Raina Telgemeier: An illustrated life

raina telgemeierRaina Telgemeier took home a 2010 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor for her graphic novel memoir Smile. The just-released follow-up Sisters is receiving a starred review in the November/December 2014 Horn Book Magazine. On October 3rd, the Brookline Booksmith hosted Raina at the Brookline Public Library. She talked about Sisters and answered audience questions ("Do you still keep in touch with your friends from Smile?" "Do you still keep in touch with your brother?") while doing a drawing demonstration. Afterwards, she sat down with reviewer (and mother of two daughters) Jennifer Brabander for a short interview.

Jennifer Brabander: Your memories of this epic road trip are so detailed — did you keep journals as a kid?

Raina Telgemeier: I did keep journals as a kid. In fact, I kept a comics journal. I used to draw a comic about my day, pretty much every day from the ages of 11 to 25.

JB: That's even better than just a print journal!

RT: Yeah. I threw most of it away when I moved out of my mom's house, because a lot of it was really personal and embarrassing. It would be like keeping your diaries. I didn't want to take them to college with me.

raina projection a scene near the end of Smile

JB: So you didn't even have them to consult to remember...

RT: No, I haven't seen those in years. But we have photographs, and because it wasn't just me having this experience, a lot of other members of my family are like, oh, and there's the time when this thing happened... The trip was so insane, we still talk about it. That helps to boost the memories.

JB: From the fighting to the bad weather to the van breaking down — did this road trip experience put you off long car rides for life?

RT: No, I still really like long car trips. It wasn't such a bad experience. I liked being in the car and I was the navigator, so I would get asked every so often, Raina, what city are we in? How many miles do we have to go? I was always a maps person, and now I'm the person who's the point guard for trips. People are like, Raina, how long is it going to take to get there? and Where are we going to stop? So I still exhibit those same qualities today. But it was the last one our family took for quite some time.

JB: I bet!

RT: We also got a new car shortly thereafter.

Katie: With no snakes in it.

RT: With no snakes in it, thank goodness!

telgemeier_sistersJB: The sibling rivalry in the book is so intense. You and your sister are so different and you have that big age difference, but you both like art. Which could’ve been a real connection, but — of course — she keeps “stealing your thunder.” Did that art competitiveness ever morph into something more friendly?

RT: No. Every teacher I had, she tended to have a few years later. They already expected her to be an artist because I was an artist, so the question was: "Are you an artist like your sister?" She was an even better artist than I was. They would be like, "Oh, Raina was talented, but Amara is so talented!" She was also a little bit more advanced than me developmentally; I think a lot of second kids are. Maybe it's because they have an older sibling challenging them. But she was smarter and more clever and witty than me, so I always felt that she was sort of upstaging me. I'd enter a contest in fifth grade and get honorable mention. "Here's a ribbon, Raina!" And then she'd win first place and get her art on the bus. And then she'd get a $200 prize, and get to go to the Great America theme park nearby and stay in a hotel. So I felt like, oh geez, the things I could never achieve, she has achieved in my stead. But now our careers have led us in different directions. She's not also publishing graphic novels for a middle-grade audience.

JB: Thank goodness. Because really.

RT: We were competitive when we were small, but I don't consider it like that anymore.

amara cookie an Amara-decorated cookie

JB: You were saying in your presentation that a lot of the annoyance that your little brother Will was doesn't come up in the book, where he seems pretty easygoing. Did you and Amara ever fight with him, or did the two of you just fight with each other?

RT: They mostly fought with each other. My brother's nickname now is "Chill Will," because he's just so chill. He's just a laidback, easygoing guy. That's always been his personality. He's always been very comfortable in social situations — my sister and I are not like that at all — and because Amara and Will are closer in age, they got pitted against each other a lot more than me and Will did. Will and I are eight years apart. We didn't have a lot to fight about; he was a kid and I was a teenager. And my sister and brother had to share a bedroom for a while. After I got my own room, the two of them had to share the bunk beds, and they hated it. I think Amara probably got the worst of that. She had one on either side to bug her.

JB: I was so happy for you when you got that room!

RT: I was happy for me, too!

raina with drawing multitalented Raina draws (by request) her younger self with a cat while answering audience questions

JB: I'm guessing that you had to leave a lot out to streamline the story — was there a memory or an event you wish you could’ve kept in the story but it had to go?

RT: There were a lot of details that for legal reasons we had to leave out. For example, the record that my sister's listening to in the story is the Bambi soundtrack. I wanted to include the lyrics to the Bambi soundtrack — in fact, we tried for weeks and months to get permission to do so, but they would not give us permission. And there are a lot of brands of snacks and things that I had to change — kind of in the eleventh hour — because there was a concern that I would come under fire for it. Not that I'm trying to make any money off of including a Twizzler's reference.

JB: Right! Isn't that good for Twizzler's?

RT: There were a lot of pop-culture references in Smile, and kids love that. So I took the chance on a couple of brands that they felt like I could let slide in Sisters. For authenticity!

JB: Your depiction of that family reunion is so spot-on, from the fighting adults to the cousins who aren't so friendly. We learn at that reunion that you weren’t much of a metal fan or a pop music fan. What were you listening to on that Walkman?"

RT: Mostly Boyz II Men. At the time I was into hip-hop and R&B. Smooth jams. Slow jams.

JB: In the snake scene at the end, things are already so tense. You're worried about your mom and brother, and talking about whether your parents will split up… and then out comes the snake. That’s such a perfect climax; it brings everything from the story together. Are you still afraid of snakes?

RT: Yes. I don't want them anywhere near me. If they're on television I can handle it, but if they're in my life I don't want to be near them. Even a snakeskin — there's no snake, it's just the skin that's left… No no no no. Gross.

Jennifer M. Brabander

Jennifer M. Brabander is former senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature from Simmons University.

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Amy, stop using inappropriate words. I know you like her a lot, but still

Posted : Apr 10, 2016 06:08


Raina Telgemier is an amazing cartoonist and author with lots of different and creative ideas. I love her books and will so on keep reading her books.

Posted : Apr 10, 2016 06:07


I love your books. They are very interesting and funny you are a great author.

Posted : Apr 01, 2016 03:19


I fucking like it so fucking much raina telgemeier is a great author and so fucking better at drawing than I am. Her work is not shitty at all

Posted : Apr 30, 2015 01:21


How mad were you when your ex-friends (Nicle and Karin) pulled your skirt down in high school? Cause when i read the book, i had no idea how mad you were(cause i was reading the book).

Posted : Feb 03, 2015 11:41

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