The Writer's Page: How Did I Get Here?: From Picture Books to a Graphic Memoir

The revision for my next picture book was late. I usually meet my deadlines, but this time I had a good excuse. A routine colonoscopy had revealed a large tumor, and it was cancerous. My treatment schedule would last a year, including two rounds of chemo, radiation, and two surgeries. As I approached the day when a port was going to be placed under my collarbone, I finally finished the revision and sent it to my patient editors. In my apologetic email, I found myself unable to explain why it had taken me so long. I was afraid my editors would no longer want the book if they knew I was sick. But when we started talking about a delivery date for finished art, I realized I had to come clean. To my relief, they said I could take as long as I needed. 

Illustration from the author's (unpublished) "Cancer Confidential" graphic memoir.As anyone who has faced a cancer diagnosis knows, it is terrifying. To calm myself, I always carried pens and a sketchbook to my appointments. The crowded waiting rooms, the tense conversations around me, even my own dark thoughts no longer mattered if I was putting pen to paper. When it was my turn to have my blood pressure measured, the nurse invariably seemed surprised by my low numbers, which he highlighted in yellow for the oncologist. “How do you stay so calm?” he would ask. I just held up my sketchbook. 

My mother started returning to my dreams, although she had been dead for almost ten years. My aunts and grandmother, also long gone, began to appear as well. Facing so much uncertainty—my cancer was stage 3—I longed for the guidance of the women who had raised me. After all, they had each survived traumatic experiences: war, concentration camps, gunshot wounds, and mountain hideouts. Could I be as brave as any of them? It was time to find out. 

The year dragged on; good days and bad ones. I worked steadily on my new picture book. While I was painting, I could forget about my body until I needed a nap. And I needed a lot of naps. Through it all, I kept my visual journal, where I made illustrated lists of chemo side effects, drew colorful mandalas, and described a spontaneous prayer circle of women getting ready for radiation in the hospital dressing room. 

Finally, the next summer, I was at the finish line. My last surgery was a success. I completed my picture book. Cancer was in the rearview mirror, but I was still fragile and scarred. It didn’t seem remotely possible that I could just pick up my life where I’d left off. What was I going to do with the searing memories of my cancer year? 

* * *

Illustration from the author's (unpublished) "Cancer Confidential" graphic memoir.I had long been drawn to graphic novels, finding them endlessly inventive, visually stunning, and emotionally powerful. An idea began to form. Maybe if I expressed my feelings about the nightmare of cancer in a graphic memoir, I’d be able to heal myself emotionally and even laugh a little. And so, I began. At first, I called it “Cancer Confidential.” Perhaps it would turn into my first book for adults. 

But there was one problem: I knew nothing about how to structure a graphic book. I was like a novice seamstress who admires couture gowns and thinks she can just start cutting fabric and pinning it to her mannequin. I plunged in, writing and drawing pictures as the memories came to me: my carefree summer before the fateful colonoscopy, my GI doctor who told me he loved Dr. Seuss after giving me the bad news, the way I imagined my tumor as Jabba the Hutt flicking away the snare that is used to remove polyps. I inked and painted almost thirty pages. It was liberating, and I felt better every day. 

One evening, at a gathering of fellow children’s book artists, I casually mentioned my new obsession to Mark Siegel, editor of the graphic imprint First Second. To my surprise, he said he’d like to see what I’d done. 

His response surprised me even more. He was kind but also brutally honest. He could tell I was “talented,” but he wasn’t sure my story “wanted” to be told in a graphic format. And little did I know that there was a current glut of cancer memoirs being published. My story would have to stand out in a crowded marketplace. There were technical aspects I had to address, such as the flow of words and pictures. Even my word bubbles were a bit off; the reader’s eye would not be able to follow the dialogue in a logical sequence. But he hoped he hadn’t discouraged me. He even offered to look at a future revision. It was more than I could have hoped for. Suddenly, I was all in. Yes, I was going to finish a graphic memoir and maybe even see it published. 

But how to make the story more personal and distinctive? What if I alternated chapters about my childhood with chapters about the cancer year? After all, my mother and her family, all Holocaust survivors, had been my lifelong role models for resilience, survival, and optimism. 

