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?
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!
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Roseanne A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets. Rosie currently lives outside Washington D.C., where in her free time she can usually be found wandering the woods, making memes, or thinking about Star Wars. Her debut novel, A Song of Wraith and Ruin, was a New York Times bestseller.
Dika Araújo is a Brazilian animator, comic artist and illustrator based in Sâo Paulo. Her previous work includes several independent Brazilian anthologies, including Amor em Quadrinhos, which was nominated for the Angouleme International Comics Award in 2018.
Natacha Bustos is a Spanish comic book artist who drew the story Going Nowhere, written by Brandan Montclare, for DC/Vertigo’s Strange Sports Stories. Bustos then made her Marvel Comics debut on Spider Woman before re-teaming with Montclare and co-writer Amy Reeder on the inaugural run of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, winner of Glyph Award for Best Female Character in 2016. In 2020, she drew the Buffy the Vampire: Willow miniseries (BOOM Studios!) and became part of Marvel’s Stormbreakers Artist program, dedicated to spotlighting the next generation of elite artists.
Claudia Aguirre is a GLAAD and Eisner Award nominated artist and writer. She is co-founder of Boudika Comics. Her works include Hotel Dare (Boom!Studios), Morning in America (Oni Press) and Lost on PlanetEarth (Comixology Originals
I had the opportunity to interview Roseanne A. Brown, Natacha Bustos, and Dika Araújo which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
Roseanne A. Brown: Hi! My name is Roseanne A. Brown, but everyone calls me Rosie. I’m a Ghanaian-American young adult and middle grade SFF author. My debut novel, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is a New York Times bestselling YA Fantasy inspired by West African folklore that’s been described as what would happen if Aladdin and Jasmine had to kill each other. The sequel, A Psalm of Storms and Silence,came out in November 2021, and I have several more books on the way. On the rare day I’m not writing, I can usually be found watching obscure documentaries on Netflix or trying to cook the perfect poached egg. (It’s really hard!)
Natacha Bustos: Hi! I’m Natacha Bustos. I draw comics and live in Malaga. I’ve enjoyed comics since I was very young, and I’ve always loved telling stories. I like going for a walk in the countryside or having a nice meal in good company. My everyday life is dominated by my two loves: my son, Alan, and my cat, Momo.
Dika Araújo: Of course! I’m a 28 year old Brazilian illustrator. I work in animation and sometimes I make comics.
What can you tell us about your project, Black Panther: Into the Heartlands? How did each of you get involved?
RB: Back in early 2020, my agent sent me an email saying she’d heard that my now editor Lauren Bisom was looking for pitches for a new line of young reader graphic novels featuring some of Marvel’s most popular teen heroes: Miles Morales, Shuri and T’Challa, and Kamala Khan. The idea of a sibling story featuring the prince and princess of Wakanda came to me almost immediately; while there have been both books and comics about the two as youths, there were few centered on their relationship as children. Then during my research, I learned that the two share a father but have different birth mothers. As a member of a large, blended family myself, I really connected to the idea of these fantastical characters dealing with complicated family dynamics just like millions of kids around the world, and the idea for Into the Heartlands grew from there.
NB: Lauren Bisom contacted me to talk about a project that Dika had started. I really like Dika and her art, so the idea of working on a comic with her was appealing. Then, I saw that Claudia Aguirre had also joined the team, which was cool. I’ve known her for about ten years now through social media. I love the Black Panther universe and Shuri’s my girl, so this type of project is a no-brainer.
DA: I developed the character designs and drew the first batch of pre-Heartlands pages.
Before this project, how would you describe your connection to the Black Panther universe? What does it feel like to be working on this project now?
RB: I’m relatively new to the world of Wakanda as I really didn’t know much about the characters before the movie came out in 2018. But I was blown away by the world in that film, particularly by how the creators organically wove in the African influences that created these characters. Shuri, T’Challa, and the Black Panther as a concept are icons in every sense of the word. Getting to write them has been an honor, and I only hope that my entry into the Black Panther world is full of the same heart and power that have drawn people to these characters for decades.
NB:I’ve done some Shuri and some Black Panther covers for Marvel and I’ve read Kirby’s comics. I love Shuri as done by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero, as well as Brian Steelfreeze’s interpretation of Black Panther. They’re really powerful, all told with a singular voice.
Becoming part of the family of Black Panther authors is really a dream come true. So I’m delighted to have added my own little drop into this ocean.
DA: I started paying more attention to it after the MCU movies. Me and my brother hadn’t connected together so intensely to a character before since the Blade movies came out. So it was really exciting getting to contribute a little bit to the Wakanda canon.
Are there any other superheroes besides Shuri and T’Challa that you feel drawn to (excuse the pun)?
RB: I’ve loved Static since I was a child. He’s of Ghanaian descent, like me, and the episode of Static Shock where he went to Ghana was the first time I ever saw Twi spoken in an American media. The Batfamily were my entry point into superhero comics, with the second Robin, Jason Todd, being my absolute favorite. And I have to shout-out my girl Storm. She was a big inspiration for the character of Karina in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin.
NB: Many, including Storm, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange, Loki, Miles Morales, etc.
DA: Hehehe, that was a good joke. Yesterday I watched the first episode of Moon Knight and being autistic I could relate a lot to the chaos and general disorientation the character goes through. I could say the same about Jessica Jones. Besides that, I tend to relate to side characters more: Peridot (Steven Universe), Wolf (Kipo), Toph (Avatar the Last Airbender)…
As author of the book, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin and A Psalm of Storms and Silence, howdid you find yourself becoming a writer? What drew you to young adult and speculative fiction specifically?
RB: I can barely remember a time before I wanted to write. When my family first immigrated to America when I was three, I couldn’t speak English. After years of struggling in school, it was books that opened up the world for me and helped me connect with my new community. Since then, I’ve wanted to create works that help people feel a little less alone like the books I loved did for me. As for YA and speculative fiction, I love how they’re categories where the extraordinary becomes the extra ordinary. Everything just feels a little more possible in SFF, and with YA, there’s something so refreshing about depicting the world through the eyes of a character with one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood.
How would you describe your writing/illustrating process?
RB: Rather than a plotter or a pantser, I’m what some like to call a headlighter. That’s to say, I write books similar to how someone drives at night—all I can see is exactly what’s in front of me at the moment, but that’s enough to get me where I need to go. All my first drafts are written like that, which often leaves me with an extremely heartfelt, yet incomprehensible manuscript. From there, I’ll revise/rewrite as needed until a structure weaves through the emotion. It’s not the most efficient process, but it’s mine.
