Interview with Ruth Behar and Gabriel Frye-Behar, Authors of Pepita Meets Bebita

Ruth Behar is an acclaimed author of adult fiction and nonfiction, and Lucky Broken Girl–winner of the Pura Belpre Award–is her first book for young readers. She was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has lived and worked in Spain and Mexico. Her honors include a MacArthur “Genius” Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, and a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University.

Gabriel Frye-Behar is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker and photographer. He has a BFA in Film & TV Production from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He currently teaches in the Drama Department at NYU/Tisch. This is his first picture book and he and his wife can’t wait to share it with their own lovely pepita and bebita.

I had the opportunity to interview Ruth and Gabriel, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

RB and GFB: Ruth is a cultural anthropologist and writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Gabriel is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn.

What can you tell us about your latest project, Pepita Meets Bebita? What was the inspiration for this story?

RB and GFB: Pepita Meets Bebita was a joy to write. We wanted to celebrate a beautiful transition in our lives – becoming a grandmother and becoming a dad. This was in late 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, so being able to relish our happiness and welcome a new little one into our lives was very special. But someone was being left out of all the excitement and that was Gabriel and his wife Sasha’s beloved pup, Eloise, who’d been the baby of the family until the new baby arrived. Eloise seemed confused about what was happening and of course still wanted her own individual attention (much like a human baby). That was when we realized we had to tell the story from the pup’s perspective.

As a mother-son writing team, what does it mean for you two to both be working on this book together?

RB and GFB: Writing as a mother-son team was such a great experience. We’ve always greatly valued each other’s opinions on storytelling and for years and years we’ve enjoyed discussing books and films. As a filmmaker, Gabriel has an understanding of how to create momentum when telling a story and has such a strong visual imagination, and is focused on keeping the story tight and trimming extraneous material. As a writer, Ruth has a tendency to imagine and world-build, and develop more material than can ultimately fit in a single book, so as writers in collaboration our skills actually fit together remarkably well. On a deeper level, working on this book together gave us a chance to think about stories we want to pass on to the next generation. We worked hard to weave in our Cuban/Latino background that is so much a part of our lives. We chose to integrate Spanish words into the text, as well as Cuban food, and traditions like pinning an azabache on to the baby’s clothes for good luck.

Ruth Behar
Headshot by Gabriel Frye-Behar

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially picture books? What drew you to the medium?

RB: I’m drawn to the visual arts and a lot of my friends – especially in Cuba – are visual artists. My house is filled with art and I love pictures of all kinds. One of my friends, Rolando Estévez, who was a book artist in Cuba, made handmade books that inspired me for years, and I think he played an important role in turning me toward writing stories that would need to be illustrated. I also love the poetic conciseness of picture books and the challenge of telling a story with very few words that will appeal both to a young child and to the adult reading the story to the child.

GFB: As a filmmaker, when I had kids, I immediately found myself in love with reading picture books to them and seeing their world and imagination expand through the imagery and storytelling of the medium. Picture books felt familiarly cinematic, but also like something new that I hadn’t explored myself in a creative fashion. When I started daydreaming about what stories I might want to tell through the lens of a picture book, and how it might create something tactile and tangible that my own kids could experience and enjoy, I got so excited that I had to try and make Pepita’s story come to life.

(For Ruth Behar) As a writer, you’ve been known for writing among a wide range of genres from non-fiction to picture books to middle grade. What do you think inspires you to be so fluid with your writing and would you say there’s a certain freedom to writing so widely?

RB: I love different kinds of writing – history, travelogues, novels, memoirs, fairy tales, poetry. I have found myself wanting to try my hand at all of them. And I adore books that defy genres and blur genres, like verse novels, autofiction, and autoethnography. This inspires me to be fluid and to feel free to write in different voices and for different audiences. It’s been so wonderful to write stories that children and young people read and respond to. I also like the idea of writing books that appeal to people of all ages. I’ve been thrilled when adults write to me to say they’ve enjoyed reading my middle-grade novels. Having taught in a university setting for a long time, I’ve encountered students who feel trapped in their writing, convinced they can only, should only, write conventional academic articles. I tell them to give themselves permission to pay attention to their sensibilities and vulnerabilities and to write with heart and urgency. And so I give myself permission to do the same.

(For Ruth Behar) In various interviews, you’ve stated how your background as a Cuban-Jewish American has inspired your work, such as Lucky Broken Girl, Letters from Cuba, and Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey. As the child of Jewish immigrants myself, I would love to hear your thoughts on what it means to see yourself exploring these identities in your work?

RB: In my work as a cultural anthropologist, I have explored the history and the stories of the Jews of Cuba. I’ve been listening to the family stories since childhood and I’ve traveled to Cuba many times to understand my identity and my community. I always dreamed of creating Cuban Jewish characters and delving into the fictional worlds of those who were born into this unusual way of belonging in the world. I began with Lucky Broken Girl, telling my own story, and also that of my immigrant family, then continued with Letters from Cuba, telling my maternal Ashkenazi grandmother’s story, and honoring the journeys of the Jews who found refuge in Cuba on the eve of the Holocaust. Writing my debut picture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, I turned to my paternal Sephardic side to imagine how I’d pass on that heritage to young children through the symbol of the key to a lost home. Now I have a new forthcoming novel, Across So Many Seas, which goes deeper into that Sephardic heritage, moving between the lives of four young girls whose stories come together in the final pages of the book. I feel so blessed to have been able to give voice to all these different layers of my identity through storytelling.

Gabriel Frye-Behar

In general, how would you describe your creative process? What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What do you find to be some of the most difficult/frustrating?

RB: I start with a general idea of a story I want to tell – usually there’s a character who’s finding their way through a challenging or painful situation. I usually don’t know more than that. I have to write to discover what their journey will be, who they’ll meet along the way, what they’ll feel, and think about, who their friends will be, who they love, and what they fear. It is wonderful to experience that discovery process in writing and the surprises you encounter. Magic happens. What I find difficult is when the writing gets interrupted because of work or obligations or travel or too much time on social media. Then it’s a struggle to return to the world of my characters. When I’m deep into the writing, I try not to leave my desk for very long, so my characters will keep speaking to me.

GFB: My writing process virtually always has to start with a character. Once I have the central character or characters in mind and I can start to hear their voice or sense of how they might react to the world around them I try to allow them to lead me to the story I should go on and tell. In the case of Pepita Meets Bebita, I had so much fun working out what the arc for Pepita should be, how could she both be changed in a positive and meaningful way, but also still be herself at the end of the story. The challenge with writing for me is always simply… time. I can write fast if I have to, but once I’m emotionally invested in a project I tend to write slowly, and free writing time with, now two young kids, is a rare and precious thing.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

RB: I am inspired by people’s stories and have always loved being a story-listener. And I am inspired by the arts – visual arts, folk art, music, dance, fiction, poetry, children’s books. My travels to Spanish-speaking countries have been very inspiring. Whenever I go to Spain, I stop at the Prado Museum to see the work of Goya, whose paintings I’ve been drawn to since I was nineteen. In Mexico, I love the textiles, the embroideries, the filigree jewelry, the hand-painted clay pots. In Cuba, the beat of the drums used in religious rituals can be heard in the streets and that’s something that’s stayed with me. My house is filled with souvenirs of my travels and that gives me energy to write. I have books everywhere – on overflowing shelves and piles wherever I can stash them. I live in a house of words and memories. That’s a great source of inspiration to me, though I know to others it may seem I live amid too much clutter!

GFB: I’ve been influenced by so many different writers and filmmakers from when I was a child in Michigan, through film school in New York, and then through getting an MFA in Creative Writing. From Elmore Leonard’s hyper-naturalistic Detroit-centric low-level mobsters, to Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeously poetic and painterly masterpieces of art house cinema, to ultimate classics of world literature like Brothers Karamazov, I’ve been inspired to try and continually distill the ideas in my head into what my own individual creative voice is at a given moment, and then find the right mode of expression to bring those ideas to life.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

RB and GFB: We were both motivated to get Pepita Meets Bebita done in a timely fashion while the story was still fresh and being lived by the two of us and our sweet pup, of course. We experimented with a few different endings until we felt we’d found an ending that brought the story to a close for the time being and left open the possibility of a sequel.

Aside from your work, what would you want readers to know about you?

RB: I love to dance salsa and bachata. And I love the tango too, though the tango doesn’t always love me; it’s a difficult dance but the music enchants me and sometimes brings me to tears.

GFB: I’m a big sports fan, probably watch a little too much reality TV, and am an aspiring (now almost fully converted) vegetarian.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

RB and GFB: No one has asked us if it’s too late to start writing books for young people. And the answer is it’s never too late. Start whenever you can. We began when Gabriel’s daughter was born making us a grandmother – an abuelita – and a dad, and we didn’t know what was coming but went on the journey and wrote a book together.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

RB and GFB: Write because you have a passionate need to tell a story that only you can tell. Write with love and compassion. Remember that writing and publishing are different pursuits. You will write much more than you will ever publish. Be prepared to throw away a lot of writing, or to put aside a story that isn’t yet ready to be told. Find a writing buddy who will read your early drafts and give you honest feedback without destroying you. And then persevere and write whenever and wherever you can. If you’re stuck, go to the library, or to your favorite independent bookstore, and find inspiration and light among the authors who’ve come before you.

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

RB: As I mentioned above, I have a new middle-grade novel, Across So Many Seas, coming out in February 2024.

GFB: And… we have co-authored another mother-son picture book! We are very excited about it, but that’s all we can say at the moment. I’m also at work on an adult novel.

Finally, any books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

RB: I love the work of Catalan author Mercé Rodoreda, especially her novel The Time of the Doves, that takes place during the Spanish Civil War. In children’s literature, one of my favorite books is The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, with illustrations by Louis Slobodkin. I keep it next to my desk so it’s always within reach. I also am blessed to have as friends two amazing writers, inaugural poet Richard Blanco, who has a new collection of his poems coming out soon, Homeland of My Body, and Sandra Cisneros, well-known for The House on Mango Street, who has a new book of poetry, Woman Without Shame.

GFB: Two good friends of mine are writers who have published amazing work recently. Brigit Young, who has written three absolutely beautiful middle-grade novels, Worth a Thousand Words, The Prettiest, and Bright, and David Leo Rice, who has written several brilliant novels and an incredible book of short stories, Drifter Stories. They’re both well worth checking out!

Interview with the Manolo & the Unicorn Creative Team

Jackie Azúa Kramer is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Dorothy & Herbert: An Ordinary Couple and Their Extraordinary Collection of Art, published by Cameron Kids. Her hopes are to write stories that reflect who children see in the mirror and what they see out of their windows. She lives with her family in Long Island, New York. Find her Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer and Twitter @JackieKramer422.

Jonah Kramer is a New York City-based actor, singer, dancer, and now children’s book author. He has traveled as a performer both nationally and internationally. He is delighted to coauthor his first book with his amazing mom. Find him on Instagram @jonahekramer.

Zach Manbeck is a children’s book author and illustrator who loves to create stories that advocate for characters that haven’t yet had a chance to live in books. He lives in Philadelphia. Find him on Instagram @zachmanbeck.

I had the opportunity to interview Jackie, Jonah, and Zach which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Jackie:: I’m a picture book author and to date, I’ve published about eight books including Manolo & the Unicorn with more releasing in 2023 and 2024. I’m thrilled that between three of my books, they’ve been translated into a total of ten languages. I would describe my writing and books as eclectic, as the inspiration to my stories come from many sources—travel, movies, history, music, art, and the natural world. However, my Latinx cultural roots, experiences, and memories play a big part in my storytelling. In the end, I hope to write stories that meet children where they are and reflects what they see in their mirror, and out their windows.

