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Interview: Cathy G. Johnson on ‘The Breakaways’

Cathy G. Johnson’s The Breakaways is a great middle-grade story about a soccer team that’s more about being a team than actually playing soccer—see Caleb’s review for more. I interviewed Johnson for this month’s Stellar Panels column on LGBTQIA+ graphic novels, and since I couldn’t fit the entire interview into the story, I’m running it in full here.

What was your goal in creating this graphic novel? Were you looking to create a particular type of book or reach a particular audience?

My goal with The Breakaways was to create a book where kids could recognize themselves, while also seeing inside the lives of others. The Breakaways was inspired by my time working as a troop leader for the Girl Scouts at various Rhode Island schools. The girls were very young, but dealing with a lot of things, ranging from the seemingly trivial to the profoundly mature. Middle school is a difficult time for a lot of kids. I wanted to make a book that not only addressed the diversity of experience middle schoolers have, but shared inside the lives of neighbors and peers, to inspire empathy and connection. I also wanted to show kids how they can discover themselves and feel empowered in their identities.

How do you handle issues of relationships and sexuality when writing for this age group?

I think we just need to talk about it! It’s important to scaffold information in a way that respects childhood, as well as respects the curiosity for the future that all kids have. When talking about younger groups, we need to distinguish the difference between human sexuality, sexual orientation and identity. I think adults can confuse those things. An identity is who you are, and that is something that a child can feel way before they are ready for an adult relationship. I think there is a danger when adults shy away from these topics, causing teenagers to not know what a healthy, adolescent relationship should look like. With The Breakaways, I wanted to show respectful dating relationships for teenagers that felt true to their experiences, as well as identities that are independent of those relationships.

How would you respond to critics who say middle-grade readers are too young to read about characters who are gay or transgender?

There is nothing inherently inappropriate about gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals. Obviously, it is important to approach topics in ways that are appropriate to the age and development of kids, but to ignore these topics has a profoundly negative impact. People who are gay and transgender are marginalized, meaning that their experiences are treated as insignificant or peripheral, and are subject to hate, prejudice and violence. It’s easy for children to hear and absorb misinformation. It is important for us to share good information, to include and normalize queer identities with children early. These things aren’t also new to kids, who are aware of what romance and gender identity are. To honor the queer experience is to only adopt an expansive view of things children already know about. It is important for children to grow up knowing that to be queer is a healthy, normal, and wonderful identity to have. Education and inclusion leads to a hate-free world! (This is something I wrote about at-length on my education website, www.ComicArtEd.com!)

Were any of the characters based on your experiences or those of people you know?

My characters are always fictional, and have personalities that I’ve developed for the story. But they are also conglomerations of people that I’ve known. I’m a very observational person, so I mentally collect moments of humanity that I see in my life. I believe using a variety of real sources helps characters become more human. I’ve been teaching for over seven years, so I have thousands of experiences with students that I can pull from. I am very respectful of other people’s lives and privacy, especially my students’, so the things I include are very small, and I fictionalize the moments. I never want to tell someone else’s story. But it’s those small things that makes a book come alive.

I know that as a teacher, you spend time around children and teens. What do you see in their attitudes that is reflected in this book? Were there things you did not want to include?

I usually surprise other teachers by saying, I love teaching middle school! I think it is such a wonderful age. Middle schoolers are energetic, spontaneous, excited, emotional, and brilliant. It makes the art classroom come alive! However, middle schoolers can also be self-centered and hurtful to each other, which can lead to bullying. This is actually one of the core themes of The Breakaways: Learning and showing empathy for other people. It’s good to ask middle schoolers to slow down, pause, and realize that their actions can hurt other people. I’m the kind of educator that believes in wholistic education, so I would never want to edit out part of the child from my book. There isn’t anything that I would choose not to include! Lay it all out on the table!

Why do you think this book is important?

The Breakaways is a book where children from many different walks of life have conflict, get along, fight, make up, build friendships, and break up. It’s a story where no one is only the jock, or the popular girl, or the nerd, or the goth. Everyone is a whole, complicated and messy human being, trying their best, and learning how to be better. That’s a story that I think is important for everyone.

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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.

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