NB: I can be quite chaotic but working digitally provides me with a certain amount of order. I start sketching first off and I tend to be extremely focused at this stage. I can’t have any music on, I need silence. I pretty much skip the penciling stage when working on the final art because I’m working digitally. It’s a really fun stage: my hand is engaged in one thing, while my mind may be elsewhere; I have music playing or podcasts or even a TV series.
DA: Err… Chaotic, time-consuming, but at the same time very orderly.
What are some of your favorite craft when it comes to writing/illustrating?
RB:The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass is one of my favorite craft books of all time. For plotting, I tend to use a mixture of Save the Catstructure alongside the 7 Point Plot Structure by Dan Wells. But I always say the best craft techniques are the ones that work for you. Pick and choose what fits your writing style!
NB: I really love Pentel for illustrations; I tend to use it particularly for commissions.
DA: Getting to translate the script into a visual form of storytelling, for sure.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (as well as the answer to that question)?
RB: Ooh, I love this question! I’ve always wished someone would ask me where the weirdest place I’ve ever written is. The answer would be on the floor of a bathroom in a grimy club in Osaka, Japan. Pass pages for ASOWAR were due, but my friends were visiting and wanted to go out. I learned the true meaning of multi-tasking on that trip.
DA: “What are your favorite reality shows?”
I love The Circle, Blown Away, Too Hot to Handle… The more random and further removed from my reality, the better. I work in animation all day, and it’s hard to watch movies and cartoons without having my “work brain” on. That kind of show lets me turn off my brain completely.
Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
RB: After Into the Heartlands, my next published work will be a short story in the Star Wars anthology Stories of Jedi and Sith, out on June 7th. I’ve been a Star Wars geek since I was a teen, and have written my fair share of fanfiction, so I’m still freaking out that I got to write a canon story in the world. My next full-length book is my middle grade prose debut, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting, out with Rick Riordan Presents on September 6th. I describe that book as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Mean Girls with a huge helping of Ghanaian folklore. It’s a lot of fun, even if writing it did force me to relive my middle school days. *shudder*
NB: I have a few projects. I could tell you, but then….
DA: I’m working on a Brazilian animation studio called Copa Studio, and they’ve just released a Carnival special for a series called Jorel’s Brother, on HBO Max! I hope people like it, we made it with a lot of love.
What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, whether those working on prose novels or graphic novels?
RB: Give yourself permission to take your work seriously. I always tell people that if you want to play sports at a professional level, you have to be practicing at that level long before you ever make a pro team. Writing is similar. This doesn’t mean write every single day, because I sure don’t do that, but it does mean carve out time for your craft when you can and guard it like you would any other major commitment. You and your art deserve that.
NB: You need to have a routine and persistence to finish the job. It is also vitally important to have your free time, so you don’t burn out. This is essential for your mental well-being and so you enjoy your work!
DA: Don’t be fooled, it’s a career that requires a lot of hard work, but at the same time you need a lot of luck and privilege to “make it”. I’m not telling anyone to give up their dreams, that’d be an *ssh*le move, but don’t feel guilty or compare yourself to people who may have had more opportunities than you did.
Finally, what books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
RB: Some of my absolute favorite comics as both a reader and a creator are:
NB:Miles Morales: Shock Waves, Ms. Marvel comics, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Shuri, Black Panther! Read some OG stuff by Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Buscema, José Luis García López, Mazzucchelli, etc. In the world of manga, I love Osamu Tetzuka, Shigeru Misuki, Kentaro Miura, Naoki Urosawa, Hiromu Arakawa, and Rumiko Takahashi.
DA: A big inspiration when working on this comic, for me, was The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis. Other than that, all I can say is BUY AND READ ROSIE’S BOOKS. Sorry, I got carried away, haha. Buy and read everything Roseanne writes. She’s amazing.
Shelly Romero (she/her) was born and raised in Miami by Honduran parents. She now resides in New York City where she is forever chasing the perfect café Cubano and pan tostado.
She is a member of Latinx in Publishing, People of Color in Publishing, is a junior mentor for the Representation Matters Mentorship Program, and a planning committee member for DVcon. Shelly was selected as Publishers Weekly Star Watch 2020 Honoree, which “shines a light on innovative, talented professionals from all parts of the industry.”
I had the opportunity to interview Shelly, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Thank you so much for having me! And of course! In a nutshell, I’m currently the Lead Editor at Cake Creative. I’ve been in publishing for nearly five years, which feels like a lifetime to be honest. I’m a proud Honduran American, daughter to immigrants. A lot of what drives my work in publishing is the fact that I never saw myself represented in the pages of the books I devoured as a kid and teen. So my aim is to publish stories by BIPOC creators that showcase the range of our experiences.
Outside of my work, I’m a huge fan of all things horror. I write Ghoul Gal, a horror pop-culture newsletter. Every year, (around this time actually), I begin planning my annual trip to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights. I’m also a big fan of going to concerts, so I try to see as many artists and bands that I love in a year.
And I’m a Sagittarius Sun, Rising, and Taurus Moon ☺
How would you describe your literary/ geeky tastes and preferences?
Oh, that’s such a good question. It’s hard for me to pin-point it because outside of loving horror, I do read a lot of genres. Though, I’m less of a fan of epic high fantasy nowadays. Space operas are also tricky for me. Westerns are definitely a no. But almost everything else is fair game if it interests me enough.
And despite my goth sensibilities and interests, I love a good, fluffy rom-com or coming-of-age story.
As an editor, how would you describe your journey into publishing?
I always credit joining the staff of Harbinger, Stephens College’s literary magazine, as a catalyst. Before my freshman year of college, I changed my major to English from fashion design. I had wanted to be a designer for so many years but realized that it just wasn’t in the cards for me. I had always been a bookworm so switching to English felt like the best choice.
I didn’t grow up knowing that a career as a book editor was possible. But when I joined Harbinger, I absolutely loved learning about the history of lit magazines, about how to work collaboratively on a team to read submissions and then publish our selections in the new editions of the mag.
From there, I ended up interning at The Missouri Review for two semesters, as well as continuing my work on Harbinger all the way up until I graduated. I served as the 2017 Co-Editor-in-Chief for our “Face the Strange” issue.
And from there, I decided that I wanted to move to New York and be where publishing was. I ended up doing the 2017 NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) and a few weeks after the program ended, I received a job offer to be an Editorial Assistant at Scholastic.
Is there anything you wish you had known when you first entered the field?
I wish I would’ve been told more on what it meant to be in editorial. While we got editors who would speak to us at SPI, they were often higher-ups who hadn’t been an assistant in decades and would call working in editorial, “solitary work.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth. I wish I would’ve known that to be an Editorial Assistant means balancing the work of being an admin assistant with being a burgeoning editor who is learning the ropes of the role.