Jonah: I am a performer and now first-time children’s book author. I have a degree in musical theatre from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and I have worked as a professional actor in regional theatres as well as touring both nationally and internationally.

Zach: I am an author and illustrator from Pennsylvania. Manolo & the Unicorn is the third book I’ve worked on. My other titles You Are Here (Chronicle, May 2022) and Stanley’s Secret (written by John Sullivan, Paula Wiseman Books, Jan 2023) are available now! As an artist, people describe my work as modern vintage—nostalgic, yet fresh. As a writer, I aim to tell stories from a fresh perspective—stories that advocate for characters that haven’t yet had a chance to live in books, and stories sprinkled with lessons that encourage the forming of healthy minds. 

Jackie Kramer

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Manolo & the Unicorn? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

Jackie: Manolo & the Unicorn was written with my son, Jonah, and was inspired by a bullying experience he had as a child. I was interested in writing an odd friendship story. But our love of mythology and unicorns pulled the two themes together. We both have acting backgrounds so it was fun to act out scenes we envisioned for the story before drafting a word. The story explores gender identity and believing in oneself wrapped in magical realism and mythology. When I was a child, or even later, when I had my own children, there weren’t any books that explored the theme of gender norms and identity. I feel good knowing that today kids have access to books like Manolo & the Unicorn.

Jonah: I wrote Manolo & the Unicorn with my mom and it was inspired by experiences I had as a child. Growing up I often felt alone or ostracized because my interests didn’t match with what my peers expected of me. An early memory I have is being told that my favorite color couldn’t be the color purple because “purple is for girls.” When I shared some of these experiences with my mom she felt like we could write a meaningful story together. As a kid, I was obsessed with fantastical creatures and would spend hours drawing unicorns, mermaids, fairies, and dragons. So, having our story based in magical realism felt like the perfect fit.

Zach: Visually, my biggest inspiration for the book came from very early Disney concept art by the renowned Mary Blair.  No one can paint magic the way that she did. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, and children’s books? What drew you to the medium? 

Jackie: Since I was a young kid, I was cutting comics out from the Sunday papers and then pasting them onto another sheet of paper with my own story written underneath. I have always loved picture books. I loved to let my imagination step into another world. In addition, the stories helped me to understand the world around me. I started out planning on becoming an actor and trained at NYU, but my life’s journey took me in another direction. Ironically, my experience as an actor has helped me as a writer. In theatre, you have a beginning, middle, and an end with characters and settings. Page turns to me are like the end of a scene in a play, the curtain goes up and comes down. In the end, I felt I had something to say, and I hoped others felt the same way.

Jonah: I actually didn’t expect to get into the medium of children’s books. During the height of the pandemic, the theatre industry was hit extremely hard and I was out of work. My mom asked if I would be interested in writing a story with her based on some of my childhood experiences that I had shared with her. Coming from a theatre background I had already been telling stories, but now I got to tell them through a new medium. So, I kind of fell into the medium of children’s books, but I am so happy and grateful that I did.  

Zach: I think picture books are healing—for myself, and for readers. I create books that I wish I had access to when I was a child. Manolo & the Unicorn would have certainly had a home on my bookshelf. 

Jonah Kramer

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Manolo & the Unicorn? 

Jackie: Lots of daydreaming, musing, percolating, long walks, and Swiffering, before I put even one word on paper. Once I have the beginning and end, with the middle a bit fuzzy, I begin to draft the story. Sometimes I have a title that I love and work around that. If you write or illustrate picture books you need to accept and trust that it takes a creative village to make beautiful and meaningful books. I have been fortunate to work with a terrific team at Cameron Kids that had the same vision for Manolo & the Unicorn.

Jonah: Both my mom and I have a background in theatre, so we viewed a lot of the story as if it was a play or a movie. Typically one of us would write a section and then we would act it out for the other person almost as if it were a play. I remember we spent a lot of time trying to capture the nuances of what the first interaction would be between the Unicorn and Manolo. In the research we did on unicorn stories, we found that there is an etiquette and a level of politeness that is required when first meeting a unicorn. We went back and forth trying to find the balance of excitement, trepidation, and wonder that our two characters would be feeling when meeting for the first time. We acted this small moment out so many times. Ultimately most of what we acted out for that moment didn’t make it into the final edit, but it really helped to shape our understanding of the two characters and their relationship.

Zach: When creating Manolo & the Unicorn I spent a lot of time absorbing all of my favorite fairy tales from childhood. From there, judgment-free sketching and painting happens, and if I’m lucky things magically fall into place. The hardest part of creating anything is believing in yourself. I was lucky to have a team of people who really trusted my vision and encouraged me throughout the whole process of making the book. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration? 

Jackie: I may have answered this in your first question. I have many, many creative influences like travel, the natural world, my childhood memories, and art. That said, my greatest creative influence is my curiosity. For example, I wrote the nonfiction picture book, Dorothy and Herbert-Ordinary People and their Extraordinary Collection of Art, after watching an amazing documentary about Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. The Vogels amassed one of the largest and priceless collections of modern art in a small, one-bedroom apartment, then donated it all to the National Gallery. I had never written nonfiction before, but I keep myself open to the muse who presents itself in many ways. 

Jonah: My parents loved to share classic movie musicals with me, so I think a lot of my inspiration comes from movies and musicals. I also take a lot of inspiration from queer artists and creators. 

Zach:  As an artist, I have endless influences. Those influences are constantly rotated and revisited based on the nature of the project I’m working on. For Manolo & the Unicorn, Mary Blair was my biggest influence. I fell madly in love with her work my freshman year of college and that love has persisted. Her visual development, specifically for Cinderella and Peter Pan, really inspired me while painting Manolo & the Unicorn.

Zach Manbeck

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you? 

Jackie: I look forward to the fork in the road.

Jonah: I have been fortunate enough to get to explore a few different creative fields. When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist, I ended up studying theatre and becoming an actor, and now I’m a published children’s book author. It’s never too late to explore other passions. You never know where they might take you.

Zach: I prefer to let my work speak for itself. In the age of social media, we have normalized constant updates and open windows into people’s personal lives. As an artist who marches to the beat of his own drum, I deliberately keep my “window” closed. Let your work speak for itself. 

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss? 

Jackie: I have three more books coming out in 2023—We Are One-about our connections to each other and the natural world, Empanadas for Everyone-about a little girl who discovers her community when she makes empanadas, and Boogie in the Bronx, a toe-tapping, dancing and singalong book which features CD audio and video animation. I can’t say too much about it, but my latest WIP is nonfiction and takes the reader far into space.

Jonah: At the moment I don’t have anything that I am working on, but I am really trying to enjoy this moment of having my first book published. It has been so gratifying to see both kids and adults interacting with our story and sharing their excitement about it.

Zach: I currently have two new projects on my desk that are in very early stages.  One is a whimsical dreamy bedtime story and the other is a story about shyness and friendship.  I look forward to sharing more details about them in the future!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)? 

Jackie:  Do you believe in unicorns?

I do! Magical things exist all around us and happen all the time. All we need do is to tap into our curiosity and believe.

Jonah: What animal would you be for the wild animal parade?

A unicorn, of course!

Zach: What is your favorite part of Manolo & the Unicorn

One of my favorite parts of Manolo & the Unicorn is how I used color to tell the story. Throughout the pages, you will notice a conflict between the colors red and green. Manolo, his Unicorn, and their magic exists in a “green” world. Characters and feelings that question Manolo’s beliefs live in a ‘red’ world. When Manolo’s red-hued classmates let him know that they think unicorns aren’t real, he temporarily shifts from being green to red. However, when he meets his unicorn, he is magically restored to green. A similar color transformation also occurs at the end.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book? 

Jackie: Join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Read, read, read lots of picture books old and new. Discover books that you love and use them as mentor texts, and to understand what’s being published. Finally, don’t quit. Believe in yourself and understand that a rejection isn’t personal. Rejections are completely subjective.

Jonah: I would say that it’s important to write about things that are genuine and authentic to you. When the subject matter is meaningful to you it makes the writing process that much easier, and I think as a reader you can feel the passion and the love through the writing as a result. It is also important to know your audience and who you are writing for. And for me, I am passionate about bringing more LGBTQ+-themed stories to the table. I know that there are kids out there who would both enjoy and benefit from having stories that reflect their experiences, but there are not enough stories being written for kids who may identify as LGBTQ+. So, I encourage aspiring creatives to find what they are passionate about and to find a need. What stories need to be told? What voices need to be heard?

Zach: Cliché, but don’t give up. My first picture book was sold for six figures after a multi-day auction between several publishers. I was living at home, unemployed, and broke when I got that email. I went into it just hoping one publisher would make me a small offer. Life has a way of surprising us…if you let it!

Finally, what books/authors (LGBTQ+ and/or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

Jackie: There are many I love but here are a few of my favorites, and one written by our multitalented editor, for Manolo & the Unicorn: Girl on a Motorcycle by Amy Novesky illustrated by Julie Morstad (Viking, 2020). Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara (Versify, 2021), and Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall (Greenwillow, 2015).

Jonah: My favorite book is The Song of Achilles (Ecco, 2012) by Madeline Miller. The book is based on the Greek mythology of Achilles and it is told from the perspective of Patroclus who was Achilles’ closest companion. I love the way Miller takes Greek mythology but tells the story through a writing style that makes Greek mythology easily accessible to young readers. It is truly one of the most beautiful love stories that I have ever read. To be able to read a book that I could relate to as a member of the LGBTQ+ community was so rewarding when for so long we have been (and continue to be) underwritten, undervalued, and unrepresented in most of the media that we consume. I can’t sing enough praises for The Song of Achilles.

Zach: Matthew Forsythe’s Mina (Simon & Schuster, 2022) and Pokko and the Drum (Simon & Schuster, 2019) are my favorites. Matt is an incredible artist, a clever writer, and a wonderful friend. 

Interview with Artist Sabina Hahn

Sabina Hahn is a Brooklyn based illustrator, animator, and sculptor who loves stories and tall tales. Sabina has been drawing from before she was born; she is a master of capturing subtle fleeting expressions and the most elusive of gestures. She is a co-founder of Interval Studios. Pineapple Princess is her debut picture book.

I had the opportunity to interview Sabina, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Sabina Hahn. I love words and pictures and clay. And cats. I moved to New York from Riga, Latvia when I was 17 and I have been here ever since.

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Pineapple Princess? What was the inspiration for this story?

Pineapple Princess first appeared as a drawing of a surly kid; then the title  “Pineapple Princess” dropped into my head like a gift. They kind of melted into one and soon I started to idly think of her and where she came from and what she liked to do. I kept drawing her and writing small snippets. Soon I felt curious enough about her to sit down and write her story. I wanted to know more about this kid who knows she is a princess and is also sticky and surly and sure of herself. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?

I fell in love with books when I was 4 or 5, the first time I read “Alice in Wonderland”. The combination of earnestness and absurdity really spoke to me. For me, the best children’s books have that quality because kids tend to think in leaps and sometimes those leaps happen sideways or upside down. I like to stay in touch with my inner child and children’s books are the easiest way to do so. 

I personally started to write kid’s books when I decided to change my career from animation to something else. Books seemed like a logical place to go to. It appealed to me that I can make key frames and then the reader does all the in-between work inside their mind. 

