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Interview: Raina Telgemeier on ‘Drama’

Raina at SDCC - croppedWhen Raina Telgemeier’s Drama was published, five years ago, it was an immediate hit, just like its predecessor, Smile. At the time it was a rarity, though, because it was set in a middle school and included gay characters.

Five years later, LGBTQ characters have become common enough in graphic novels for children that I wrote an article on the topic for last month’s School Library Journal, titled “Just Another Day in an LGBTQ Comic.” I interviewed Raina for the article, and since I could only use a few sentences in the story, I’m running it in full here today. Enjoy!

Drama broke new ground for a graphic novel. How did you come up with a story that included gay characters? Did you have any particular inspirations?

I did. The characters in that story are based on real people and real friends of mine. In high school I had two best friends who were gay twin brothers and our relationship pretty much mirrors what you see on the page, except I fictionalized it and made it for a young audience. But the personalities of the two characters are very much tied to my two friends and I let them see the script beforehand. I said “Is this too personal? Is it authentic?” and they said “Wow, you nailed it!” So it’s a tribute to a real friendship that lasts to this day. So I wrote from life, I wrote from what I felt, I wrote from what I saw, I wrote from what I know. It was really interesting because my experiences happened in the mid 90s, and my editors at Scholastic had no problem publishing this story but they said “Things are not the same—there is more acceptance now,” so I was able to get some perspective. I was also able to visit schools when I was touring for the book and see that there are amazing gay-straight alliances at middle schools now and that kids are gay and they are out and they are open.

Drama CoverI don’t know if everybody will remember this: In the 90s, Lynn Johnston included a storyline in For Better or For Worse where the Pattersons’ next door neighbor was coming out. I remember that, and that was when I was very good friends with my theater friends in high school, so in hushed tones we were like “Oh my gosh, did you see For Better or For Worse and can you believe it is happening in a public forum?” It was exciting to see that, then to read Lynn Johnston’s responses to it [and hear her] say she got some hate mail, but in the end she got thousands and thousands of letters of support and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for her. And now, 20 years later, it was my turn.

Did you approach writing and drawing these characters any differently than you would straight characters?

Definitely not. Characters are characters, and I think characters’ personalities are there on the page. I don’t draw graphic novels about characters unless they grab me somehow and unless they are specific. There are a few times in the editorial process when the question came up: Does it need to be a set of characters? Does it need to be twin brothers? Can it be just one character? And I said “No, this is what they are and this is what the story is.” It was very important to me.

Were your editors on board with it?

Yes.

Drama panel

I know you got some pushback, such as one-star reviews on Amazon. What other reactions did you get?

I feel like it’s really tough when you are a creator; the negative reviews stand out to you more than the positive ones. I did get direct hate mail from readers and negative reviews on Amazon, so I stopped looking at Amazon. It’s outweighed by the letters I got and by meeting kids on tour, kids who were looking over their shoulder to see who was listening and said “Thank you. I’m grateful that I saw this book; I’m grateful that I saw myself in this story.” These were 12 year olds, 15 year olds, at one point I saw a little girl who was about eight years old. I’ve gotten coming-out letters from kids; I’ve gotten letters from the Bible Belt where kids felt like no one knew who they were and felt they were alone. Those are the emails I immediately respond to and say “Keep being you, keep being yourself, there are people who will love and support you no matter what.” We are all searching for ourselves when we are young, and when we find ourselves, any sort of validation is a beautiful thing.

Drama is now five years old. How has the reaction changed over the years?

It’s hard to say because I have stopped looking for it. I don’t read my reviews any more. I don’t look at Amazon. I have also made it onto the top 10 banned books [as tracked by the American Library Association]. When that happened I had a lot of people asking if I wanted to make a statement, but the statement is the book. My viewpoint is it’s better to live in a world where we love and accept each other than one where we don’t.

I feel great that five years out I get to be part of a club. It’s not just this book, not just these characters, that kids can read about. There’s more now. I love that.

Drama - peck on the cheek

How would you respond to people who object to having gay characters in a children’s book?

I feel like my response is just the general observation that a lot of people have had, that we apply heteronormative romance to babies. We pair up toddlers and say things like “They are going to get married someday,” and that’s unfair if we can’t also say the same for gay children. Sexuality is a part of your identity that doesn’t necessarily apply to what you are doing with other people when you are eight or nine years old, but it’s still a part of you. The identity and the actions are not necessarily one and the same, and if a chaste heterosexual kiss had happened in Drama no one would have batted an eye, but because it was two boys, suddenly I was “pushing my liberal agenda on people.” I don’t even have an agenda. My agenda is love and friendship. People will make of it what they will and I can’t let that sway the things I believe and the things I write about.

Drama Wide Panel

Here at GC4K we spent a lot of time talking about Drama. Check out these links:

Esther Keller’s review
Our roundtable discussion of Drama
Our other roundtable about Drama, after it made the ALA’s Banned Books list
Our suggestions on what to read next if you liked Drama
Our suggested books for Raina Telgemeier fans

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Comments

  1. What a wonderful interview! Thanks so much for sharing it.

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