For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
Kojo For Kids welcomes author Raina Telgemeier to the show on Monday, January 11 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Bullies, nervous stomachs and knocked-out teeth. Raina Telgemeier doesn’t gloss over the harder parts of growing up. But she creates characters who learn that they are more resilient than they thought. And maybe that’s why “Smile,” “Drama,” and her other graphic novels rise to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Telgemeier joins us to talk about cartooning, writing and what inspires her books for elementary and middle school readers.
We also welcome the students of our school of the week, Murch Elementary in Northwest Washington D.C. We know they’ll have questions for Raina Telgemeier, and we hope you’ll call in with your questions too — if you’re a kid!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until last spring had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Raina Telgemeier Author of graphic novels for kids; @goraina
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Some adults forget what it's like to be a kid, but Raina Telgemeier says she still feels very close to the kid she used to be. Maybe that's why her graphic novels are so popular with kids today. Her books have reached the very top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and kids just can't seem to get enough. Many say she transformed the world of kids books, convincing people that young folks -- both girls and boys -- really want to read graphic novels.
KOJO NNAMDIRaina Telgemeier's with us today to talk about how she became, as she puts it, "Just a kind of cartoonist I've always wanted to be." We also look forward to hearing from students at Murch Elementary School. Go Mustangs. That's in Northwest Washington, our school of the week. Raina Telgemeier, welcome to the program.
RAINA TELGEMEIERThank you, Kojo. It's nice to be here.
NNAMDIWe're going to talk about your books in a bit, but first, tell us about you as a kid. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
TELGEMEIERI was born and raised in San Francisco and spent, you know, most of my childhood on the West Coast, visited family and friends in Los Angeles sometimes. My family took advantage of being out here by going camping and, you know, taking lots of walks in parks and things. So, the West Coast and me have always been really, really close. And so, when I moved away from the West Coast and started thinking about my childhood, it was about not only the people and, you know, the experiences that I had, but also the place that I grew up. So, I think that my books almost feature my hometown as a character.
NNAMDIYeah, indeed, those who have read your books may feel they know something about your childhood. But just tell us a little bit about your family and, I guess, just as importantly, what you liked to do as a kid.
TELGEMEIERWell, everybody in my family likes books. Both of my parents have been teachers, and my dad was an editor for a long time. And my mom is a creative person who plays guitar and she, you know, always made art projects with the kids. And so, I think, me being around words and pictures from the start meant that I was given the freedom to explore on my own. So, I love to draw.
TELGEMEIERI loved to draw, starting from age, I don't know, zero, one. It's too early for me to remember, but -- and I'm fortunate that my parents saved a lot of my drawings from the time. So, I can kind of look back at them and see the progression of, okay, that's a scribble. Okay, that sort of looks like a figure. Okay, that is a character. And so, I always knew that I wanted to do something involving artwork, but the writing came just a little bit later.
NNAMDII'd like to ask about your name, Raina. It's spelled R-a-i-n-a. Is there a story behind it?
TELGEMEIERWell, my parents liked the name Raina, but they had it spelled the traditional R-e-i-n-a, which means "clean" in Spanish.
TELGEMEIERYeah. And then I was born during a pretty long, severe drought in California, and the night that I was born, it rained, you know, like zero-point (laugh) something tenths of an inch. It was not very much rain, but it was enough that it registered, and my parents both decided that that would be a fun spelling -- Raina with an "A" -- because it rained the night I was born.
NNAMDIWell, I'm curious, but clearly not half as curious as the kids from Murch Elementary School. So, I'm going to turn it over to them. I'll start with eight-year-old Trevor, a student at Murch. Hi, Trevor, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TREVORWhat inspired this author to write?
NNAMDIWell, before she answers that question today, Trevor, why is today special for you?
TREVORIt's my birthday.
NNAMDIHappy birthday, Trevor.
TELGEMEIERHey, happy birthday. Awesome.
NNAMDIHappy birthday. And now, what inspired you to write?