How would you describe your creative process? 

Meandering. Very very meandering. I have a small notebook where I jot all of my ideas for stories, no matter how small or vague it might be. Generally, one or two stories are particularly interesting to me or close to my heart. And so I will start writing a little, sketching a bit and also – very important – “researching”. ‘Researching’ is what I call all the rabbit holes I jump into. It is a great joy to me. One of the best things about being a New Yorker is our library. I love working in the libraries – this year, my favorite has been the Main library with the lions. I go there and write, and when I need a break I pick up a random book to be inspired. 

I tend to alternate between drawing and writing. Then, when I have the bones of the story, I start doing both at once.  Afterwards,  I make a book dummy. It is a great way to see the flow of the story and to tighten it up where it is needed. I might have anywhere from 3 to about 7 book dummies of various degrees of sketchiness by the time I am finished with a story. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration? 

Anything that makes me stop and wonder is the source of  inspiration. It is people sometimes, overheard conversations, misheard words, books, art – anything and everything.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/illustrating? What are some of the most challenging? 

I find writing challenging. I want to use all words and no words at once and have a hard time balancing that dichotomy in my books. When I get discouraged, I remind myself of these words by Felicity Beedles from “Thud” by Terry Pratchett : “‘… how hard can writing be?  After all, most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there’s a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you.’ ”

My favorite things about creating (be it words or images) are the moments of wonder. Every once in a while I am surprised by what I create. It is as if it has a life of its own and I am the lucky one who gets to spend time with it.. 

Besides your work as an author/illustrator, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I love working with clay. It brings me joy and equilibrium. You should try it too. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

‘What is your favorite animal’ is a question people over a certain age (11 maybe) don’t get asked enough. At the moment my favorite animal is a hog nose snake who very dramatically pretends to be dead when it is scared. So much drama!

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

A lot of my stories I am working now are in their caterpillar cocoon form. I am afraid to disturb them while their existence is so precarious. But one of the characters that keeps showing up lately when I am daydreaming is a cat in a cat suit. What it is doing or what it wants is unclear, but it’s pretty persistent. 

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book? 

Read, read, read! When you get tired of reading, make, make, make. When you get tired of that, connect with other similarly minded people. And then show your work; be present in the world you want to inhabit. 

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I tend to read pretty widely, so here are some of my favorites from the last few years. 

Paradise Sands by Levi Pinfold (picture book)

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (picture book)

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascot  (graphic novel)

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto (graphic novel)

Wolf Doctors by Sara June Woods (poetry)
The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (because it’s one of my all time favorite books)

And all of Terry Pratchett too.

Nature of Oaks by Douglas Tallamy (non-fiction, one of the books I read for my research, so interesting!) 

Header Photo Credit Anna Campanelli

Interview with Rii Abrego & Benjamin A. Wilgus

Rii Abrego is a Latina illustrator and comic artist who resides in the very humid southern United States. Rii has provided work for Random House, Oni Press, BOOM! Studios, Lion Forge, OMOCAT, Harmonix, Kazoo magazine, Ascend Comics, and Power & Magic Press, among others. She is the illustrator of the graphic novel The Sprite and the Gardener, co-written with Joe Whitt and published by Oni Press.

Benjamin A. Wilgus is a cartoonist and writer of comics and prose, including Chronin, a graphic novel duology from Tor Books. He has also written two works of graphic nonfiction for First Second Books: Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared, illustrated by Molly Brooks, and The Mars Challenge, illustrated by Wyeth Yates.

I had the opportunity to interview Rii and Ben, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Rii: Thank you for having me!

I’m Rii, and I’m an illustrator and comic artist who lives in the southern USA. I studied drawing and painting at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, and since then I’ve provided art for a variety of comic titles, including the original graphic novel The Sprite and the Gardener. I also have several cats (they gave me no choice in the matter)

Ben: And I’m Ben! Very happy to be here! I’ve been neck-deep in comics for most of my life at this point — I had my brain chemistry altered forever by both the Mirage Studios and Archie TMNT comics series in middle school, and I think that pretty much locked me in. I’ve drawn a lot of comics and zines over the years (including Chronin, a big two-part graphic novel) but these days most of professional comics work is either writing or editing. I live in Brooklyn, and at the moment I’m sad to say I only have one cat, but I have high hopes for what the future may hold.

As a creative, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically within the graphic novel medium?

Rii: I’ve always loved the visual aspect of storytelling in comics. It’s a lot like real life in that there’s so much that can be communicated without words. Gestures, expressions, colors, angles, and framing can all be used to either emphasize or contradict the dialogue, to control the impact of the scene, etc. It’s like the script has a second script layered on top, and every artist approaches it differently. I want to explore it more!

Ben: Rii put it perfectly! I love that a given comics page can be so dense with nuance and meaning while also feeling breezy and effortless to read — there’s an elegance to a really good comic that’s so unique to the medium. I also write prose, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about the specific strengths of graphic novels as a format, and I do what I can to lean into those strengths instead of fighting them. There are emotional moments between characters which would take hundreds of words of text to explain, but are immediately clear in just a couple of panels. 

There’s a certain type of comics writer who tends to overwhelm pages with captions or dialog that aggressively explain to you what you’re looking at and how you’re supposed to feel about it, often unnecessarily reiterating what’s perfectly clear in the art. But I think it’s a mistake to think that comics writing is just about cramming as much text as possible onto the page. I feel like my job is to be collaborating with the artist to use the entire comics toolbox to tell a story, whether that be the pacing and paneling, the details included in the frame, the facial expressions and body language of the characters, the color palette, the list goes on and on! 

“Collaboration” really is the a key word here, too! Many many comics are collaborative — as opposed to prose, which tends to be more solitary — and I think that makes for better books. Everyone brings their own voice and perspective and talent to the table. I love it!

Rii Abrego

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? And as a team, how would you describe your collaboration style for this project?

Ben: As the writer, I was the first runner in the comics relay race, for the most part. I had met with our editor, Whitney, very very early on to talk about the kinds of books she was interested in for RHG, and Grace Needs Space! — originally called Space Moms before we came up with the final title — was born from those conversations. And writing a full outline for the book was actually part of the pitch process in my case, so by the time I got the official go-ahead to start working on the script, I had all the major plot beats figured out.  

After Rii joined the team — after the outline, but before the script — she and I talked about our big picture vision for the book and what we wanted it to be like. And with those early conversations in mind, I went off to my little corner and wrote and wrote and wrote. And while I was writing, I was also putting together big folders of reference images for some of the locations and objects and such that were part of this far-future deep-space setting, in order to help give Rii a jumping-off point for bringing Grace’s world to life. I’d recently written a non-fiction comic about human spaceflight (The Mars Challenge, drawn by Wyeth Yates) so I was in a great position to really dive down deep into the nerd mines with this one.

Once I was done with the script, though, I honestly tried to be as hands-off as possible! Rii is a fantastic cartoonist with really strong instincts for how to best tell a story, and I trusted her completely. Honestly,  I think a bunch of my notes involved taking out or trimming down dialog that it turned out wasn’t needed — Rii’s art speaks volumes, sometimes that text was just getting in the way!

Rii: In this book’s case, I designed the characters early on, but I didn’t start drawing the book itself until the script was completed, so I had the story laid out for me start to finish. That might sound limiting, but aside from the dialogue being set in stone, I was actually given a lot of room to freely interpret how each scene would look.

My basic process for this graphic novel was to roughly thumbnail each page to get a sense of where everything would go, then come back and refine everything in cleaner sketches, then draw over those sketches with the final lines, and then color it all. So rather than finishing one page at a time, I’d essentially work through the entire book and then circle back multiple times. It’s kind of interesting to see how it evolved with each pass!

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

Ben: In the cast of this specific book, the biggest challenges were bad timing and bad luck on a global scale, to put it very mildly. I was juggling a few different projects, and had specifically set aside March of 2020 as the month when I was going to write the bulk of this script, which…you know. Ended up not working out so well.

I wish I could tell you what I did to get this script done. I cannot remember writing most of it. I DO remember turning it in a little behind deadline, and feeling absolutely awful about having been late, which in retrospect is insane to me. Like…Benjamin. Sir. You were in the deepest depths of a global pandemic, my guy, you did FINE.

More generally, though — when I’m writing things under less hilariously terrible circumstances — my big strategy for finishing things is to tell myself, over and over, that if the first draft is bad I can always fix it. I have an editor, I have a wonderful agent, I have smart friends who give great feedback, I have talented collaborators. If the draft is broken, we’ll figure it out. But you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

Ben: As a queer trans person who was born in the 80s, this is a complicated question. Like…big-time haunted chuckling as I look back on what I hyper-imprinted on as a kid, only to then not figure my transgendered self out for another couple decades. I watched Mulan a frankly insane number of times. I think Pricilla, Queen of the Desert was the first truly queer movie I ever watched, and it shook me to my core. I was really really into Phantom of the Opera in a way that can only be described as deeply homosexual. I recorded George Michael’s Too Funky and Freedom 90 music videos off VH1 and let me tell you, I wore those tapes OUT.

These days, I do everything I can to surround myself with queer stories told by queer people, I am marinating in the best possible content at all times, there’s simply too much to even begin to list off here. But I will take a moment to say that probably the most transformative media in my personal queer journey was both reading and writing deeply vulnerable fanfiction. AO3 is my church, truly.

Ben Wilgus

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative/artistic influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

Rii: That’s a really difficult question! As a kid, I was extremely influenced by anime and manga in general (and I guess maybe that’s still true), with very girls-oriented titles like Tokyo Mew Mew, Sailor Moon, and Full Moon wo Sagashite taking up 90% of my brain space on any given day. In recent years I’ve diversified a lot, so I can’t really pinpoint any major sources. I try to draw inspiration from everything I can, whether that’s abstract work, film, photography, or even just places and objects I see in my day-to-day life. Like, I’ve found inspiration for more than one illustration in a grocery store. Inspiration is everywhere if you’re looking for it.

Ben: The lazy-but-true answer to this is that everything is an influence — all the books and movies and comics and music I’ve taken in, all the conversations I’ve had with friends, all the experiences I’ve weathered, and the places I’ve lived or visited. It all stews in the crockpot of my brain, it’s all part of the inspiration soup I’m drawing from when I sit down to write. 

For Grace Needs Space! specifically, one of my most important inspirations was my own younger self. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I cared about when I was Grace’s age — what it was like to have divorced parents where one of them lived far away, what my struggles and my fears were, the ways in which the adults in my life both supported and failed me, what tiny me felt was most important. It was easy for present-day me to sympathize with Mom and Ba, who are close to my own age and deal with the stuff my parent friends deal with. But it was so so important that I also re-ground myself in what it’s like to be twelve and to desperately care about things that are largely out of your control.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/ illustrating? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging?

Rii: I love that illustration is a little like a puzzle. You only have so much room to convey what you need to convey, so you have to figure out the easiest way to do that. This is especially true in comics since most people are usually zipping past each panel – you want it to be clear enough that it can be understood at a glance. That element is both the most difficult and the most fun.

Ben: Funny enough, I love that writing is a little like a puzzle! There’s this fantastic satisfaction to figuring out how to solve a plot problem or tidy up a character arc — when  you feel those pieces click into place, it’s glorious.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

Rii: I spend a lot of time outdoors learning about the local environment and ecosystem, and I encourage everyone to do the same. The more you learn about the world around you, the more textured the it becomes. You start noticing the details more. Communicating the magic in the everyday is a huge part of my artistic goal, and I hope it can inspire someone to get out there and experience it for themselves.

