot of ways. So it was becoming a struggle to come up with storylines for them.

Wonderful as it had been, I was kind of happy to say goodbye to them, and also to have the time to work on different kinds of books. After the series ended, I wrote The Doll People books with another author, which were fantasy. I’d never written fantasy before.

 I wrote a couple of books that were set in the 1960s, in my own childhood, a time period that was very different for contemporary readers. I feel like I had the opportunity to stretch my wings, and it was absolutely wonderful.

Nrama: What changes have you seen in the marketplace in terms of works for younger readers, or opportunities for different styles of writing?

Martin: In terms of the kids who are reading books now, they have a lot of things that weren’t even invented in 1986, when The Baby-Sitters Club began – iPods, laptops, cell phones. I don’t think kids have changed substantially – their interests are still their families, school, friends, friendship. Those sorts of things haven’t changed, which for me as a writer is a really lovely thing.

My nephew is 12 now, and of course he has an iPhone, and he texts with his friends and everything, but his all-out passion is baseball. So in that sense, you could have that with a kid today, or a kid from 1986, or a kid from 1940.

So it’s sort of gratifying to see that while a lot of things may have changed on the surface, in a lot of very basic and organic ways, they haven’t changed very much at all.

Nrama: Raina, how do you feel things have changed – and given your career path, how have things particularly changed in terms of comics that have appeal for girls? 

 

Raina Telgemeier
: If by “girls,” you mean “kids and tweens,” there really wasn’t very much to serve girls who liked comics over the past 20 years. But before that you had Little Lulu, and you had a lot of girl characters in comic strips. I don’t know how widely collected versions of those things were, but now there’s collections of Little Lulu and the Peanuts strips, and those were good for kids then and good for kids now.

As far as where publishers are now, and doing comic and graphic novels marketed specifically for girls, I feel that we still have a little ways to go, but things are getting better. I have a lot of friends who are specifically targeting that market and do books that appeal to girls and younger tweens. So slowly but surely, we’re trying to evolve the market a little bit.

Nrama: But it’s interesting how stuff can cross genders. There’s a lot of accusations of comics being “a man’s world,” especially in terms of being marketed toward boys. And hey, growing up, I read The Baby-Sitters Club, but I was sort of closeted about it – it was seen as a girls’ series!

That leads me to ask – Ann, when you were writing these books originally, did you specifically think, “Oh, these are going to be for kids overall,” or “Oh, these are going to be for girls?”

Martin: I didn’t really think about it that much. I think I feel most comfortable – though I don’t always do this –writing about girls, and a lot of the characters I’ve written about are girls, so I suppose you could think that, yes, the books are more intended for girls.

But I didn’t actually set out to write a series for girls. I think that was the image it had, eventually, but I also know for a fact that there were a lot of boys who read them, whether it was in secret like you or just openly read them.

Interestingly, the three Doll People books that I wrote with Laura Godwin have a lot of male readers. I think I get as many letters on the Doll People books from boys as girls, and not “closeted” boys. (laughs). That’s been a real eye-opener for me, that they’ve been so popular with boys.

So I didn’t set out specifically to write a series for girls. I think it did wind up with that image, but that there were also a lot more boy readers than people realize.

Nrama: I’m embarrassed with…well, being embarrassed now. But it seemed like there was a division bell back then – you know, Hardy Boys are for boys, Nancy Drew is for girls, the Bobbsy Twins are neutral ‘cause they’re both boys and girls. (laughs) 

 

Martin
: Right, and I think there was that perception, a bit. But there was probably more crossover than we knew – my father told me, as an adult, that he never liked the Hardy Boys growing up, but he always liked Nancy Drew! I think there’s certain series that do get an image one way or another as a girls’ series or a boys’ series, but there is much more crossover than we’re aware of.

Nrama: Raina, when you were growing up, did you enjoy stuff from Marvel and DC, or did you feel like it was directed more at boys?

Telgemeier: I didn’t really feel that way, no. I look back now and a lot of the cartoonists I read were men, but not because they were men or that they were writing boy characters, but because there weren’t that many women cartoonists. I’m a big fan of Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse, and that’s the only female cartoonist I can think of that I read growing up, and now I can look back and go, “Wow, there weren’t that many women doing comics when I started making them.” She still remains one of my idols.

But still, I didn’t think of Bill Watterson as being any different from her, or Calvin & Hobbes as being any different because it was about a boy. I was more interested in reading about kids than reading about boys or girls. If it was about adults, I didn’t care, but if it was about kids, I’d read it. (laughs)

Nrama: One thing I’m curious about – this is for both of you – is once you’re an adult, what’s the hardest thing to capture about being a kid when you’re telling a story from that perspective?

Telgemeier: I was pretty tuned in to my emotions as a kid. I kept a lot of diaries, and even after finishing them, I would pick them up once in awhile, to remember – “What was I thinking when I was 12? When I was 13? When I was 14?”

So I’ve been able to keep my younger days fresh in my head in that way. I don’t keep a diary now, but I have a blog now, so I can go back a few years to see what I was thinking then.

I feel like emotions are timeless, and emotions that are happening right now can trigger an emotion from when I was young. That’s what I’m more interested in capturing, more than anything else.