TELGEMEIERLots of things, but I think it was just the books that I love to read and the cartoons that I love to watch and the illustrations that I constantly studied. Seeing and hearing and watching things made me want to try to do them myself. You know, and I was surrounded by great teachers. And, like I said, my parents were both really creative people, and so I was just given the tools and the space from the very beginning to try. And I found that I really liked it.
NNAMDITrevor, thank you very much for your call, and enjoy the rest of your birthday. This is a twofer. Fourth grade twins from Murch have questions. Sasha wants to know: What's your favorite thing to draw? And Lilly wants to know: Where do you get your inspiration for your stories and pictures?
TELGEMEIEROh, my favorite thing to draw, it used to be people. It still is. I still like drawing characters and their facial expressions and their body language. And I used to really dislike drawing backgrounds. Like, I would just draw my characters kind of standing in the middle of a blank space, and I didn't think too much about where they were. And then when I started making graphic novels, I realized, you can't just have 200 pages of bodies and heads floating in space. So, I knew I had to learn how to draw houses and how to draw trees and how to draw cars and neighborhoods.
TELGEMEIERAnd, at first, that was a huge challenge, but the more I did it, the more I realized this all fits. This all goes together in a really cool and elegant way that that sense of place becomes the character, too. So, the character's interacting with their environment in ways that you can really play with and take advantage of. So, now, I think it's a combination of the two things, the character in the space, whatever that space is. And as far as what's inspiring to me, just looking back on experiences that I've had, places that I've visited, people that I've known, and most importantly, the feelings that have stayed with me over the years.
NNAMDIHow did you go from making comics for yourself and your friends to making it a career?
TELGEMEIERThat's a great question. I went to art school. I came out to New York City to go to the School of Visual Arts, where they have a cartooning program. And I was taking both illustration and cartooning while I was there. So, I was learning to draw, I was learning to paint, and I was learning to tell stories and share them with people. And it felt like the comics work that I was doing was what was really resonating with both my instructors and my peers. And people kept saying more, more, more.
TELGEMEIERSo, when I graduated, I just kind of started making comics in all of my spare time. And I spent a few years self-publishing, just making them myself. You know, I was using a Xerox machine and printing them out, and then I was selling them sometimes for a quarter to people. And I started selling them through comic book stores, and I also started going to comic conventions. And that's where I really started meeting, you know, editors and people that were in the business.
TELGEMEIERAnd so, it took a couple of years, but eventually, I met the editors at Scholastic. And they were beginning a graphic novel line at the time, and invited me to come in and pitch. And so that was how I got connected to them. That's how I started to think about my stories less as handmade objects, and as books, you know, that would be sold in stores and read in libraries.
NNAMDII think I got another twofer here. Here, first, is seven-year-old Violet in Arlington, Virginia. Violet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VIOLETMy question is: What will your next book be about?
NNAMDIHold on a second.
NNAMDIHold on second, please, Violet, because here is eight-year-old Olive in Northwest Washington. Olive, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OLIVEWhat's your next book going to be?
NNAMDIThere you go, both Violet and Olive have the same question.
TELGEMEIERWait a second. That's funny. I can't really talk too much about it yet. I promise I am working on it. I'm working on a couple of different projects right now. And you can even say I'm working on multiple projects right now. When we're ready, we will tell you everything, but I'm exploring some more personal stories. And that's as much as I'm going to say about it.
NNAMDIWell, Violet and Olive, thank you very much. You now have something to anticipate coming from Raina Telgemeier. Look forward to it, and thank you for your call. Here's 10-year-old Mary Jane, a student at Murch Elementary. Mary Jane, your turn.
MARY JANEMy question is: Did what the characters in your books do really happen in real life?
TELGEMEIERThey did. Every story that happens to the character, Raina, in my books, happened to me for real. The only things that change are sometimes I change characters' names. Sometimes I will adjust a little bit of the timeline. So, like, something may have happened in my story, you know, five minutes into a scene, whereas, in real life, it may have happened a week later, or it may have happened, you know, sometime the next year. But that's not important. It's more important to tell the story of how it happened.