Also, I’ve gotten kind of interested in dolls recently. Maybe that’s weird.

Ben: So despite spending most of my career in publishing, I actually went to film school. And I was pretty hardcore about it, too — one time I watched the 1989 Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles movie with the saturation turned all the way down so that I could pretend it was a black and white film, and then spent an hour talking to my film student friends about its gorgeous use of light and contrast.

But despite that, there are SO many iconic films that I’ve simply never seen. Not that I fuss over it much — in my experience, the movies that I need to watch find me in their own time. Which is all to say, a few weeks ago at a movie night with friends, I saw Victor Victoria for the first time, and it made me so damn happy. Every second of it, sheer delight. I’ve had a deeply Gender crush on Julie Andrews ever since watching her play Peter Pan as a small child, so this really was my queer journey coming full circle in a way. So yes,  I was thunderstruck by Victor Victoria in 2023, and that’s the important fact I want people to know about me at the moment. 

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring creators, especially those looking to draw and/or write graphic novels themselves?

Rii: Have interests outside of comics! My favorite comics are the ones where you can really see the creator’s passion for a niche topic or hobby shining through. If people can feel your love for whatever you’re writing about, they’ll be drawn to it.

Ben: Seconding that — Rii’s is absolutely right!

I’d also add that the best way to break into comics is to make them. Learn by doing, find your voice, play with the medium. Even if you only want to be a writer, drawing comics will make you so much better at your job — it doesn’t matter if they’re all stick figures, you’ll still build fluency in paneling and pacing and flow, you’ll get a sense of how much text feels comfortable on a page, you’ll learn where to put your page turns for maximal effect. It’s invaluable!

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Ben: So, as I mentioned above, I edit comics as well as writing them. And one of those books — The Bawk-ness Monster, by Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter — comes out in June! It’s an extremely fun and deeply queer book about a group of cryptid-hunting kids, written and drawn by two of the best cartoonists in the business, and I’m so so so so excited for everyone to read it. 

If you’re looking for queer comics for adult readers, some of my personal favorite authors are EK Weaver, Otava Heikkilä, Sarah Winifred Searle, Fumi Yoshinaga, Ngozi Ukazu, Carey Pietsch, Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh. Solid gold, every one of them!

Molly’s Tuxedo Interview with Vicki Johnson & Gillian Reid

Vicki Johnson is a children’s book author, a former band nerd, White House staffer, and a nonprofit director. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo (Little Bee Books, June 27, 2023), illustrated by Gillian Reid. Born and raised in rural GA, she is a proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory Law School, and an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki is a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow and the single parent of a college student. Her empty nest is a historic log cabin in Appalachia where she caters to the whims of five rescue animals. 

Gillian Reid is a children’s book illustrator, character designer, and life drawing teacher. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Canada with her partner and two cats. She loves to draw, go to the movies, and practice yoga. She likes to dress mostly in black and hopes to add a black tuxedo and bowtie to her wardrobe soon! 

I had the opportunity to interview Vicki and Gillian, which you can read below. 

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

VJ: Thanks so much for having us! I’m a children’s author, and Molly’s Tuxedo is my debut picture book. My bio says I am a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director which is my attempt to sum up a long life in a few words. I grew up in rural Georgia, and now, many schools, jobs, and cities later, I find myself once again in a rural place. I live and write in a 200-year-old log cabin on a hilltop in West Virginia. I’m the single lesbian parent of a college student. When we hang out we watch a lot of movies and talk incessantly to the dogs and cats who live with us.

GR: I am a children’s book illustrator, character designer and life drawing teacher. Originally, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland but my work has taken me around the world and now I have landed in Ottawa, Canada. Outside of illustration, I enjoy learning new things. At the moment teaching myself piano and taking pottery wheel classes. I also love to go to the cinema, practice yoga and read mostly nonfiction books about the brain!

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Molly’s Tuxedo? What was the inspiration for this story?

VJ: Molly is a kindergartener with big plans to wear her brother’s dashing tuxedo for picture day, but her mom has picked out a dress. Molly has a strong sense of self and her character arc is all about being true to that, even in the face of resistance. This resonates strongly with me. The inspiration for the story comes from my own experiences growing up gay and gender nonconforming in the very conservative world of the Deep South in the 70’s and 80’s. But the impetus for writing this when I did was that I saw a couple of recent news items where girls were being gender policed about their clothes, in one case by her school and in one case by her peers. This ongoing need to control kids’ clothing choices really struck a chord. I wanted to write about how that feels, because I remember it vividly from my own childhood after so many years.

GR: I loved Vicki’s story the minute I got the email from Little Bee Books with the synopsis. I wasn’t really taking on new work at the time, but I couldn’t NOT be part of this story. It hit my heart immediately and brought up so many feelings from my own childhood that I knew I had to illustrate Molly’s Tuxedo!

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?

VJ: I was a voracious reader growing up, and when I had my daughter and began reading to her on a daily basis, I guess the idea just clicked in my head that I’d like to try to write for kids. I primarily wrote middle-grade fiction for a long time, but in January 2020 I wanted to take a break from my work in progress, so I decided to try picture books as a side-writing exercise. This is the very first picture book I wrote. Also, I’m a very visual person, and a huge fan of art in all forms, so the idea that I could write words that are interpreted by a (real, human) artist is the most incredible thing I could imagine. And with Gillian’s work, it all came true. Her art is full of joy and warmth and movement. I feel so lucky to have been paired with her by my editor!

GR: After working in the animation industry for over a decade as a character designer, I wanted to try storytelling through illustration to have more ownership of the whole visual of a project. In animation, we work in such big teams and it’s really the director’s aesthetic vision you are creating, not your own. Picture books allow me to have almost 100% of the say in how the illustrations look (with input and guidance from the publishing team of course!)

Vicki Johnson

How would you describe your creative process? 

VJ: I’m not sure I have a set process. I go in spurts doing morning pages and writing free hand, which inevitably works well for me to get into a more emotionally connected place. I discovered writing poetry late in life if you can call what I write poetry. But my ideas work best when I am plotless in the initial phase and just try to get a sentence down and then I just continue to write until I’m done with that idea for the moment. It might result in a verse or a paragraph or several pages. From there it may go nowhere, or I may decide to flesh it out more fully.

GR: When working with a manuscript, I read it several times, highlighting keywords throughout the text that jump out at me and generate images in my head. I particularly try to note the tone and emotion of the story as a whole as well as across each spread. Once I feel I have an understanding of the mood of the book, I create inspiration boards on Pinterest, saving anything that appeals to me that may or may not influence me later. Then I go to the drawing board! I work on loose pieces of printer paper and just bash out lots of small, rough thumbnails and doodles, not filtering ideas too much and just letting them come out. I do several passes of the rough sketches until I feel I’ve got something, then it’s taken into Photoshop to sketch out with more information and refinement. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

VJ: I write about a combination of my own life experiences, things I have observed as a parent, animals I see outside my window, something I read in the news that sparks my interest or ire, and then I find myself typing out a sentence. I feel compelled to write about LGBTQIA+ kids because I was one, so that experience will always be a source of inspiration. I feel inspired to write about brave girls, because I was one, and I survived growing up in a particularly stifling time and place. These are the young people I want to create space for in my work.  I’m also drawn to authors of all stripes who write about animals and nature because growing up that was what I read constantly. Animals are so pure in their own existence, and in their relationship to you whether they are companion animals living with you or box turtles sharing the land you live on, or flying squirrels who sneak into your house. Animal stories saved me. They made sense to me and offered a respite. Stories at the edges of where humans and animals interact inspire me.

GR: Animation art is still a huge part of my life, so I frequently get inspiration from animated films and character designers. I’m also building a library of beautiful picture books to teach me new approaches, techniques, and execution. Currently, my favourite illustrators are Marta Altes, Rebecca Green, Matthew Forsythe, Julia Sarda, and Chris Chatterton. 

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/illustrating? What are some of the most challenging?

VJ: My favorite part of writing is the meditative effect it has on me when I’m in the zone. The most challenging part is getting there. Getting the flow started. Because once it does, it’s indescribable. But the space I need to get there, from the world around me, can be challenging to achieve, along with a day job, and other responsibilities. I like the generative work better than the editing work for sure!

GR: The best part of the illustration process is right at the beginning for me. Anything is possible at this point, the options are endless and I love doing the research, generating lots of ideas, and then boiling them down to what feels best in that moment. The most challenging part is probably the colouring stage. By the time the colour gets added, I’ve been looking at the illustrations for months and it can be hard to keep the excitement and energy that were present at the beginning all the way through to the end. 

Besides your work as an author/illustrator what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

VJ: I’m answering these questions in my Geeks OUT “Strong Female Character” shirt I bought at a con a few years ago. Also, I’ve been vegan or vegetarian for almost 40 years, and I’m a passionate advocate for animals and the environment. My stories often reflect that. I came out as a lesbian in my teens and have worked in or for our community in some capacity for a lot of the time since. The escalation of homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric deeply concerns me and reminds me of how far we have come and how far we have to go. I have a deep well of hope though, and I know the strength of our community. 

GR: I am also a life drawing teacher! I spend a lot of time in the life drawing room working with young artists who hope to become storytellers themselves in the future. Teaching life drawing and gestures helps build my skills as an illustrator, so I can be playful with posing characters and building their worlds.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

VJ: My question would be: “What is on your writer’s bucket list?” and my answer is: “I have many, but the top three at the moment are: I’d love to be on a panel at a comic con, I’d love to write a graphic novel, and I’d love to write for children’s television.”

GR: “What would my dream collaboration be?” I would love to do a book on the environment with Leonardo DiCaprio! 

Gillian Reid

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

VJ: Currently, I’m finishing up developmental edits from my agent on my middle-grade novel which I hope to be on sub for soon. It features a GNC queer main character and a cast of supporting characters – humans and animals – a camp and a fight for the environment.

GR: Currently I am working on developing my children’s book portfolio to push my style a little more and find out what possibilities lay within!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book?

VJ: Find something you are passionate about – a memory, an issue, a moment. Take that spark and run with it. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, and let yourself feel what you are writing. That will come through and make it magic. Be as specific as you can in your language but always leave lots of room for the illustrator’s interpretation. It’s a PICTURE book, after all!

GR: Just start! Don’t wait until you have read all the books or done all the courses. If you have an idea just get it started, you don’t need to be great to begin, you just need an idea. 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

VJ: Oh my gosh, there are so, so many, but I’ll mention just a tiny few. 

In young adult fiction, the book I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Jen St. Jude’s 2023 debut If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come. Jas Hammonds’ We Deserve Monuments is on top of my TBR pile. Two other YA debuts at the top of my list are Jenna Miller’s Out of Character and Edward Underhill’s Always the Almost. I loved Erik J. Brown’s All That’s Left in The World. My favorite YA graphic novel of 2022 was Hollow by Shannon Watters and Branden Boyer-White, art by Berenice Nelle. Add Tirzah Price to your must-follow list of YA authors. Also, obviously anything by Malinda Lo, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club! Mike Curato’s Flamer is a beautiful and powerful graphic novel that you all should have read by now. (I love his picture books, too!)

In middle-grade fiction, the 2022 debut graphic novel The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott blew me away and was my favorite read last year. I love Michael Leali’s work and Molly Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novels. Anything written by Alex Gino or Kyle Lukoff should already be on your shelf. 