It’s a tough position that pays pennies. Not to mention, most houses want you to remain an assistant for nearly five years or so. So as you grow your personal editorial skills and begin to acquire, edit, and manage your own lists…you’re also expected to remain assisting your boss(es).
It is not solitary work at all, either. As an editor, you’re the point of contact between so many other departments that are all necessary to publish a book and get it out in the world. Which means there’s so many meetings to attend. There are often not enough hours in the day to work on your own editorial work because of this…and the industry expects you to just do your submission reading or editing on your own time without overtime which is absolutely absurd.
What would you say are some of the greatest lessons you learned about the publishing field?
That this industry weaponizes the whole “it’s for the passion of literature” in order to defend its lack of pay, raises, promotions, etc. And it also weaponizes a lack of transparency on so many levels from people who are wanting to enter the industry not knowing where to find resources on how to make a career in publishing to advances and salary discrepancies as well as lack of information into the “publishing process.”
That you need to be wary and watchful of the people who say they’re allies and that they’re there for you (especially as junior level employees) in public, but their actions and words behind closed doors speak the whole truth.
That community is absolutely necessary to survive and thrive in this industry. I don’t know where I would be without my best friends, the same ones I’m always in twenty different group chats in. They keep me sane, humble, and build me up when I need it.
And lastly, that you are your biggest advocate. No matter whether you have decent bosses or a supportive team…you are always your biggest advocate and you have to fight for everything you want in your publishing career.
As someone who is involved in projects from acquisition to publication, what would you share are of the hardest/weirdest/ and coolest parts of the development process?
When I was acquiring, the hardest part was always the week leading up to acquisitions when I was prepping everything necessary for the meeting, including my speech. I don’t think I talk about it as much as I should, but I actually do get a stage fright for public speaking. Which might be surprising to people who know me since I’m very extroverted and loud. But presenting can be very nerve-wracking. In that acquisitions meeting, I was the one who had to convince the higher-ups of the projects and creators that I was head over heels for. That’s another thing I didn’t know about working in editorial – the amount of public speaking necessary.
Coolest would definitely have to be the cover. I was so grateful to have worked with incredible designers at Scholastic like Steph Yang and Maeve Norton. They would take my concepts and the ideas the authors would provide and work with an artist to bring them to life. And they always knocked it out of the park. But it was always so cool to review the passes and proofs of the covers and see the layers of specs they would have. Showing the author their book’s cover was also just a special moment, I think. It, as well as saying their designed pages, would cement that “my book is being published” feeling.
As a queer woman of color, you’ve probably noticed quite a bit about the successes and failings of the publishing industry when it comes to promoting diversity. Could you share some of your thoughts on this?
How much space do I have? I mean, I tend to talk a lot about this because it’s so consistent. The conversations seem to come back in cycles and it’s usually everyone who wants to change things at different levels vs. the execs and higher-ups who hold the power to change things but never do.
I think publishing and its gatekeepers have said “yes, we can have a little “diversity” as a treat” and then have become arbiters of what is authentic or not. We’ve seen how the #OwnVoices hashtag went from a helpful tool of amplifying traditionally marginalized authors’ works to being weaponized against those very authors. Ashia Monet recently wrote about this in her essay “The Curse of Good Representation” and further nailed down the nuances of this topic.
I mentioned earlier that people needed to find their communities but also be wary of people who seemed like allies. With that, I also urge creators to fully do their research whenever these agents/agencies, and imprints/publishers do calls for marginalized creators, especially BIPOC. Often, these calls are for unagented creators and that to me is a very slippery-slope that could lead to creators being taken advantage of and/or not being advocated for properly. I see these calls pop up during major moments of tension or unrest in the world. A lot of them popped up after the protests in summer ’20. Yet a lot of these agents, editors, and imprints calling for Black authors or authors of color are filled with all white teams and/or have never really had any BIPOC on their editorial or client lists. So how do you expect BIPOC creators to trust that you’ll take care of them and their writing if you haven’t even shown you can actually support them? Most of the time, I think these calls can do a lot more harm than good. Because support or calls for traditionally marginalized creators shouldn’t only occur during these very traumatic moments if you’re actually wanting to do this work.
Aside from reading and editing books, what are some of your other interests and hobbies?
I love playing video games. I don’t play nearly as much as I used to as a kid, but I’ve grown up with consoles. My first one was a Nintendo GameCube and I was just hooked from there.
Does shopping count as an interest? Haha! You asked me about my style below and this is truly how I feed my wardrobe. But it does stem from my love of fashion and failed childhood dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
I’m also an avid moviegoer. I have the Season Pass for the Alamo Drafthouse so I tend to watch a lot of movies in the theater.
Also, how do you have such an immaculate style and where did you develop your gothic aesthetics?
Ah! Thank you so much! That really means a lot. It’s taken me quite a bit of time to find that style. I’ve always been a goth/alt person but now that I’m making my own money, I’ve really been able to experiment with my style as well as support some amazing small shops in the process. I tend to describe my look as “corporate goth.” But I do have quite a mix in my wardrobe which is reflected in my style. That mix includes: alt, Victorian goth, chic, dark academia, vintage (typically 1940s/50s), and 90s in my wardrobe. I do also love corsets and leather-wear like harnesses.
Now that I feel like I’ve nailed down my clothing, I’ve been buying a lot of accessories (jewelry, hats, bags) and adding them to my outfits of the day to amplify my looks.
I’m not going to lie…it’s taken me a while to find both the aesthetics that work for me and the confidence to wear those pieces.
What advice would you have to give to aspiring creatives, both who wish to enter the publishing field and those who wish to be published?
For those who want to enter the industry – protect yourself, pick your fights (unfortunately), be your biggest advocate, and find your community. This industry is not easy and it will try to break you down in so many ways.
For creators – also find the people who are going to be your advocates. If you’re looking for agents, be sure to research and research and research. If you’re looking for editors or a house to be published at, also do your research. Always do your research. And know that while there are not a lot of us in the industry who are BIPOC or queer, we are here…and we are trying our hardest to fight for your books.
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)?
This is so hard, but probably what my favorite tattoos are? Which is also a hard question to answer since I currently have 15 (with the 16th scheduled for early April). So, I’ll give you three:
I have the lyrics “You, in somber resplendence, I hold” written in my mom’s handwriting on my right arm. The lyrics are from AFI’s “Silver and Cold” which is her favorite song from my favorite band.