Nrama: Ann, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced writing from a kid’s perspective? You’ve been doing it for so many years now…

Martin: The biggest challenges I’ve faced don’t have so much to do with writing for kids so much as storytelling. Often, with storytelling for kids, the biggest challenge for me is plotting the story.

Characters usually come to me fairly easy; I love drawing up character descriptions and thinking about who they are, and I always know generally what the story is that I want to tell, and how it’s going to go beginning to end, but plotting out the story is the most difficult part for me, and I think it would be the same for adult characters. Some books come more easily than others, but outlining is always the hardest part of the process for me.

I think that’s why I do so much outlining. That’s a long part of the process that takes place before I start writing, which starts with making notes and then what I call writing a “framework outline” that’s kind of a skeletal outline, and then expanding on that, and then expanding on that, and then expanding on the characters in this long process until I have a chapter-by-chapter outline that I don’t always stick to, it can be expanded on, but it’s very helpful. The actual writing is not always the biggest part. 

 

Telgemeier
: I do find writing a challenge, but I don’t consider myself a writer – I consider myself an artist first, and a writer second. And that’s the hardest part about doing a book, or a comic – if you don’t have a good story, it doesn’t work. Your comic can be the most beautifully-drawn thing in the world, but if it’s not written well, it’s not going to resonate with the reader.

Martin: I rely very heavily on my editors. I do not want to go from a rough draft to a set of galleys. I know a lot of people don’t like revising, but if a book went through from my first draft, I’d have a panic attack! (laughs) I think a lot of my books are a collaborative process, even if I’m not working with another writer.

Telegemeier: We share a lot of the same editors, and they’re good editors.

Martin: Yes. We are lucky. (laughs)

Nrama: What’s been your experience working at Scholastic? It seems like it’s been a good long-term relationship.

Martin: Exactly, and I’ve been lucky in another way in that David Levithan (co-author of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares), who’s been the editor on The Baby-Sitters Club series since…not quite the beginning, but close to it, and he’s still there.

That’s a really amazing thing, and one of the things that helped to make the series so cohesive – it had the same editor for a long period of time, and that doesn’t always happen.

I get very attached to my editors. (laughs) A lot who were there when I started are no longer there, but I’ve worked closely with a lot of them, and it’s been a great experience.

Telgemeier: I feel the same way! The editor who was there when I started is no longer there, but I feel lucky to have worked with her and received her guidance. But her replacement, who I work with now, is also fantastic, and she came in with an enthusiasm for graphic novels, which means that I don’t have to explain things to her.

That’s the challenge of bringing comics into a book-publishing world – and I’m basing this on what some of my friends have told me about working with other publishers – you sometimes get people who have a lot of knowledge of book editing, but not a lot of knowledge about how comics work. But my experience has been really good. I started working with Scholastic in 2004, and it’s been a really good seven years.

Nrama: Ann, would you ever be interested in Raina adapting some of your other books, and Raina, would you be interested in adapting them?

Martin: I’d be very interested in her adapting something like Main Street. I don’t know about The Doll People, because they’re heavily illustrated already, and I don’t think they would lend themselves as handily to graphic novelization as something that hadn’t already been illustrated. And some of the lighter fare I’ve done would translate well… 

Telgemeier: I would do Bummer Summer if I could do one! That was like my favorite book when I was younger.

Martin: That was my first one, actually!

Telgemeier: I also liked Ten Kids, No Pets

Martin: That would be good too!

 

Telgemeier
: Ann’s work is very easy to connect to. But I’m also excited to do my own stories, and to focus on personal work for a couple of years. But Ann, let’s talk about Bummer Summer some other time…

Nrama: Ann, you’ve had a lot of success with other books since you stopped doing stories with the BSC – what made you want to come back to the characters?

Martin: The books came to an end in 2000, and by 2006, David Levithan and I started to hear from older fans who were in their 20s and 30s now, who were saying that they had loved the books and wished they could find them, but they were going out of print.

So David and I talked about the idea of reissuing the series, and I asked David if he would be interested in one new BSC book to help with the relaunch. When I finished the series in 2000, I said, “Never again!” I had fun with the series, but now that it was done, I felt like I had told every story I could tell.

But when we started talking about this idea, it seemed like fun – not to write 12 books a year again, but to do one more book and revisit the characters, especially at a slightly different time in their lives, seemed very appealing. And of course I’m continuing to write different kinds of things, and it seemed like fun. And it was fun! I really enjoyed doing it.

Nrama: You did that series for so long, and you’ve done a lot of books since that have been very successful, but do you ever worry about the BSC overshadowing your other work now that you’ve gone back to it?

Martin: The easy answer is yes, there has been some concern. I think I would be more concerned if I was going to start writing a whole series of new books again. That would be a huge concern, because I think that the perception would be that that was all I was doing, and certainly it would take up all of my time.

But to write one new book, slightly different from the others, and to let the other books come filtering back, was certainly appealing, and as I said, I’m still doing other things.

I feel like new things are coming up all of the time, and I want to try to take as many new opportunities as I can, to help keep things fresh. So I’m not worried that it’s going to overshadow things – that’s the long answer. (laughs)

Next: Our series concludes as we talk about the challenges of adapting The Baby-Sitters Club…and why the characters are still so popular.

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