In picture books, I adored the ground-breaking picture book Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild and Charlene Chua. I recommend the beautiful Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate and look forward to their follow-up, Grandad’s Pride. I read and loved all of Kyle Lukoff’s picture books last year, and there is another on its way, just announced. Hannah Moushabeck has a debut picture book coming soon that I can’t wait to read. And look for AJ Irving and Kip Alizadeh’s The Wishing Flower, and in nonfiction, Sarah Prager and Cheryl ‘Ras’ Thuesday’s Kind Like Marsha.

I honestly hate to leave anyone out, so this is stressful because I definitely did. Okay, that’s all for now. I could list pages and pages of names!

GR: Dare I say my book with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness, ‘Peanut Goes for the Gold’, featuring a non-binary guinea pig with big dreams of being a gymnast?! 

Interview with Author Ian Eagleton

Ian Eagleton is an education consultant, author, and elementary school teacher based in the UK. He is also the founder of The Reading Realm, an educational app for teachers. 

I had the opportunity to interview Ian, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Hi! Thanks so much for having me! My name’s Ian. I was a primary school teacher for thirteen years and I now write children’s books which specialize in LGBTQ+ inclusivity and diversity. I also write educational resources for companies, enjoy going to the gym, swimming, reading, and films. Some of my previous books include Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (illustrated by James Mayhew) and Violet’s Tempest ((illustrated by Clara Anganuzzi).  

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince is very superficially based on The Snow Queen. I suppose it links to the story in that the main character is called Kai, there’s a wicked Snow Prince and the setting is very wintry and magical. But the actual story is quite different to The Snow Queen and was inspired by a German fairy tale called “Jorinda and Joringel”.

In the story, there’s an evil witch who turns young maidens into birds and captures them and keeps them in cages in her castle. She transforms any young men she meets into statues. The story is quite dark and strange, and it got me thinking about why the witch was like this. What was it about these young, heterosexual couples that she hated so much? Could she even control her powers? Was she misunderstood in any way? 

When I sent the story to Sam at Owlet Press, there was something missing, however. The setting didn’t quite work and wasn’t quite magical enough and I couldn’t quite get to grips with the witch and her motivation. Sam suggested setting the story at Christmas time and I immediately thought of a Snow Prince. I was still interested in rumours and the stories we tell each other, so wanted there to be all these terrifying myths and tales about this supposedly wicked prince. 

Once I had hit on the idea that there might be more to his story and that he could be saved, the rest of the story came together! It’s a really exciting, thrilling story full of adventure, peril, strange creatures, love, and hope! 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically children’s books?

I was very lucky that my Mum read to us every night. I used to love all the Alfie and Annie-Rose books and a book called Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady by Mary Raynor – I can still recite parts of it now. I also have very fond memories of being read Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation. I remember howling with laughter as I sat at my teacher’s feet and how we all begged her to read certain parts again and again. Never underestimate the power of being read to! I think I wanted to capture that magic and sense of hope in my own story writing.

What else drew me to writing children’s books with an LGBTQ+ theme? Possibly a sense of injustice. I never saw any gay men in the stories I read and always felt a bit excluded from the literary space. I have been with my husband for ten years now and we have a son. When we started thinking about having children, I desperately wanted to make sure that our child saw their family in the books they read. I think I was also writing for the little boy who felt different and never saw himself in fairy tales, and the gay teenager who was bullied and felt alone. 

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist to translate that into a book?

It’s a very long, often challenging, and arduous process! I often write very quickly and maybe have a finished version of a story in a day. At this stage, it’s just scribbles and thoughts and ideas. It’s also bloated and far too long. A picture book should be around 500-700 words, so I spend an awful lot of time editing and chipping away at the text. Very often a lot of my writing can actually be shown in the artwork by the illustrator so I just leave comments about what I’m visualising and seeing in my head. I spend a lot of time talking to my agent and editor about the direction I’d like the story to take, the atmosphere I’m trying to create if there are any themes that need picking up or anything I’ve left unsaid that might need to be explained in the artwork. Although, I don’t tend to work too closely with the illustrator – I’m a writer, not an artist! I might give feedback on how I thought a character might look but it’s usually best just to trust the illustrator and leave them to do their job. That way they feel uninhibited, completely free to develop and transform my words into something magical. Trust and letting go are very important parts of the job. 

What advice might you have to give young writers?

Keep a diary! As a child, I kept a diary from the age of 10 until I was in my twenties. I always urge young writers to keep a diary too. I used to write everything in it – stories about what had happened to my hamster, film reviews, lists of new words I’d found, favourite books, what I’d had for dinner, and so on! A diary is a very special thing as it allows us to write just for ourselves and not worry about other people or if we’ve spelt something incorrectly or that our handwriting is messy. Writing in a diary should be enjoyable too. Have fun – doodle in it and illustrate it!

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Lots! As well as being a dad, working as an education resource writer, and generally trying to eat healthily, go to the gym, and not fall apart at how scary the world is right now, I’m also working on some new picture books. I can’t say too much about them, but one involves a little girl, some cute dogs, and adventures with her daddies, and the other is a celebration of a two-dad family and the great outdoors. I also have my debut middle-grade book Glitter Boy, which is being published by Scholastic, coming out in February 2023. It’s a joyful, hopeful story that tackles the effects of homophobic bullying and how damaging it can be. It also explores LGBTQ+ pride and history, the power of friendship, poetry, and dance, and the need to call upon our friends, neighbours, family, and community when times are tough. It’s a real celebration of being true to yourself!

Apart from all those exciting projects, I’m also working with my agent on some new picture books, so it’s a busy time. However, I feel very lucky to be able to write LGBTQ+ inclusive books for children which will hopefully spark a desire in them to make the world a happier, fairer place when everyone gets to see themselves in the books they read. 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

I’m going to recommend some LGBTQ+ themed picture books I love if that’s OK! Perfect for sharing with your family or maybe just reading yourself as an adult – they’re a wonderful way to look back in time and heal that inner child! 

The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by Davide Ortu, is published by Owlet Press. Out now, £7.99 paperback.

Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 punny and poignant books for children. She loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can follow her on Instagram for updates on her work.

I had the opportunity to interview Chana, which you can read below.

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a children’s book author from New Jersey. I’ve published 30+ books for kids, both fiction and nonfiction. I love to swim, hike, read, travel, spend time with family, and visit art museums and indie bookshops (not necessarily in this order). My pediatrician husband and I just published our first co-authored book. It’s called Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up, illustrated by Daphna Awadish (published by Kalaniot) about a character who always messes up, but learns that sometimes mistakes can be marvelous.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Tower of Life? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Tower of Life is a picture book biography about Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and historian whose mission was to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. I first learned about Yaffa when I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2016. She was born in a Polish town called Eishyshok in 1935. Her grandmother was one of the town’s photographers. In 1941, nearly the entire Jewish population of Eishyshok was murdered by the Nazis. In just two days, 900 years of history were uprooted. Miraculously, 6-year-old Yaffa and her family escaped to the forest. Yaffa tucked some family photographs in her shoes and held on to them throughout the war and beyond. 

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter reached out to Yaffa to help build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Washington, DC. (By then, Yaffa was a professor and a trailblazer in Holocaust education.) But Yaffa didn’t want to focus on death and darkness. Her photos reminded her of people of her beautiful town and the lives they led. Did relatives who had left Eishyshok before the war save photos too? 

Yaffa set out on a mission to find the survivors and rebuild her town, not brick by brick, but photo by photo, story by story. Over 17 years, she traveled the world and collected over 6,000 photos of nearly every man, woman, and child who had lived in Eishyshok in the 100 years before the war. And she created the Tower of Life (also known as the Tower of Faces), a three-story high central exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, shining a light on the lives that were lived. On dignity, not disaster. It’s a story about community, empathy, hope, and resilience. 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically children’s books?

The first memories that come to mind are sitting on my mother’s lap, listening to her read books like Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. I remember that closeness and love that comes from reading a book together. My mother and I still share a love of reading and talk about books all of the time.

After college, I went to journalism school at NYU. I had an internship, which developed into a job as an editor, working at children’s science magazines at Scholastic. I loved writing for kids so much, I never looked back. My first 15 children’s books were nonfiction, sharing the wonders of science and cool (sometimes yucky) history with kids. 

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist to translate that into a book?

Unless you’re a celebrity, writing children’s books can be a long and arduous journey. But I have to say, the kidlit community is incredibly warm and supportive. For every challenge, whether it’s getting a manuscript critiqued or finding a shoulder to cry on after a pile of rejections, there is always someone to turn to for support. 

Interestingly, in trade publishing, authors and illustrators generally do not communicate at all during the process. It’s an unwritten rule that publishers prefer that authors give illustrators creative freedom. Sometimes, we can recommend illustrators for our projects. We may include some illustrator notes for clarity and occasionally we’re given an opportunity to review sketches and offer feedback. But until the book is released, we generally work separately. It’s just how the industry runs.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer? 

I grew up in a home that encouraged creativity. I remember that my father and I once climbed onto our roof, poured paint onto a canvas, and splattered the side of our house. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to follow our passions.

My parents were also very involved in social justice, particularly when it came to the Jewish community. Many young people today are not aware that during the 1970s and 80s, nearly two million Soviet Jews were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Practicing religion was forbidden, but at the same time they were refused exit visas. Thousands of dissidents (also known as “refuseniks”) lost their jobs or were imprisoned just for applying for visas, speaking out, or demonstrating. 

Living in Miami, my parents not only spoke to us about these injustices, but became very involved in the worldwide movement to save Soviet Jewry. We joined phone calls to refuseniks, attended rallies and marches, and wrote letters to Congress. Legislation was passed to link trade with human rights. My parents even traveled to the USSR in 1975 to secretly meet with refuseniks and bring back important information. On December 6, 1987, my sister and I joined 250,000 people marching in Washington to show solidarity for Soviet Jews. 

These are some of the examples that my parents set for me and I hope that I am transmitting these lessons to my four children. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I am working on a book about this period of history to ensure that it is not forgotten. It is a piece of modern Jewish history that actually has a happy ending. 

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I admire the persistence of authors like Jane Yolen (author of more than 400 books for children and adults), whose advice to writers is BIC (Butt in Chair). Books don’t write themselves. I have a Post-It next to my computer with a quote from Jane reminding us to take joy in our writing. 

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult? 

Favorite element: When you have that “aha” moment of how to solve a tricky line or passage or when you come up with a fresh idea that gets you writing.

Frustrating/difficult: We all get rejections. They’re not fun but they’re an unfortunate part of the publishing process. The best ones are the “champagne rejections,” when you’ve come close and an editor gives you some praise, encouragement, and some advice on how to make your story better.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I have seen Kilauea pour lava into the sea, snorkeled in an undersea crater, kissed a giant stingray, hiked on a glacier, and watched in wonder as brown bears dug for clams on an Alaskan beach. All glorious! But give me a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a good book…bliss!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What’s my next picture book? BRAVO, AVOCADO, coming from HarperCollins on March 28, 2023. It’s about an avocado at the Farmers’ Market who has a pit in her stomach. She wants to be Today’s Special. It’s about finding your self worth and uplifting your friends.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Write your story! Only you can tell your story…and somewhere in the world, there’s a child who needs to hear it.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m working on a book about stereotypes and how to avoid them—but in a funny, kid-centric way.