TELGEMEIERAnd I don't want to bore the reader by saying, and then, you know, five months went by, and then this thing happened. It's, like, you kind of just got to get to the good stuff in order to tell the story. But all of the experiences are true. And, but like I said earlier in the program, the thing I'm mostly interested in is how the feelings were and how the feelings developed and, you know, what did I feel at the beginning of some experience, and then how did I feel at the end, and how did I get there. Because I think that is probably the most relatable part to a reader, and so the details along the way are more of, like, the interesting, you know, set dressing.
NNAMDIWell, nine-year-old Ellis of Murch Elementary writes: I love your books and read them all, I think. My question is, what gave you the idea for "Ghost"?
TELGEMEIER"Ghost" was inspired by several different things. I was living in New York, like I said, and I was really, really missing my home in California, and ended up moving back to California, while I was in the middle of working on it. But I wanted to capture the environment that we feel here in Northern California in the fall, because it's not like any other place. It seems like people, in general, at least in American, North America think of the autumn and they associate that with, like, falling leaves and pumpkins and stuff.
TELGEMEIERAnd in Northern California, it's actually more like summertime. This is when we get the warm weather, whereas the season before that is foggy and cold and kind of like wintertime. And so, I wanted to see that in the book. So, the environment and the atmosphere was a big part of it. And then I started to think about, you know, how spooky and supernatural elements fit into that season.
TELGEMEIERAnd at the same time, while I was working on the story, I had a cousin who was very young who passed away after an illness. And so, seeing how her family rallied together and how her sister and their relationship, how it grew and changed, it wasn't the primary influence for the story, but it was definitely a big piece of it. And seeing how their story unfolded inspired a lot of what the characters go through in the story.
TELGEMEIERSo, you know, it was a lot of sadness, really, and so finding a way to process that sadness just felt like it was important. And, yeah, it's interesting now to look back on it and say this is something that has already happened. And now I get to think about what's happening right now, and how am I going to process that into a story someday? I'm not sure yet. I haven't quite decided how I'll take this strange moment in time that we're all living through and maybe someday talk about it.
NNAMDIOn now to 10-year-old Halley at Murch Elementary. Halley, your turn.
HALLEYHi. My question for you is: How did you decide to make "The Babysitter's Club" a graphic novel?
TELGEMEIERI love "The Babysitter's Club." In fact, it was my favorite book series when I was a kid. And I read them. I reread them. I thought about them. I used to draw pictures of the characters. And then, when I was a little bit older and I was pitching my work to Scholastic to become a graphic novelist at some point, nothing that I had in my portfolio was ready to be turned into a graphic novel yet.
TELGEMEIERAnd so, we really wanted to work together, but we weren't sure what the project was going to be. So, my editor asked me, just in conversation: So, what books did you read when you were a kid? And I told him, well, I was a big "Babysitter's Club" fan, and his eyes lit up. And he was, like, you know, we were the publisher of "The Babysitter's Club." We still are, and so it wouldn't be a licensing issue if you wanted to just maybe try doing some drawings of the characters and maybe sketch out some of the scenes and see what you think about that. Maybe you could adapt it into a graphic novel.
TELGEMEIERAnd this was back in 2004, so I had not yet published "Smile" or "Sisters" or "Drama" or any of my other books. It was my first professional project. And it was a fantastic way to get started, because it gave me the confidence that I was capable of telling long stories in graphic novel format. And it was just so much fun to revisit the characters and to go back to Stony Brook and to feel like I was really putting it onto the page in a way that brought it to life.
TELGEMEIERAnd, you know, now there's a Netflix series that -- I didn't have anything to do with the Netflix series, so I just got to experience that as a fan. And I feel so close and connected to those characters. And I was, like, crying tears of joy at every episode, because I was like, they got it so right. Oh, they got the feeling, and that's Kristy. And it just -- oh, it just made me so happy. Yeah, so that's kind of how that came to be, and it's really responsible for launching my whole career.