On my left arm, I have this really cool vampire kind clutching this sun in the American Traditional style. I was like “I can’t do anymore lyric tattoos!” but I wanted a tattoo based off of my favorite My Chemical Romance song, “The Sharpest Lives.” So, I ended up emailing my artist Brendan Haehnle the lyrics from the chorus and that I wanted a vampire and then to just have at it. The design was a complete surprise until the appointment. And it was just such an amazing piece that was well worth the pain.
One of my biggest pieces is a scarecrow –based off of the scarecrow briefly seen at the beginning of Sleepy Hollow (1999)– with a murder of crows all surrounding it. It’s gorgeous and done in the signature style of the Murray twins who own Black Veil near Salem, MA. They have been dream artists of mine and I got to have Ryan Murray tattoo me in December 2020.
Are there any projects you are currently working on (professional or personal) that you feel free to speak about?
Professional – I cannot say too much other that there are some coming down the pipeline that are projects of my heart and I am so excited for them. Y’all will have to wait and see 😉
Personal – I’m trying to focus on my own writing when I can. I love writing Ghoul Gal because it feels very much a thing for me. It would be great to grow but I’m just happy to be writing about the genre that I love so much.
What LGBTQIA+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Rosiee Thor (she/they) began her career as a storyteller by demanding to tell her mother bedtime stories instead of the other way around. She spent her childhood reading by flashlight in the closet until she came out as queer. She lives in Oregon with a dog, two cats, and an abundance of plants. She is the author of Young Adult novels Tarnished Are The Stars and Fire Becomes Her and the picture book The Meaning of Pride.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Thanks for having me! I’m Rosiee, a queer author of YA science fiction and fantasy. Since I grew up without stories that reflected my identity or experience, I love writing about queer kids having adventures and saving the day. I’m also an avid gardener and mediocre gamer.
When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction and speculative fiction?
I’ve always been a bit of a storyteller. When I was little, I would spin outrageous tales for my parents—they’d probably call it lying but… semantics. I wrote my first story down on actual paper when I was in fifth grade, and I kind of just kept going from there. I didn’t really understand that being an author was a real job that I could grow up to have until I came across a novel that was written by a teenager. I remember my mom making a huge deal out of that fact when she brought the book home for me and then I connected the dots. I think I gravitate toward young adult books mostly because those are the books that shaped me as a storyteller, but also because I saw a real lack of stories about people like me when I was growing up. LGBTQIA+ stories were hard to come by when I was a teenager. There were a few—Tamora Pierce’s circle of magic books, for example, really inspired me—but I was such a voracious reader that I ran out of options pretty quickly. As an adult, I still crave those stories, so I wrote for the teen I was and for the teens out there now who may need to see themselves reflected in fiction.
What can you tell us about your latest novel, Fire Becomes Her? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
The initial inspiration for Fire Becomes Her came from a song: “Burn” from Hamilton. As an aromantic asexual person who avoids relationships like the plague, I’ve never really felt romantic betrayal, which is what the song is about, but as I listened, I was reminded of a different type of betrayal—the betrayal of a government failing to protect its people. I wrote most of Fire Becomes Her during 2020, truly a banner year for political disappointment, and it allowed me to process my emotions about living in a country where my elected officials seem more interested in grand standing than governing. As an author, I write most often from a place of frustration—almost all of my story ideas come from me being annoyed or angry about some system or other. For Tarnished Are The Stars, my first novel, that was the American healthcare system; for Fire Becomes Her, it was wealth inequality and voter disenfranchisement. I realize that’s not a particularly flashy inspiration, but it’s the truth.
As a historical fantasy fiction book set in the 1920s, I’m assuming there was some research involved in Fire Becomes Her. Could you maybe tell us about that?
It actually involved less research than you might think! The world of Fire Becomes Her is a 1920s inspired fantasy analogue called Candesce. It’s a city-state with some similarities to our world, but with one major difference: fire magic. In order to maintain the 1920s vibe, I promised myself that I wouldn’t include anything that wouldn’t have existed in the 1920s, so I did a fair amount of research about certain technologies and architecture. I ended up fudging that rule on a few things to make room for more modern discussions of sexuality and gender identities, but it did make for some interesting google searches!
As an aspec reader, I’m always grateful to see more aspec fiction in the world. Could you talk your personal motivation in writing aromantic/asexual characters and what representation in general means to you?
As an aromantic asexual spectrum person, it’s important to me to create representation that would have resonated with me as a young person. I try to write from a place of authenticity, and I think Ingrid—the main character in Fire Becomes Her—is one of the most honestly written characters I’ve created. Her story came directly from my own as an aromantic person living under compulsory hetero-allo-normativity. The expectations of our community (or even our own interpretations of those expectations) can be wildly damaging, and I experienced that firsthand. I wanted to write a narrative for Ingrid that allowed her to confront that expectation and choose for herself what kind of love she wanted. It was also important to me to include multiple examples of aspec representation, so while Ingrid is aromantic-spec bisexual, there is also an aro/ace side character, a transmasc non-binary asexual, and a central queerplatonic partnership.
How would you describe your writing process? What do you find are some of your favorite (or most frustrating) parts of writing?
I am simultaneously a rigid outliner and a discovery writer—which makes for a very weird process. Basically, I like to go in with a pretty clear plan and I always write an outline before I start drafting, but a lot of it ends up going out the window once I get some words on paper. Character is central for me when I’m working on a new book, which is the main thing I discovery write. If a character ends up a little different than I originally planned, it can impact the rest of the story pretty heavily, and I may have to start over. For example, in the original plan for Fire Becomes Her, Ingrid’s boyfriend was meant to be a bit of a player, but when I started writing, he came out a lot softer and honestly just a total simp for Ingrid. I had to completely change my plan to make room for his character, and I’m so glad I did because his arc ended up being one of my favorites to write!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
My best advice is to write something you love. If you want to be an author, you’ll have to work on your book through a lot of drafts, and that’s way more tolerable if you love your story! Don’t try to make your book more palatable to the masses at the expense of the things you love most about it. You are your own first reader, so it’s important for you to like your own work first and foremost.
Besides being a writer, what are some things you would want your readers to know about you?
Other than writing, I love to garden, cook, and play video games. I’m not particularly great at any of them, but I love having hobbies that I can be mediocre at and still enjoy. After a childhood of trying to be perfect, it’s been really nice to let go of that and allow myself to love things just because they’re fun. I’ve been enjoying experimenting with making different kinds of soup, learning to grow herbs indoors for the winter, and blundering my way through playing Breath of the Wild.
Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
I’m working on a bunch of stuff I’m super excited about! I make it a habit not to talk about them in too much detail too early on, mostly because projects can change so much while I’m still learning what they’re about and how I want to write them, but I can say that I’m working on branching out into new genres and age categories this year. I’m excited to be publishing my first picture book in April this year, and I’m working on developing some middle grade and adult projects too! I love to challenge myself to write outside my comfort zone, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
I have a lot of favorites, but a few recent standouts are A.M. Strickland’s In The Ravenous Dark, which is a dark fantasy about a pansexual, polyamorous princess; Alechia Dow’s The Kindred, which takes the soulmate trope to space with a demisexual main character; andMara Fitzgerald’s Beyond the Ruby Veil and Into The Midnight Void fantasy duology about a chaotic lesbian with a knife and her villain origin story.
S. Isabelle is a reader, writer, and hoarder of books. After earning a Master’s degree in library science, she took that love of reading to youth librarianship. Her short story “Break” was featured in the anthology Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading & Writing YA.The Witchery is her debut young adult novel. When she isn’t throwing books at teenagers, you can find her binge-watching TV shows, drinking heavily-sweetened coffee, or stressing over baseball.
I had the opportunity to interview S. Isabelle, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure! I’m S. Isabelle, a writer, reader, and hoarder of books. THE WITCHERY is my debut novel, and I’m also a teen librarian.
How would you describe your upcoming book, The Witchery? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
The Witchery is the culmination of all of my favorite pop-culture tropes. It’s got a big cast like X-Men, epic magical scenes like my favorite anime, but is also a character-focused YA fantasy along the lines of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. It also incorporates some classic YA paranormal tropes, but also has Black kids front and center, which is my favorite thing about it.
Could you tell us about what some of the characters we can expect to see in The Witchery?
I’m so excited for everyone to meet this ensemble cast of messy, magical teens! There’s Jailah, the sociable and ambitious witch with a spell for everything; Iris, the necromancer with a heart of gold; Thalia, a quiet greenwitch hiding a terrible secret; and Logan, the new girl in town who gets in a little over her head with magic. That’s the main coven of teen witches, but there are two mundanes who get pulled into the adventure–Trent, a sweet boy digging into the mystery surrounding his witchy mother’s death, and his best friend Mathew, who doesn’t know what he’s even doing here since he has no connection to magic… or so he thinks. The relationship between these six grows and changes throughout the novel–sometimes they’re all BFFs, other times it gets fraught–and I’m really proud of how their stories turned out.
How did you get into writing, and what drew you to Young Adult and speculative fiction specifically?
I’ve always sort of had my head in the clouds, and growing up, I often daydreamed up my own stories based on my life, or my favorite media. I didn’t actively start writing novels until college, and once I started, I knew I’d wanted to pursue publication. Writing paranormal is especially exciting to me, and I love that mix of the fantastic and the real. I definitely want to write for younger kids and adults in the future, but YA is such a fun playground, and I really enjoy writing characters who are just starting to figure themselves out, falling into first loves, and deciding who they want to be.
How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite things about writing?
My writing process is organized chaos. New projects usually start with a really interesting scene, something right in the beginning or at the very end, and my imagination lets loose, thinking about all the ways to get the characters to and from those points. I can’t be as much of a pantser as I used to be (deadlines will do that to you!) but I still don’t make super detailed outlines. For me, the best parts of writing are when I’ve finally figured out some vital plot point or necessary connection that had eluded me. That moment of oh, I know how to make this work is so satisfying. Also, typing THE END is always really great.
Besides being a writer, what are some things you would like others to know about you?
While I’m completely unathletic, I’m very into watching sports, so if you catch me in a bad mood, just assume that my team lost and I need a moment.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
I love talking craft! I think I could go on for hours about how to balance multi-POV narratives and big ensemble casts, and would love to be asked about how to juggle intersecting storylines. To keep it short and sweet, I’ll say that my number one advice is to make sure that each character has a storyline outside of the group, and that if you were to pluck them out of that setting, that they’d still be a fully fleshed character in their own right.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers?
My favorite piece of advice for writers, especially those looking at traditional publishing, is “eyes on your own paper.” Being a marginalized creator, sometimes it can be hard to keep from worrying that you’re going to miss a trend, or that a publisher will pass on your project because it sounds too similar to a book by another author who shares that marginalization. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time worrying about what other writers were doing while I was on submission, and it was such a waste of time! Focus on your craft, your projects, and the dreams you have for yourself.
Are there other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
I can’t talk openly about what’s coming next at the moment, but I will have a YA book coming in 2023 that I can’t wait to shout about!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
I recently read Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, which was excellent. In the YA space, Aiden Thomas, Leah Johnson, and Kalynn Bayron are definitely authors to be following. Francesca May (Wild and Wicked Things) and Aaron H. Aceves (This is Why They Hate Us) are fellow #22debuts whose work I’m highly looking forward to reading!
Jay Coles is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, teaching middle school students, and composing for various music publishers. His debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here is based on true events in his life and inspired by police brutality in America. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana, and invites you to visit his website at jaycoleswrites.com.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming book, Things We Couldn’t Say! How did you find yourself coming to write this story?
Thank you, thank you. Gio’s story came to me quite easily during the period of time I was stuck in my house in quarantine this past year. I knew that once Gio first popped into my thoughts, that his story was one about love, parental abandonment, forgiveness, second chances, and all the ways that family can hurt each other. Gio’s story is one that I can really empathize with because a lot of Gio is actually, well, me.
What drew you to writing when you first started? What keeps you motivated to keep writing despite the challenges?
I’ve always been a writer. Before I wrote books, I wrote instrumental/symphonic music. The idea of telling a story (whether it’s through words or music notes) is the joy of my heart. Also, I love the idea of starting a task and completing it. There’s no greater feeling, in my opinion, than finishing a draft of a book. I feel like that’s an easy motivation for me to finish writing, but to start? That’s a whole other thing.
Your book explores an interracial relationship between the two characters, Gio and David, who come from very different places mentally? What were the hopes in writing a relationship like this?
I wanted to show just how two VERY different people can come together and love each other well, to reveal layers of each other they didn’t know they had, and to show how even people who feel like love aren’t meant for them or in the cards they’ve been dealt are worthy of love, of any kind, if they want it. Also the trope of unlikely romantic love interests will forever have my heart. Wait. Is that even a real trope?
Part of the book’s beauty in navigating family, navigating the pain caused by those you love as well as the joy in found family? Was this always something you wanted to explore?
I looooove talking about found family and how family can be those we are born into or those we walk into later in life. Long story short, family can be complicated. Family are the people who know us the most and who are supposed to love us the most, but they can also be the ones who hurt us the worst and cut deep wounds into us that last years and years and years. I feel like this is super underexplored in YA, so I’m very glad to continue that conversation through Things We Couldn’t Say.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked?