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

Too many to list! Here are a few recent picture books that shine a light on the LGBTQ+ community.

BLOB, by Anne Appert, Harper Collins, 2021.

STITCH BY STITCH: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Magination Press, 2021.

MY PAATI’S SARIS, by Jyoti Rajan Gopal, illustrated by Art Twink, Kokila/PRH, 2022.

WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS? A Book About Pronouns, by Katherine Locke, illustrated by Anne Passchier, LittleBrown/Hachette, 2021.

PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Random House, 2018.

TWO GROOMS ON A CAKE: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro, Little Bee Books, 2021.

A COSTUME FOR CHARLY by CK Malone, illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books, 2022.

Interview with Cartoonist Chan Chau

Chan Chau is the creator of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel adaptations of The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy and the Snobs and The Baby-Sitters Club: Jessi’s Secret Language by Ann M. Martin. They graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Their work appears in the award-winning comics anthology ELEMENTS: Fire and they have designed backgrounds for animated TV shows. Chan lives in Tacoma, Washington.

I had the opportunity to interview Chan, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am Chan, a nonbinary cartoonist, and illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest. I have been working in comics for several years and have been nominated for multiple Eisners and several other awards.

What can you tell us about your latest project, and how did you get involved in illustrating for the Baby-Sitters Club series in general?

I am finishing up a book called Enlighten Me with writer Minh Le, published by Little Brown Ink. As for Baby-Sitters Club, my involvement was a surprise! I received an email one day from the lovely editor, Cassandra Pelham Fulton, with an offer to adapt the series, and that was that!

Did you have any previous connections to the Baby-sitters Club universe before working on this project?

I did not! I had heard of the Baby-Sitters Club when I was growing up, but I had no real connection to it otherwise.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to becoming an artist?

I read comics and manga growing up. It wasn’t considered “reading” at the time; however, it was one of the only ways I read books. Comics require the ability to parse words and images together. I wanted to share my love for them and grow up wanting to make art.

As someone who both writes and draws comics, what is your favorite part of both processes? How would you describe your process working on comics in general?

Oh gosh, it varies from project to project, but my process is either highly chaotic or having assembly line-like precision. Nothing in between, unfortunately. I find myself loving either the Thumbnailing or Inking process; one requires me to set the whole stage of a book or story, and the other is where I can mindlessly listen to Youtube and work.

I’ve noticed within your work, whether working on Young Adult content, superhero-inspired comics, or the supernatural, you have a really beautiful style that’s so soft and elegant, and yet still super dynamic. As an artist, would you say there were/are any artists or comics that have influenced you creatively over the years?

While in school, I studied a lot of Western European and East Asian artists and styles. A few of my biggest influences are Roger Ibáñez, Shirahama Kamome, Thierry Martin, and Kerascoët. They all have a keen eye and hand for inking.

A comic of yours I’ve really enjoyed was Soft Lead, in which you imagine Superman as a newspaper cartoonist. I think the theme of discussing the value of creating art in a world that constantly needs saving is really potent right now and was wondering on your thoughts about what art means to you personally?

Art, to me, is an expression. Whether done for commercial use or fun, it’s all made with a purpose. Some folks would argue with me about that, but I don’t think artists would make art if they genuinely didn’t want to. I certainly wouldn’t, haha!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring artists/comic book creators, to both those who draw and those who don’t?

My advice is to get out there and make that thing you want to make. Try it out and see where it takes you because you will only know if something is working if you put your pen to paper (for both artists and writers). Read many comics and indulge in other media that bring you joy!

Aside from comics, what would you say are some of your other skills or interests?

Before I did comics full-time, I spent most of it being a freelance illustrator or product designer. I love to make merchandise with my art on it and present it at shows! There’s something about making your art a tangible object that I love.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet and wish you were asked (and your answer to that question)?

I wish people would ask about my constant decision to make short stories or zines. Some of my peers will laugh at me because they know I continuously preach it as a valuable skill! Short stories provide a platform to show off a cartoonist’s vision, storytelling prowess, and ability to finish a comic. I’m utterly grateful for all the opportunities that zines/short stories have brought me. 

Are there any projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

I have also been dabbling in pitching my own story, and I hope to talk about it in the near future!

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Most folks inundated with LGBTQ+ comics probably already know these authors, but I highly recommend checking out Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn, K Rhodes and Jen Xu (KaiJu), and Petra Erika Nordlund.

Interview with Author Gale Galligan

Gale Galligan is the creator of the New York Times bestselling Baby-sitters Club graphic novel adaptations of Dawn and the Impossible Three, Kristy’s Big Day, Boy-Crazy Stacey, and Logan Likes Mary Anne! by Ann M. Martin. They are also the creator of Freestyle, an original graphic novel that they both wrote and illustrated. Gale was featured in The Claudia Kishi Club, a documentary now streaming on Netflix. When they aren’t making comics, Gale enjoys knitting, reading, and spending time with their family and adorable pet rabbits. They live in Pearl River, New York.

I had the opportunity to interview Gale which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I’m a graphic novelist named Gale Galligan. I love comics, shrimp chips, and animals. My family adopted a kitten recently, qualifying us for actual menagerie status. The count is now: two rabbits, one elderly leopard gecko, several fish, a toddler, and the aforementioned cat. They’re all very fun to draw.

What inspired you to get into comics, particularly those for younger readers? Were there any writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

There’s something so special about the stories you can get your hands on as a kid. You read them over and over again and they lodge themselves deep into your brain as a sense memory. Sometimes, they seem so accessible that you can’t help but try to make one for yourself.

What I’m saying is, I was really into Garfield growing up.

I started off drawing my own comics inspired by that, as well as other favorites like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. My favorite part was sharing them with people and seeing their reactions. As I grew older, I kept finding new stories to fall in love with. I was especially into Animorphs, the Chrestomanci quartet by Diana Wynne Jones, and all of the anime I could get my hands on in the early 2000s.

And I kept drawing the whole time! I drew comics about things that were going on in my life. I drew collaborative stories with my friends. I made a lot of fan comics and posted them online. Comics really were a way for me to connect with people and share big feelings with them, and I think that’s still what drives me today. 

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I could go on forever but will respect your server space. Here’s a brief list of things I keep coming back to:

The works of Fumi Yoshinaga, particularly What Did You Eat Yesterday? and Flower of Life (sadly long out-of-print). Her storytelling style is so special – it’s gentle, bittersweet, and funny, and her characters always grow so naturally. It seems effortless when she does it. Ugh!!

Everything by Jen Wang. The acting, the panel work, the flow… the feelings! When I’m feeling stuck with my own work, one of the first things I do is pull out Prince and the Dressmaker. “Oh, I want to make comics! Let’s go!!”

My friendsssss. I’m very blessed to know so many incredible people. They’re excited about a billion different things and have all kinds of amazing talents. It’s hard not to come away feeling inspired about something.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Freestyle? What inspired this story?

Freestyle is about an eighth-grade b-boy named Cory Tan who’s been with his dance crew – his best friends – for years. They’re trying to win a big competition together before high school, but their captain is being really controlling and bringing everyone down. When he develops a newfound passion for yo-yo, he starts spending less time with his crew and more with his tutor-slash-friend-slash-yo-yo-mentor, Sunna. Will things come to a breaking point right around the end of the second act? You bet!!

There are a lot of big feelings (my jam), as well as yo-yo, b-boying, and the most gorgeous colors from K Czap. Please look at the book so you can compliment K’s colors, if nothing else.

As for where it came from… there were a few things I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to tell a story about young people navigating all kinds of expectations. I wanted to make something really, really fun and goofy and kinetic. And I wanted to take inspiration from things that bring me joy. Sports anime. Dance movies. The really special feeling of getting really into something and finding people to share that with. Yo-yo really pulls all of that together, and I am saying this very sincerely. It is such an incredible, personal form of expression. People are coming up with their own routines, inventing their own tricks, sharing with their communities – it’s really cool. I absolutely love watching people throw but am still not very good myself, so I’m living vicariously through drawings.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? What goes into creating a script and translating that into panels?

The great thing is, there’s no one way to make a graphic novel. You could ask five different people and get five different answers. So here’s mine!

  1. Outline. Once I’ve pulled ideas from the ether, I write them out. The outline is like a short essay about the story I want to make, beginning to end, nothing fancy. Then I take it to my friends, writing group, and editor, get great feedback, return to my cave, and revise until I get something I like (hopefully).
  2. Script. Some people draw their scripts right off the bat. I write mine with words first, just because that’s how my brain happens to organize itself. My script is broken down into pages and panels, and since I’m the one who will also be drawing from this script, I’m writing with Future Me in mind. This can mean that parts are incomprehensible, or that there are fun little notes like “Sorry for the huge crowd, get yourself a treat.”
  3. Thumbnails. This is the visual version of a script. I sketch my pages out very roughly, just to give an idea of where people are, what they’re doing, and where the balloons and panels will go. During this part, I’m focusing on making sure that everything reads clearly. I want every aspect of a page to help guide the reader from balloon to balloon and panel to panel. As I draw, I’ll realize that parts of the written script aren’t working and improvise on the fly, adding panels, cutting dialogue, and splitting pages up as necessary. This is the next thing I send out for feedback – it’s always easier to make edits earlier in the process.
  4. Pencils. Once I have my thumbnails set, I can start really drawing the book. At this stage, I’m going into more detail: what people are wearing, how they’re acting, where I can put the camera, what’s in the background. I’m giving myself all of the information I’ll need for final lineart, and since my memory isn’t great, my pencils end up being fairly detailed. I also lay down rough word balloons at this stage.
  5. Inks. Now that the visual information is laid out, I can focus on drawing effective lines. Inks can convey lighting and add a sense of distance, point the reader’s attention at important parts of a page, add drama, and a billion other things. Once I’ve finished inking the art, I finalize my balloon placement as well.
  6. Actually, this is the part where I’m done. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredible colorists for my graphic novels – Braden Lamb on The Baby-Sitters Club, and K Czap on Freestyle – who really take them to a whole new level. So, when I finish inking, I get to sit back, wait for any edits that might come in, and cheer on the rest of the production team as they make the book into an actual book.

This all happens over the course of several years. Rinse and repeat!

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most frustrating/difficult?

My favorite part is inking because at that point, I’ve done all of the hard brain work already. I get to put on a podcast or TV show I’ve been meaning to catch up on and zone out for hours at a time. It’s very peaceful.

The parts that are most frustrating are the ones where I know a drawing looks wrong but haven’t quite figured out why yet, like a panel with complicated perspective. Or an unusual pose. Or a shoe from behind. Or a horse. Or a spiral staircase. Anyway, I love my job, and at those times I’ll take a little breather, jump ahead, and come back with fresh eyes. That usually helps.

And if not, well, it’s one panel out of thousands. It’s okay to let the shoe be bad sometimes! It’s okay!!!

As a graphic novelist, you are known for your work illustrating a few volumes of The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel series, including starring in a documentary on the series called The Claudia Kishi Club. Could you talk to us about what it meant to you working on this series as well as perhaps your own personal connection as a fan?

I was a huge fan of the BSC growing up! I still remember my first introduction to Claudia. I had to flip back a few pages to reread everything when it slowly occurred to me that she wasn’t white because this was the first time I’d encountered an Asian-American character like myself in a book. I remember having a bunch of complicated feelings all at once. On the one hand, I was delighted that she was there; on the other, I recognized for the first time that I was assuming every new character in a book would be white because that was what I was used to.