NNAMDIIndeed, that answers, in a way, nine-year-old Teddy's question at Murch Elementary. Teddy, what is your question?
TEDDYMy question is: When did you realize that this was going to be your career?
TELGEMEIERShe just answered that question, but go ahead. (laugh)
TELGEMEIERWell, but when did I want to become a cartoonist? I'm pretty sure it happened when I was nine years old, after I picked up the newspaper and opened it up and there was the comic strip, "Calvin and Hobbes." And I...
NNAMDIOh, my favorite.
TELGEMEIER...I read the strip that day. I read the strip the next day. I became obsessed. I collected the books whenever they were published and started drawing my own comics right away. And so that was the moment when I started telling people, I'm going to be a cartoonist when I grew up. And I didn't, you know, quite have a handle yet on what that meant or what it looked like or how much work was involved, but I haven't wanted to do anything else since that day. (laugh)
NNAMDIEver since she was nine years old. Let's talk about "Smile," which has a cover no one can forget. It's bright blue, with a giant yellow happy face. And the happy face has a mouth full of braces. What is "Smile" about, and why did you write it?
TELGEMEIERSmile is a true story, and I had a pretty bad dental accident when I was in sixth grade. I tripped and fell and knocked out my two front permanent teeth, and then had to spend four-and-a-half years dealing with braces and surgeries and reconstruction and headgear, and kind of my whole face being, you know, remade (laugh) on the spot. And so, you know, that's a harrowing experience in and of itself. And I always wanted to put it down on paper, because there were so many twists and turns that every time I told somebody the story, they were like, what? How did they -- are you serious? Like, it just -- it was so wild.
TELGEMEIERBut it happened. You know, it was real. And so, I wanted to put it down on paper. And what I do is I make comics, and so I kind of sketched out, you know, what the plot was going to be. And, in the beginning, it was just supposed to be, like, what happened to my teeth. And then it sort of started to evolve into what happened to me and how I felt about the whole thing. And how my friends, you know, started to make fun of me and how that experience really changed me as a person, and how I had to figure out who I was and realized that it's not what you look like that matters. It's who you are that counts and who you are that's valuable.
TELGEMEIERSo, this story really evolved. It took me five years to create that story. And I was just working on it, you know, one page a week. I was putting it up online. It was a web comic first, and then about halfway through, Scholastic, who had been publishing my "Babysitter's Club" graphic novels, said, you know what? We like this. Let's turn this into a book. And then it was published in 2010, and my life has not been the same since. (laugh)
NNAMDIEspecially not, because in "Smile," you call the orthodontist who fixes your teeth, Dr. Dragoni. After "Smile" became a huge hit, the actual orthodontist who fixed your teeth got in touch with you.
NNAMDIHe comes off as pretty mean in the book. What was he like in real life?
TELGEMEIEROh, my gosh, he's so nice. And I think he was so nice back in the day, too. I just didn't have the contacts to realize that, because it was him who was, you know, the torture dungeon master who was in my mouth putting metal on my teeth and twisting it so that it was tight. And, you know, I think, also, he was the bearer of bad news many times. Like, you know, this treatment that we're trying isn't working, and so we're going to have to try something else. And we might have to extract a few of your teeth and, you know, we're so sorry it's taking longer than it should.
TELGEMEIERAnd when you're a kid, that just -- you're so excited to hear good news, and then you don't get good news. It's so crushing. So, you know, where was I supposed to put those feelings? And it was kind of like, oh, it's because of him and it's because of his treatment that this isn't working. So, you know, that's reflected in the story, I think, but I never felt like he was mistreating me. I never felt like his orthodontia was bad.
TELGEMEIERAnd he's got a great reputation. He's been in the business for a really long time, and his name is kind of well-known in my area, because his father is also an orthodontist. And also, I depicted the exterior of his office, which is quite specific. So, friends and peers and kids opened up the first page of "Smile" and they saw it and they went, oh, my gosh, I know who that is. So, it's just turned into like a kind of a fun piece of local lore. But, like I said, the environments, they really matter.