I wish people asked me about the playlists in the book. Now, I know, I know. The book isn’t out just yet, but I’m hoping people ask me about the music in the book.
Besides being a talented author, what are some things you would want readers to know about you personally?
I’m a professional musician! I play drums!
What advice would you give to other writers on their own writing journeys, especially QPOC writers?
I hate when people give advice to write every single day; that’s SO unrealistic. The only thing I’ll say to young writers is to enjoy the journey – enjoy the initial drafting stage, the editing, the querying, the eventual publication, etc. We are all somewhere along in the journey of life together, let’s enjoy the little moments, even the ones that feel incredibly hard to enjoy.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
I am working on SEVERAL projects, but sadly none I can talk about just yet. But stay tuned!!
I had the opportunity to interview them both about their new book, Llama Galamarama, and more which you can read below.
As a writer who usually writes Young Adult fiction, what inspired you to write a children’s book? What do you like about writing for Young Adults versus writing Children’s books?
SJG: To be honest, it was really a case of having an idea that really only suited the picture book market. There are many ideas that suit young adult fiction, but I’m not sure dancing llamas is really one of them! My editor at Scholastic is very open to anything I present to him, and I really wanted to write a picture book about Pride that was fairly subtle in it’s messaging, (although admittedly not in the delivery!), so this seemed like the perfect fit.
I love writing for both age groups. With picture books, you have the chance to be one of the first books a person encounters, which is an extraordinary privilege. With young adult fiction, especially with it also being LGBTQ+, you hope that your readers are going to find comfort, understanding, and acceptance in your work, and knowing how important that is to many teenagers is a great responsibility and also a huge privilege.
What were the titles of some of your favorite books growing up?
SJG: Gosh, so many! I absolutely adored the Winnie the Pooh stories as a young child, and then Roald Dahl when I was a little older – especially The BFG. I really got into mystery and detective stories around the age of 11 or 12 – I loved Nancy Drew!
GP: My favourite books started with Rupert Bear annuals which I received at christmas from the age of four. If you are not familiar with Rupert’s adventures the stories were cleverly written in a short rhyme which sat beneath a graphic novel style set of four illustrations per page, but also had a fuller text at the bottom of the page giving the reader a choice of how to follow the story. However, despite this choice I would look at the sequence of illustrations and decipher the story in my own way without reading either. The illustrations were so gripping!
I too adored Roald Dahl, particularly “Danny The Champion of the World” and a picture book by John Vernon Lord, “The Giant Jam Sandwich” and later, the graphic novels of Raymond Briggs. Thrillingly, John Vernon Lord became my tutor when I was studying sequential design at university.
What was the collaboration process like between author and illustrator working on this title?
SJG: It was Scholastic who put me and Garry together – we didn’t know one another before, although I did know his work, and I knew how brilliant he was. I had already written the story when Garry was brought on board, but knowing how great he was, beyond a few very brief illustration notes I thought it best that he just got on with it. Garry’s work is so characterful, and adds another whole layer of humour to the story, and I think it’s really important that he came to the story with a fresh pair of eyes and added his own interpretation – it is a collaboration, after all! What has been really nice since is how we’ve been able to work together presenting lots of online events, really demonstrating to the children watching how author and illustrator work together to bring a book to life.
GP: What’s been wonderful about working on Simon’s stories is illustrating his wry sense of humour. Whilst our actual collaboration on the book’s production has been quite small, we seem to have a very similar sense of how they should feel and how they can be brought to life.
As queer creators, do you ever find yourself making the type of stories you wish you had as a younger queer reader?
SJG: For sure! When I was at school, here in the UK, there was a piece of legislation called section 28 which basically made it illegal to have books with any LGBTQ+ content in school libraries – so there simply wasn’t anything. The legacy of that casts a long shadow, (it was only repealed in 2003) but it’s great to be part of the effort to put it right.
GP: I agree, If only there had been representations of ourselves in books when we were children! I feel these new stories are incredibly important . Having an accessible range of diverse characters in literature for young people is essential and I believe they will have more of an impact on young lives than we can imagine.
As a medium primarily intended for younger audiences, what do you think of the value of creating queer centered works for children? How can we express LGBTQ+ themes in a way that’s clear for kids?
SJG: The value is two-fold: it’s so important for children to see themselves, or their families, in books. So whether they are LGBTQ+ themselves, or whether their parents or carers are, seeing their lives represented is a really important thing. Secondly, all children, regardless of sexuality, or family set-up, will benefit from learning and understanding the many wonderful things that people are, and the many wonderful ways they live their lives.
The great thing about more LGBTQ+ children’s books being around now is that you can access many different approaches to exploring these themes. There’s no ‘one way’ to be LGBTQ+ and there’s no ‘one way’ to tell our stories. Some are out and proud and have their message clear for all to see. Others, like Llama Glamarama, take a more allegorical approach, which can be easier for some people, especially if you’re in a community where talking about LGBTQ+ themes is still difficult or a problem.
GP: My feeling is that when children read they can look at characters and on some level say to themselves “I know that person, that’s me” and that tells them that they are valued and they can say “it’s ok to be me”. Picture books have a special quality that allows for subtleties that can potentially speak to everyone.
What are your favorite parts of writing?
SJG: I love devising the initial ideas and playing around with what possibilities there might be. For me, it always feels like the most creative part, where I can just let my mind wander and see what happens. This process usually happens before the fear of deadlines kick in too, so it’s always more enjoyable!
What are your favorite parts of illustrating?
GP: I love the very first part of creating the main character and working out how they might look and feel. With Larry from Llama Glamarama, I practised drawing him as a regular llama first and then adapted him to take on different dance poses. Making the drawings is always something I enjoy and if they make me laugh then I know I’m on the right track.
When everyone involved in creating the book is happy with the drawings I’ve done I can begin to work in colour which I paint using acrylics. The wonderful thing about painting is choosing and mixing colours that work well together. With Llamaglamarama, I was able to go from the sedate colours of the barn, through the drabness of the Larry at his lowest ebb, to the loud frivolity of the Glamarama. What’s not to enjoy?!
What advice would you give for writers/artists working on their craft? What advice would you give in particular for creating a children’s book?
SJG: Discover your voice. By which I mean, work out what your unique perspective on the world is, what makes you, you, what it is you want to say, and how you want to say it. Many people come up with similar ideas, but only you can express it in that very unique and individual way that will make the story yours.