So, the series is very memorable for me in that way. I also just sincerely adored the characters and stories. When I was asked if I’d be interested in drawing test pages to continue adapting where Raina Telgemeier left off, I had to go outside and yell at a tree. I’m very grateful that the BSC team placed their trust in me, and that I was able to share something I love so much with a new generation of readers! One of my favorite memories of working on the series is a signing I did with Raina and Ann M. Martin because we got to see people of all different ages who had been affected by this long-lasting series. It’s the coolest thing.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I love learning about all the different things that people can get really deeply invested in. Like, I was gifted a subscription to a cheese magazine and think it’s just the greatest. Cheese can take so long to mature, and there are so many different factors involved when it comes to how the cheese will turn out – I love that there are people out there with the passion to keep cheese traditions alive, and that there are people excited about innovating cool new cheeses, and that there are cheesemongers doing their best to share all of those cheeses with everyone! I love that it’s a thing!! Stuff like that. I think that everybody should make zines about whatever they’re into and then send their zines to me. That’s what I want you to know.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked?

“Hey, Gale, what would you say if you were going to step on a soapbox for five minutes?”

Well! Let me just… okay… one, two, here we go.

More people should be able to make a long-term living off of comics! It’s unfathomable that there are cartoonists working for huge publishers, putting in absurd amounts of overtime to make tight deadlines, who still can’t make ends meet on that work alone. The number of people who have pushed themselves to the limit, burned out, and had to leave – it’s heartbreaking.

I love comics. I want the art form to continue to grow and flourish. And for that, creators and the publishing teams supporting them must be able to grow and flourish. Good pay, good working conditions, health insurance. Resources and opportunities for aspiring professionals, especially those from underrepresented communities. I want comics to be an open door, and not all of that is about the skill it takes to make a comic, but also about the circumstances that comics are grown in. I think that’s true for basically everything. It’s all connected. It all matters. Let’s keep working to make things better.

Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about? 

I’m working on my next original graphic novel! This will also be for middle-grade readers (and older readers of excellent taste), and it’s very loosely inspired by the experiences I had when I moved back to America just in time for 7th grade. I was a dweeby little multiracial Thai-American kid who was super used to international schools, where every one of my friends was from a different country, and all of a sudden every white kid desperately wanted to know “what” I was. So not only did I have to adjust to life in a new place again and suffer through the trials of early puberty and figure out how to actually keep friends now that we wouldn’t be moving anywhere else – but I also had to deal with a sudden identity crisis on top of that. 

That’s all very dramatic, but I promise it’s going to be very over-the-top weird, and silly.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring graphic novelists (both to draw who draw/write, or simply one or the other)?

Make thing! Make thing!! I’d highly recommend making some minicomics. One page, four pages, six pages, eight pages. They’re easy for other people to read and satisfying for you to make. You’ll figure out what methods work for you without having to commit to a full book first, and you’ll be able to share them with people for feedback. (If you’re just a writer or just a drawer: do it all anyway.)

Also, if you have feelings about something… ask yourself why! Why did you like a book? Why did you hate a movie? What would you have done differently? What could you steal for yourself? Taking the time to interrogate your reactions can be so useful for your own craft.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/ comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I’m writing my response in September, so this is a bit early, buuuut I’m going to go ahead and say every single LGBTQ+ comic available at the Shortbox Comics Fair. It’s a digital event that runs through the whole month of October, so you can literally just go to the website whenever, buy some PDFs, and indulge from the comfort of your own home. If it’s anything like last year, there will be queer comics in abundance, and I will, uhhh, spend less on coffee for a few months.

And then as long as I’m here, I’d also recommend Our Dreams At Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani and Fanlee and Spatzle Make Something Perfect by Pseudonym Jones.

Header Photo Credit Courtney Wingate

Love, Violet Interview with Charlotte Sullivan Wild & Charlene Chua

Charlotte Sullivan Wild is the author of the picture books LOVE, VIOLET, illustrated by Charlene Chua (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Jan. 4, 2022), and THE AMAZING IDEA OF YOU, illustrated by Mary Lundquist (Bloomsbury, 2019). She has previously worked as an educator, bookseller, volunteer radio host, and creator of children’s literature events. Originally from frosty Minnesota, she lives wherever her wife is stationed, most recently in San Antonio, Texas and now in Italy! 

Charlene Chua has illustrated many things over the years for kids of all ages. Her illustration work has won several awards, while books she has illustrated have been nominated for OLA Forest of Reading, USBBY Outstanding International Books, OLA Best Bets, Shining Willow Award, and Kirkus Best books. 

I had the opportunity to interview Charlotte and Charlene, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Thanks for hosting us!

CSW:  I’m the author of the picture books Love, Violet and The Amazing Idea of You (Lundquist, Bloomsbury, 2019). I’m also a former educator, bookseller, and planner of kidlit events. I adore hiking, singing, and “aunting” (arms loaded with books). Just before Amazing Idea debuted, I became chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), a disabling energy disease. I can no longer do most of the things above or leave home much, but through careful pacing, I’ve gradually regained the ability to write. Originally from frosty Minnesota, I now live wherever my wife is stationed, recently in San Antonio, Texas, and now in Italy. You should also know we are proud mama-roosters to The Eggyatrixes, four adorable, opinionated hens.

CC: I mainly illustrate books these days; some of the books I have illustrated are the Amy Wu book series (Kat Zhang, Simon & Schuster) and Pinkie Promises (Elizabeth Warren, Henry Holt & Co.). I mostly spend my time illustrating; when I’m not drawing for work I’m drawing some personal comics or other art stuff.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Love, Violet? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

CSW: Love, Violet is the tender story of a crush between two girls and the courage it takes to share your heart—even when it’s pounding! Better yet, see for yourself!

CSW: Growing up, I never saw stories about the kind of love I experienced. But I was inundated with romantic fairy tales that–let’s be honest (or as we say at my house, “lesbi-honest”)–only promise happy endings to “certain” people. Those tales of love excluded many because of skin or body, ability or culture, harmful gender rules or queerness. But as a kid, I swallowed those poisoned stories whole. I longed for their promise of partnership. Yet, I also worried… would this happen for me? Somehow, I suspected I wasn’t quite right.

I was also surrounded by Evangelical Christian culture, which promoted pretty horrifying pictures of queer people, essentially: we were all male, pedophiles, and/or addicts spiraling toward early death. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this preacher’s kid and people pleaser suppressed her orientation DEEP until her thirties. When it finally clicked (and wow–was it obvious), I was already married and a professor at a religious college. Coming out meant blowing up my world. But in that chaos also came relief. Joy! I made sense! But also, a hard question.

How had I not known this basic thing about myself? Frankly, the question terrified me. Looking back, I recognized queer crushes all the way back to preschool. That was then I realized the full power of those children’s stories to frame reality for me, of what and who were possible, acceptable, or not. My views of gender and sexuality changed dramatically as I matured, toward acceptance and equality. But my own sense of self? It didn’t budge. My identity had crystalized in the 1970s and 80s, in that miasma of Disney and Evangelicalism, when I didn’t yet realize that I could exist. Early stories are so powerful. They kept me in the closet years after I’d rejected the prejudice that created them. 

So, I wanted to write a new story. One full of those first-crush thrills, the heart cartwheeling. A story inspired by falling head-over-heels for my spouse one snowy winter. A story about kids, at their level, but in a world in which love is love. People are people. Equal and accepted. A true love story to break the poisoned spell of hate. A story to say to every kid in an unsafe place: 

You are not alone. This love, this happy ending is for YOU.

In previous interviews you had discussed what the book meant to you as a queer adult who didn’t grow up with much queer representation. Would you mind speaking about that a bit here and what it means to you to create something like Love, Violet?

CSW: Welcoming Love, Violet feels indescribable. In a way, like reclaiming my childhood. And also, touching history. Standing on a bridge between the brave trouble makers on one side who made my family and this book possible, and the new children on the other, beginning their journeys with affirming stories like this one. It’s like passing on gifts passed to me. Sacred.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the personal responses. One reviewer’s daughter decided Love, Violet was her favorite book and commenced making valentines back in November! I couldn’t even picture queerness at her age, much less acceptance! And the personal stories people are sharing about their lives, about “ugly” crying, feeling seen–I will treasure this forever. 

That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t point to the tsunami of organized attacks on curriculum and books sweeping US schools and libraries right now. The target? Any information or books concerning people of color, queer people, those with disabilities, or any minority identity. The message is not subtle; it is LOUD. Educators’ jobs are being threatened. Children are being shown that THEY are not acceptable. Well, I have strong feelings about this. As should we all. I hope you’ll speak up wherever you live, support all kids, and the weary educators working for ALL their people. To have Love, Violet launching into this storm is a reminder of just how precarious and hard-won change is. 

It’s so important to resist this type of cultural violence because it causes real harm. I’ve written about the human cost of queer erasure, specifically, and how it nearly prevented Love, Violet from coming out (“No More Ghosts! A (Queer) Picture Book Love Story” in We Need Diverse Books Blog, 16 Nov. 2021). I also explore how cultural bias affected my creative process HERE and about writing against the cultural grain HERE. Erasure is not new. Or simple. It is the ancient tool of all oppression. Sometimes we use it against ourselves. Right now we need to stand up for each other and against every version of erasure targeting already marginalized groups. The only remedy for this hate is truth. Humanizing stories. And most of all, LOVE. 

In this sense, despite a decade of waiting for this book, Love, Violet feels right on time. 

Want to help? Find organizations supporting rainbow kids here (scroll down). Also, check out, buy, or share diverse children’s books with kids today!

How did you get into picture books? What pulled you to the medium?

CC: While I didn’t start illustrating intending to be a children’s illustrator, my work has always caught the eye of clients who work with children’s products. I illustrated my first picture book in 2007 I think; but I didn’t specialize in book illustration until 2015 or so. I enjoy working on books, and working with talented authors like Charlotte. It is a great privilege to be entrusted with bringing these special stories to life. 

CSW: (Shucks.) You brought Love, Violet to life so beautifully!

I’​​ve always loved poetry and art, which are the essence of picture books. But I also love music, theater, and film. What these forms share are performance and collaboration. Picture books are a mash-up of all of that. You write a score, a screenplay that, if you’re lucky, a talented artist like Charlene Chua will imagine into a visual narrative. A reader (perhaps the weary parent) performs your script, with the drama of page turns and vocal expression for a live audience. And that audience is just discovering everything for the first time! They are curious, honest, and impatient—so you have to perform! Yet, they can spin a handful of pictures and words into a whole universe. What a collaboration!

Plus? Picture books are inherently designed for togetherness, whether snuggled up at bedtime or circled on carpet squares. They are about sharing something–exploring, feeling and wondering together. It is one of the most powerful experiences we ever have, closeness and a story. How could I not love this form?

How would you describe your writing/ illustrating process? What are some of your favorite things about writing/ illustrating?

CSW: I usually start with daydreaming, gathering odd notes. Once an idea takes on life, I make messy outlines or charts (I describe charting below). Only then do I draft. Next, I revise a bazillion times, chart, revise, seek feedback. When my agent feels a piece is done, she submits it to publishers. If a publisher buys it there are more revisions, but so far, those have been light. Once I see the text and art together (which is thrilling!), I do a final sweep for flow or to cut anything now conveyed in the art.