NNAMDIDo people still go into his office and call him Dr. Dragoni?
TELGEMEIERI have no idea. (laugh) That's a great question.
NNAMDIWe got 10-year-old Emma, who is in Mr. Marcus' class at Murch, asked: While writing your books, what is your main process? What are the different steps you take to come out with a finished product? And what kind of workspace do you have, especially now?
TELGEMEIERWell, it is a process, that is for sure. It takes quite a while. At this point, it's taken me somewhere between two and three years to make a graphic novel. I do my idea-building and my sketching and my, sort of, working out the story sitting on a couch somewhere, just wrapped up in a ball, very cozy. And then when I'm ready to start the art, I work in a studio. So, I'm working at a pretty standard drawing art desk.
TELGEMEIERAnd once the art is done, I put it on a computer. So, I scan my original pages and then bring them into Photoshop, and I can sort of, you know, fix them there. And then the coloring and the lettering happen digitally, too, and I don't do those parts of the process myself. But, I mean, all of this is back-and-forth with my editor. And we both really, really spend the most time at the writing stage, at the initial sketching and idea-building and notes and revisions and stuff. So, by the time I get to my art, it's kind of just fun. (laugh)
TELGEMEIERAnd she had asked about my workspace. I just moved, so I'm building my own workspace kind of from scratch. And, you know, it's got a drawing desk. It's got a computer station. It's got -- it's going to have, like, a Zoom area where I can (laugh) -- kind of like a little recording studio. And then, you know, just a lot of stuff that inspires me, so lots of books and lots of fun posters and lots of stuff on my shelves that I have had with me. A lot of it's stuff that I've collected throughout my life, so, you know, some childhood toys and some gifts that I've received over the years.
TELGEMEIERAnd I just like my space to be cheerful. I like there to be a big window, so I can look outside and kind of daydream. And, yeah, I feel lucky that I get to work in a space that inspires me.
NNAMDIBut you've always been drawing and coloring. Nevertheless, you work with professional colorists when creating your graphic models. What is a colorist, and why do you work with them?
TELGEMEIERThey are somebody who takes my black-and-white art and then they put colors into all of it. (laugh) Yeah, I mean, it's kind of like a coloring book, except it's happening on a computer, and it's not just one image. It's not just one page. It's 200 pages. So, they will work with me pretty closely in the beginning just to establish, like, a color palette and to figure out, you know, what things look like. Like, okay, this is Raina's bedroom. What color is the bedspread and what color are the walls? And is it different from the bathroom that's down the hall?
TELGEMEIERAnd really the goal, I think, is to be able to tell the story in a way that the reader doesn't even notice, necessarily, but they can tell. Like, the reader should be able to tell what room a character is in without having to go, wait, what? Like, I don't understand. It looks exactly the same. Did they move through space? Did they move through time?
TELGEMEIERSo, you know, you're thinking about, like, is this a nighttime scene? Is this day bright and sunny? Is it cold and overcast, you know, and how is that going to affect the mood of the story? So, it is this whole, like -- it's an artform. And working with somebody who is good at that artform absolutely transforms my work. And it makes my...
NNAMDIWe only have...
NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left, but how long does it take you to create a graphic novel, normally?
TELGEMEIERIt depends on the story, but it's generally between two and three years, at this point. So, I'm working on the next one. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd the shortest ever, I think, was nine months, huh?
TELGEMEIERYeah, and that was an adaptation project. That was "The Babysitter's Club," where the story was written and all I had to do was draw the pictures.
NNAMDIRaina Telgemeier, thank you so much for joining us.
TELGEMEIERThank you. Thanks to all the kids for asking questions.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation with Dr. Leana Wen about COVID-19 and the vaccine to prevent it was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, with Democrats soon to control the Senate and last week's assault on the Capitol, talk about D.C. statehood is growing more urgent. Will D.C. actually become the 51st state?
NNAMDIAnd then enrollment for some health insurance plans is ending, including many public options. We get expert advice about making those difficult choices. That all starts at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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