GP: I would suggest budding illustrators draw anything and everything and keep a sketchbook handy for all occasions. Practising your drawing will help you to find a way of drawing that feels right for you. And don’t worry about things not looking the same as what you imagine them to look like in your head because what comes out on your piece of paper is always going to be different, the important part is seeing that what you draw has its own value and your unique ‘style’ will come through all of its own.
Are there other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
SJG: Garry and I have just had our second picture book published here in the UK – Fabulous Frankie is about a flamingo who learns the key to being more fabulous isn’t about what you wear or how you look, but about just being your true, authentic self. I’ve also just had my fifth LGBTQ+ young adult novel published – You’re the One That I Want – set around a high school production of Grease. Meanwhile, I’m working on a new middle-grade for next year – so it’s been a busy time!
GP: I was thrilled to be asked to illustrate Fabulous Frankie, it’s a wonderful story and Frankie is adorable and fabulous in all sorts of ways that even he doesn’t know about. I’m very lucky to have more picture picture books to illustrate but I’m secretly hoping Simon has another animal story in the pipeline.
What queer books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? Any LGBTQ+ kid-friendly media you would like to recommend?
SJG: In picture books, I must give a shout out to Adventures with My Daddies by Gareth Peter, and also illustrated by Garry Parsons – it’s such a joyous picture book, perfect for Pride month. I’m a big fan of anything Julian Winters writes – they’re such positive, happy books for YA readers – Running with Lions and How To Be Remy Cameronbeing two favourites. I’d also recommend taking a look at some of the LGBTQ+ young adult books coming out of the UK, because a lot of them don’t get official US publication deals, but they’re really great, and I think it’s nice to get different perspectives on LGBTQ+ life from around the world. Check out Boy Queen by George Lester and The Outrage by William Hussey.
GP: I would recommend “Hello, Sailor” by Ingrid Godon and Andre Sollie. This picture book is both beautifully written as well as illustrated and being published in 2004 feels ahead of its time. It continues to be one of my all time favourite children’s books. I would also urge everyone to have a copy of “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love on their book shelves.
Alex London is the author of over 25 books for children, teens, and adults with over 2 million copies sold. He’s the author of the middle grade Dog Tags, Tides of War, Wild Ones, and Accidental Adventures series, as well as two titles in The 39 Clues. For young adults, he’s the author of the acclaimed cyberpunk duology Proxy, and the epic fantasy trilogy, The Skybound Saga. A former journalist covering refugee camps and conflict zones, he can now be found somewhere in Philadelphia, where he lives with his husband and daughter or online at www.calexanderlondon.com. Battle Dragons: City of Thievesgoes on sale this fall, but you can pre-order it today.
I had the opportunity to interview Alex, which you can read below.
First of all, congratulations on your latest series, Battle Dragons, starting with Book #1 City of Thieves! Could you tell us a bit of what the series will be about?
The short pitch is that it’s The Fast and The Furious meets How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s very much its own thing. Battle Dragons tells the story of 13 year old Abel and his friends and family, who get caught up in the criminal dragon battling underworld of Drakopolis, the mega-city where they live. Dragons do everything there, from haul freight and transport busses, to work in mines and serve the ferocious military. There are corrupt dragon-riding gangs—called kin—and corrupt secret police whom the kin pay off. When Abel discovers his big sister is a notorious dragon thief, his big brother is an agent of the secret police and his best friend is tangled up with a vicious gang, he’s going to have a lot to deal with for a seventh grader! There are sibling rivalries and new friends and high stakes souped up dragon riding action. There are also, I hope, a lot of laughs!
As a queer writer, do you ever find yourself directly writing the books your younger queer self would have wanted?
Every book I write is aimed at that memory of my younger self, that longing to see queer heroes in queer worlds and the need I didn’t even know I had to see entirely new possibilities for what a queer reality could be. My view of what was possible for gay boys like me was small. Fantasy and sci-fi opened my imagination to all kinds of other worlds, why not all kinds of other queer worlds?
As a former political journalist who had covered conflict zones and refugee camps, what drew you to fiction, particularly YA and MG? Do you believe your experience writing the former has affected the latter?
Absolutely it has. I write fiction for the young people I met all over the world whose lives were as epic as the Aeneid. Young people are capable of surviving and creating joy in all kinds of horrible and complicated situations, from war and famine to neglect and abuse, and though they are victimized by wars and upheavals, they are also the protagonists in their own stories and participants in shaping their societies. I write books to entertain, but also to celebrate and honor that capacity that all young people have.
How do you find yourself dealing with creative challenges, i.e. writer’s block, creative burnout, etc.? What tips would you give to other writers dealing with these challenges?
Writing a story is a gift you give, to yourself and to readers. I try to remind myself of that. I am creating a gift and so I want it to be a good one, which means working hard and thoughtfully, but also, with joy. I guess my advice is to be kind to yourself, be gentle with yourself, and remember that you are making a gift for someone you may never meet. The craft stuff comes with practice and revision and daring and all that, but the intention behind it, that needs to be held gently and with joy.
What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What are some of your more ambivalent ones?
I love world building. I have so much fun dreaming up and picking out the little details of whatever world I’m creating, whether it’s a rendering of this one in a realistic story, or a totally imagined dragon drenched city like in Battle Dragons. I definitely struggle with including too many of those little details and they can bog down the text. Cutting them always hurts!
What authors/books do you believe your books stand in conversation with?
I think my latest, Battle Dragons, is definitely in conversation with the dragons that have come before, whether that’s Le Guin’s Earthsea dragons or Cressida Cowell’s Viking dragons in How to Train Your Dragon. But the conversation is bigger; I was definitely influenced by the sci-fi and cyberpunk I read and watched growing up, most strongly by the Akira movie I first saw in middle school. That was certainly an influence here.
Where do you usually find inspiration for your book ideas? Do they ever come from really specific sources?
Everything is a potential source. Battle Dragons draws inspiration not only from the books and movies I mentioned above, but from my favorite Kit Kats, from kids I’ve met at school visits over the years, from books about animal rights and police corruption and urban planning and even from RuPaul’s Drag Race (I’m very proud of the Drag(on) Queens in the story: humans who dress up and perform as dragons…)
As a writer, what advice would you give to other writers who are stepping into the field?
Tell your story as only you can tell it. Embrace what excites you, even if it seems there is no market for it. I promise, the weird in you is where the wonderful lies in wait, ready to be celebrated, if you can find a way to wrestle it out. Get to work!
What are some book recommendations you would give to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Recently, in middle grade, I loved Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen’s Last Gate of the Emperor, a thrilling, imaginative and funny Afro-futurist romp. I’m also reading the adult gothic horror Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo, which is atmospheric and creepy and unsettling in the best ways. And everyone needs to read Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, as a historical corrective to the AIDS activist narrative we’ve all internalized and an amazing study of activism and how movements for change work. One of the great challenges of storytelling, I think, is dramatizing collective action rather than elevating individual acts of heroism and stand-ins for community. Schulman’s book is one hell of a guide in that direction.