I love creating! Yet the entire process involves discomfort. Whatever I’m working on isn’t done. So, even when I love something, part of me is always cringing! There is nothing like that final pass on book proofs when every last detail falls into place. It’s kind of like Violet snipping and glittering and “When it was just right, she signed her valentine, Love, Violet.” Ahhh! DONE!

CC: For books, I usually read the manuscript and let it simmer in my head for a while. Then I do character sketches (not that many, compared to some illustrators). I enjoy working out the rough sketches, especially with the text in place. For me, the picture book is meant to be a guided experience, so the placement of the text (and how it’s broken up) affects how the story will be read and interpreted along with the visuals. So I like concepting the artwork around that, and at this stage the art is very rough so it’s possible to imagine how things will work in different ways more easily. Once I have something in place that I like, it’s on the sketches, then later the final artwork. I mostly work digitally but for some books I do use traditional media. Love, Violet was mostly painted in watercolors and color pencil, then edited in Photoshop.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing or art?

CSW: Well, I’m an outlier here. I almost always enter through setting. Stories usually come to me through how they feel in the senses and the heart. Maybe because I’m a poet? (Or very likely ADD?) My antennae are highly over-tuned to everything. Which makes me a terrible sleeper, but maybe a better artist? As I developed Love, Violet, I became obsessed with that wintery atmosphere. Yes, I’m a Minnesota girl. But when I think about it, winter matches those whooshing, upside down feelings of new love. (Also possibly related–seared into my memory is a certain wintry night of my heart flopping, feeling SO ALIVE in my long red coat outside a cafe as a certain gal tugged her wool cap just so, caught my eye with her crooked smirk, the snow swirling through the lamplight, collecting on our eyelashes, salt crackling beneath my red shoe, the scent of damp wool and snow and baking croissants…. Sorry. I need to go make a valentine for my wife—)

Could you describe your artistic/writer background in some detail, like how did you get into art and what your art/literary education was like?

CSW: I loved writing from the beginning. Well, dictating, before I could write–I had a lovely kindergarten teacher, Miss Connors, who called us up to her typewriter to tell stories, which felt important. Whenever possible, I went to creative writing camp or took that community class. Later, I made a living teaching, which left little room for my own work. Eventually, I was able to cut back my load and earn an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, which was pure joy! Their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) didn’t launch until I was nearly done, but I did nab a few lecture passes, which helped. When I first became interested in picture books, specifically, I didn’t know where to turn. Now writing/ illustrating resources are everywhere. There are infinite ways to train yourself. All of them involve studying form and craft, finding your process, trading feedback, and practice. I’d also include developing confidence in your voice. 

CC: I didn’t go to formal art school; I do have a degree in Illustration though the program was somewhat different from typical art school. Most of what I know, I picked up along the way from books (and later, YouTube videos) and just drawing a lot over the years. I did a bit of a design diploma when I was younger, and worked as a designer for some years. While I don’t do graphic design anymore, I think the skills I picked up there were invaluable especially for books – it helps when considering the type on the page, and also makes communication with the art team at the publishers much easier.

What are some of your favorite examples of picture books growing up and now?

CSW: As a kid I loved Tootle about a baby train who leaves the tracks to frolic in a field of buttercups (Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, Golden Press 1945). But when I looked it up just now, I discovered it’s really about Tootle “Learning to Stay on The Tracks No Matter What.” Eventually the villagers fill the field to wave red flags and drive Tootle back to the tracks. WOW. It’s strange. What I remembered from this book is Tootle’s joy in the meadow, the flower garlands. Yet, what I lived out was obedience to all the red flags of gender. I stayed on those tracks, even as my heart longed for buttercups. Coming out felt exactly like finding that field. Books are subtle, powerful things. I hope Love, Violet will wave a GREEN flag to kids, reassuring them that joy comes from authenticity and honest connection.

My favorite books now? Ah, so many! Here are two recent favorites: 

When We Love Someone We Sing to Them / Cuando Amamos Cantamos by Ernesto Javier Martínez, illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez, is a sweeping “reclamation of the Mexican serenata tradition” as a young boy creates the perfect love song for another boy. And Papi helps. Gorgeous.

The Most Beautiful Thing, a moving generational story by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le (2020), flows like poetry with honest, kid-oriented details and illustrations I get lost in for days!

CC: Growing up… well I have a terrible memory so I really only remember the ones that I still have! One is Emergency Mouse by Bernard Stone and Ralph Steadman. I mostly remember it for the illustrations… as a child I just thought they looked weird and cool. It was only as an adult that I learned that Ralph Steadman’s other more famous work (he is frequently noted for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson)

Currently… there are so many to choose from, I could go on and on. I’ve sorta slowed down on my new picturebook reading due to the pandemic unfortunately; hopefully it’ll be a bit better this year. I think the last picturebook I purchased was a special order from the UK – Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew, Owlet Press)

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist/writer to translate that into Love, Violet?

CSW: Unless someone is an author-illustrator, the text comes first. After my agent sells a manuscript, the publisher finds the illustrator, who works independently. We don’t communicate directly, which allows illustrators to imagine freely. Yet the art and words still collaborate, like a dance. And from the beginning, I write in anticipation of illustration.

First, the text needs to break easily into a 32- or 40-page book (12-16 spreads). That requires distinct, illustratable beats (which is harder than it sounds), though I don’t decide the page breaks. I also create patterns that an illustrator might translate into visual layouts. For example, to convey Violet’s main problem, I use a mini-story (beginning, middle, end) within the story. Kids aren’t abstract thinkers yet, so they need to see and experience this problem for themselves. Here, I use a set up (“But whenever Mira came near…”), then three quick scene examples to show the problem is ongoing (Mira approaches Violet three times), and a final statement of the problem: “Violet went shy.” But for this simple text to truly spring to life, we need the art, layout, and even page turns to complete the experience.

In this case, Charlene places “But whenever Mira came near…” right before a page-turn to drive the suspense. Next, three spots (surrounded by white space) highlight the dynamic between the girls, yet keep us moving until–BOOM–the hammer drops–“Violet went shy.” The full bleed (no white space) of poor Violet cowering behind that tree overwhelms us with Violet’s despair over her problem. (Heart clutch!) The stronger the emotion, the more I like to pull back the language so the art can SING. (And how!) This is the essence of picture books. The images and text create the meaning together

CC: The process, at least on the illustrator’s end, is pretty solitary. I get the manuscript, sometimes I go over it with the art director, but not always. I’m just left alone to come up with the art and I quite like it that way. All the art is sent to the art director or designer on the book. I usually get feedback from them several weeks later. To be honest I am not sure when the author sees my art – I leave it up to the publishers to decide how best to liaise with the author. In my opinion it works best this way, as what I get back is usually edits that are concise and actionable (e.g please make the character on this page a bit smaller). Occasionally there are bigger things to fix (usually at the sketch stage), which do take more back and forth between me, the publishing team and the author. It is really rare for me to speak directly with the author during the illustration process. The exception are books that have special visual needs (e.g cultural depictions) that we feel would be better clarified upfront with the author.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

CSW: What’s the most surprisingly hard thing about writing picture books?
For me? To get a narrative right, I inevitably must tap deep emotional spaces. It feels vulnerable. “But it’s just a picture book!” you say. Yes. And it must feel True. Alive. With a handful of words. To work, a book must convey something deeply human that transcends age. Even for humor. It’s like one of my favorite childhood picture books, The Monster at the End of This Book (Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin). Our dear Muppet Grover does everything possible to keep us from turning pages BECAUSE THERE’S A MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK! AHH! (Spoiler: it’s just “lovable, furry old Grover”!) Which is true of all my books. To finish, at some point, I must face the monster, the closet, the secret reason I’m writing this book. (Spoiler: The monster is usually ME.)

CC: Oh… there are so many questions I know I wish people would ask me, but right now I’m drawing a blank? 


Oh I know! “Do you have a queer slice-of-life comic with adult characters in a modern-fantasy setting?”

Please ask me that because the answer is YES. 

CSW: Okay, now you HAVE to tell us more….

CC: Aha… I’m not sure how much more I can say right now. It’s under development and currently only on my Patreon (note: my Patreon is mainly for my comics and non-kidlit artwork). Best I can do is say the comic is something like Nimona meets Heartstopper, but with adult characters. 

CSW: You had me at Nimona. But I’ve seen your comics and I am smitten. I want to see these on glossy paper!

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers/illustrators, especially picture book writers?

CSW: ​​Read picture books aloud with kids as much as possible. How kids react, drift, what they notice is so instructive. It’s important to hear and feel how texts perform. Do they flow? How do the page turns add suspense? Picture books are designed to be read aloud a bazillion times by exhausted adults. Your text needs to stand up to that. Also, study current picture books. Scores, hundreds of them. Type up the text with the page turns. Notice how the voice works, how words don’t describe the pictures; they do more. How the pictures say more than the text. 

Every writer is unique, but for me, “charting” picture books has transformed my process. My sketchbook is full of 4X4 story grids, one box per spread (a spread is 2 facing pages). This is actually a method from illustrators. I simply drop into each box an image or a few words to represent the content and layout of the page (say a half spread, or a page with three spots). This allows me to “see” the whole book visually. I can check pacing or focus, cut/ add scenes easily, without the distraction of language. I also chart published books to study them. I chart new ideas before I draft. If a story isn’t working, I chart it to identify the problem or to work out a solution. Charting has shaved months (years) off my process! I wish I’d known this trick when I started Love, Violet back in 2011!

CC: Pretty much what Charlotte said. As an illustrator, I always make a dummy book, even if the first draft is just pretty much stick figures. It helps in the same way charting does, but I find it also helps me figure out what descriptions I can cut out. A lot of things can be ‘described’ by the images so once I have a stick figure in place, I find it easier to trim out unnecessary words.

I should also add that unless you are self publishing, you do not need to look for nor hire an illustrator. The publisher usually chooses AND PAYS the illustrator. 

Also – be a nice person? The industry is pretty small, we all want to work with nice people. Be aware of how you use your social media especially; if you want to be an author, then it’s probably not great if the first thing people see is a list of all the books you hated, for example!

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

CSW: ​​I have a Halloween-ish book on submission about a monster-loving kid and her puppy who discover that mishaps and scary feelings are no match for monster love. Another project just going on submission features a child from a beautiful queer family who finds new ways to cope and connect with a parent while they are away for a long time, something I know TOO much about as a military spouse. As to other projects, here in Italy the fairy tale vibe is STRONG. (Also. Charlene keeps daring me to write a chicken book….)

CC: As far as confirmed projects go, I am working on Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance (by Kat Zhang, Simon & Schuster), Boys Don’t Fry (by Kimberly Lee, FSG) and an upcoming chapter book series called Hocus and Pocus (by A. R. Capetta, Candlewick). 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?


Jessie Sima’s picture books!

Joy Michael Ellison and Teshika Silver in Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! (PB)

Mariko Tamaki, especially Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me with evocative illustration by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (GN)

Flamer by Mike Curato (who also makes GORGEOUS picture books)(GN)

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (Trungles)(GN)

Pet, an exquisitely terrifying novel by Akwaeke Emezi is one of the most stunning novels I’ve read. Masterpiece. Top read last year. (YA)

Kaycen Callender, novelist for young people, wizard of voice. (MG, YA)

Definitely check out magical, lyrical novelist Anna-Marie McLemore (YA)


Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (PB)

Grandad’s Camper (PB)

Estranged (GN)

Blob (PB)

Anzu the Great Kaiju (PB)

Lilla the Accidental Witch (GN)

Thanks for hosting us!