So, I started over in a clean sketchbook. By this point, my cancer had been in remission for over two years and my normal energy was returning. 

* * *

"But now, of course, I had to learn how to use Photoshop."Chapter one. I opened with my First Communion and segued into a family gathering where everyone was yelling in English, German, and ­Yiddish. I had never explored the weird duality of my childhood—being raised as a Catholic in a family of Jewish survivors. What did it have to do with surviving cancer? Not much. Or maybe a little? I found myself pulled back into a time that was painful, challenging, but also often funny. 

I was once again a child in 1950s Queens, living in a red brick apartment building, going to public school, trying to make sense of my family. There I was living among people whose war ­experiences had changed them forever. Maybe navigating their moods and frequent arguments had made me more resilient. Hadn’t making art been my childhood refuge from the chaos around me? I read family letters and pored over old photos. I called childhood friends to reminisce and made notes on what they remembered. For the first time in a long time, I could go a day without thinking about cancer. And then it hit me as I began chapter two: I had no desire to return to clinics and hospitals. I wanted to stay in Queens. 

My book was no longer about cancer; it was now about growing up in an immigrant family, and I knew it was for young people. 

Another year passed. When I finally had a few finished chapters and an outline, I sent my memoir back to the editor who had encouraged me, hoping he might still be interested. He passed it around the publishing house. Many people looked at it. In the meantime, I kept writing more chapters. Finally, after yet another year, I received the astonishing news. They liked what I had done and wanted to give me a contract! 

The author in front of art from Why Is Everybody Yelling?Once my initial euphoria passed, I sat down with my new editor, ­Margaret ­Ferguson, and my new art director, Andrew Arnold, and faced the reality of what lay ahead: a staggering amount of work. Little did I realize the complexity of creating a graphic book. Sure, I had written and illustrated over thirty picture books. I knew how to lay out a thirty-two-page dummy; how to cut up the text and figure out the page-turns. But now I had to learn a whole new language. Not only did I have to write the story as a script with captions and dialogue, I also had to take that script and lay it out in panels. I planned about six panels to a page. I did some rough calculations; it looked like my book would be over two hundred pages long. How many drawings would that require? My head began to spin. 

Margaret and Andrew didn’t want me to hand-letter the text. Mistakes or changes would be harder to correct. So I found a font designer, who took my handwriting and created my font. Great. But now, of course, I had to learn how to use Photoshop. That was a steep learning curve. I watched YouTube videos and asked my patient illustrator friends all kinds of annoying questions. 

When the text was typed and arranged into Photoshop, I could plan the exact size of each panel and leave enough room for the word bubbles. Then I refined my drawings. I researched many of the pictures to get the details just right—the Louvre in 1958, subway posters in 1960, Walter Cronkite announcing the death of John F. Kennedy on television. The drawings were complicated and time-consuming, but I wanted them to be historically accurate. I persevered—­inking, ­painting, scanning, adding word bubbles, adjusting text, moving words around, fixing letter sizes—until my eyes were blurry. 

* * *

Why Is Everybody Yelling?: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family coverSeven years went by. 

About halfway through, when Margaret and then Andrew moved to other publishing houses, I started working with a new editor, Wesley Adams. and a new art director, Kirk Benshoff. Although these transitions caught me by surprise, it soon became clear that both Wes and Kirk would guide my book to the finish line with great skill and enthusiasm. 

I missed deadlines. I sometimes despaired. I deflected questions from friends and family about a publication date. The stack of finished art grew taller. I needed naps, but there was no time. And then one day, bleary and dazed, I was done. Why Is Everybody Yelling?: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family was ready to go to the printers. 

Nothing springs fully formed from an artist’s imagination. Each project is a journey with twists and turns and occasional dead ends. You start writing, feeling confident about where you’re going, only to find the story tugging you in a different direction. You take a leap of faith and follow the new path. It might be rocky, steep, and overgrown, but you keep going until hopefully you arrive at the unimagined place you had been seeking all along. 

Take a deep breath. Absorb the view. Then try to get ready for whatever comes next.

From the September/October 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Marisabina Russo

Marisabina Russo is an award-winninf author and illustrator of two novels and over thirty picture books. Her first graphic memoir, Why Is Everybody Yelling?: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family (Farrar), was published in 2021.

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