Molly Ostertag is an Igntaz and Prism Award winning graphic novelist and author of the Witch Boy series from Scholastic. She also writes and designs for TV animation. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife and pets, where her hobbies include cooking, camping, and thinking about hobbits. I had the chance to interview her, which you can read below.
When or how did you first realize you wanted to create and draw cartoons and comics for a living?
I started out wanting to write novels, because I was the kind of kid who read everything I could get my hands on and spent most of my childhood acting out stories I made up. But I loved to draw (like every kid does, honestly) and got enough encouragement that I just never stopped drawing. In high school a friend introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series, and I realized comics didn’t have to be about superheroes – they could be a way to merge my love of storytelling and of drawing. I feel really lucky that I entered the industry during a huge boom in kids’ comics (thanks, Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey!) and that I could make an actual career out of drawing graphic novels!
What were some of the first stories that inspired you as an artist growing up and what stories inspire you now or continue to inspire you today?
There were a ton of (mostly young adult) novels that really shaped me as a storyteller – authors like Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Susanna Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin were huge for me. More recently, I’ve been enjoying Tasmyn Muir, N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Jeff Vandermeer, and Madeline Miller. I’ve also been doing a sort-of embarrassing deep dive into my preteen love of Lord of the Rings, and finding a lot of new inspiration and interest in that classic story (did you know that it’s like, SUPER gay?).
Previously, you had paneled for an event at Flame Con, a queer comic con sponsored by Geeks OUT, on “Telling All-Ages Queer Stories.” Can you talk about your work and personal motivation creating inclusive stories for young queer kids, like Witch Boy?
It’s really important to me! I came out at the ripe old age of 24 (I’m kidding! But it felt old at the time). I grew up in a liberal environment, but the 90s and early 00s were still deeply lacking in gay representation in film and books. Gay men were usually a joke, lesbians existed entirely for the male gaze, and any other identity was barely mentioned. I just didn’t know it was a real option for myself. Each piece of work I make for kids that features queer themes is a way to push back against that – to show young people that there’s a huge world of queerness out there, and to show how exciting and wonderful it is to be yourself. ‘Being yourself’ and ‘listening to your heart’ are very over-used morals in children’s media, but when you put them in the context of queer stories they gain new power.
Relating to such, as a writer for Dana Terrance’s hit show, The Owl House, you had the opportunity to write some pretty major episodes, including “Enchanting Grom Night” and “Wing It like Witches.” What was that experience like, writing canonical LGBTQ+ representation on Disney into existence?
It was very exciting! I had worked for Disney TVA in various capacities and had always tried to push for better queer representation (‘better’ here meaning ‘literally anything’), but this was my first job as a writer. Dana had a vision for these characters and when I expressed how much I love writing romance, she assigned me the Grom Night script. It’s been heartening to see Disney realize that there’s no reason a story featuring a same-sex crush shouldn’t be on their network. That’s thanks to a lot of hard work from people behind the scenes, as well as all the other shows that made strides in this area (Steven Universe, Adventure Time, She-Ra, Korra – we build on what came before).
By the time I was writing the episode, the process went really smoothly. It was a dream to get to tell the story of a nerve-wracking high school crush (in the context of battling an ancient fear demon) and the reaction to that episode and to Wing It Like Witches was awesome.
Your partner, Noelle Stevenson, also a former panelist at Flame Con, is a creative influence in comics in her/his/their own right. How did you two first meet and would you say your creativity as artists sometimes bounce off each other?
The one time we tabled together at Flame Con (2018, I think?) was SO fun, because we initially met at conventions and so they’ll always have a special place in our relationship. We knew each other from cons, and Tumblr, and from both being in art school and making webcomics at the time. It wasn’t until I moved across the country that we started actually dating (after a lot of coming out drama, some of which Noelle wrote about in their gorgeous memoir The Fire Never Goes Out) and now we’re married and very happy!
It’s truly amazing to be with someone so brilliant and creative. I feel like I’m always scrambling to keep up with Noelle’s giant brain (in a good way; I hope the feeling is mutual) and we bounce ideas off each other constantly. There’s some of me in She-Ra, and some of Noelle in the Witch Boy series, but being in constant conversation means that our voices have been able to diverge and grow and be strengthened by one another. Noelle is incredible with characters and humor; I’m good at world building and story structure; and we’ve both learned a lot from each other in the last five years. I feel lucky every day.
Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books or you yourself could interact with characters from any other fictional universe, where would they be from?
I talk about this incessantly, but I would LOVE to travel to Middle-Earth and hang out with some hobbits. Hopefully in this scenario I would also be a hobbit, or else the height difference would be a problem when they inevitably invited me over for elevenses, followed by luncheon.
As a creator, what are some tips you can give to people regarding how to break into the industries (comic books/animation) you occupy? What advice would you give for those who are struggling with inspiration or figuring out how to keep going?
For me, becoming a good artist is about pursuing the stories and art you love. It’s about honing in on what makes your voice unique, feeding your interests, and learning the craft of how best to communicate your story to others – whether that means studying writing, or story structure, or drawing, or anything other form of art.
Being a good artist with a distinct voice is important to break into these industries, but I always have to note that systemic privilege plays a big, frustrating role. The world of comics and animation are slowly getting better at bringing in underrepresented voices, but there are many issues.
Generally, here are some practices that have helped me most in my career: forming connections with my peers, elevating and celebrating their successes, and sharing information with them. Being vocal about what jobs I want, and being ready to leave when I outgrew them. And finally: consistently making work I’m passionate about and sharing it, even when it isn’t perfect, and even when I have to self-publish and self-distribute.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment and are at liberty to speak about?
I’m really excited about my upcoming graphic novel, THE GIRL FROM THE SEA (Scholastic, June 2021). Morgan, a 15-year-old lesbian who lives in Nova Scotia, has a plan to stay closeted until she can go to college; that is, until she meets Keltie, a selkie girl from the sea with some secrets of her own. It’s a very personal story – it explores the transformative power of queer love, and the fear of coming out and being known, in a way that’s really close to my heart. From the setting, to the fashion, to the sweet romance scenes, it was an absolute joy to draw and I hope people enjoy it!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
Here are some books I’ve loved recently!
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – an aching retelling of the romance between Patrocles and Achilles.
The Locked Tomb Trilogy by Tasmyn Muir – truly insane, extremely fun books about dirtbag lesbian necromancers in space.