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Mike Dawson on The Fifth Quarter | Interview

Cover of The Fifth Quarter by Mike Dawson

Mike Dawson’s middle-grade graphic novel The Fifth Quarter came out from First Second last week (it was one of Lori’s picks of the week!). Dawson drew on his own daughter’s experiences for his story about a girl who starts playing basketball for fun, then starts working harder at it and gets better. Dawson weaves friends and family drama into his tale as we follow Lori going from double-dribbling in the fifth quarter (a play period for the weaker players that doesn’t count toward the score) to making the team and going to the tournament finals. GC4K talked to Dawson about the creation of the book and how he balanced the reality of family life with the characters that live on the page.

Mike, this story feels very universal and at the same time very specific. I know it is based on your family. Was there a particular moment when you realized “There’s a story here”?

I credit graphic novel editor Greg Hunter (Lerner Books) with sparking the initial idea. He’d read a short comic essay I’d made for Slate, that was about my daughter playing on a competitive basketball league, and how her experiences were so different from my own more “nerdy” non-athletic childhood. Greg suggested thinking about that premise for a book. 

Once that idea was in my head, the rest came easily. I dropped the stuff about “nerds vs. jocks” and focused in on what was new and interesting to me, seeing sport for the first time as a place where self-esteem can be built, not knocked down. I wanted to make a story about a kid who isn’t necessarily that great at basketball, but loves the game, and isn’t necessarily that great at fitting in socially, but finds ways to grow and fortify her self-confidence.

Double-page spread from Mike Dawson's The Fifth Quarter, showing players on a basketball court awaiting the tip-off.

How does the fictional Lori differ from your real daughter? And how did your daughter feel about this book? 

My daughter was in fifth grade when I started working on the book, and now as it’s coming out, it’s the summer before her last year of Middle School. It’s incredible to me how much has changed over that relatively short period of time. She still seemed like a little kid when I began, and now she’s so much more grown-up and self-assured. It’s an amazing thing. 

I certainly had aspects of her in mind when I was writing Lori, how she might respond in certain situations, how she’d feel about certain things, but now I don’t see so much connection between Lori the fictional character and the person my daughter’s become. I think that’s a good thing, both that my daughter doesn’t need to feel like I’m fictionalizing her life anymore, and also that the character has taken on a life of her own, especially as I’m now just about finished with book two in the series. 

It’s hard to say exactly how my daughter feels about the project. She’s always been very supportive to me. I think she’s excited about it, I think she’s proud. I hope she is.

There are a lot of little moments that ring true, like when Lori’s mom takes her to play basketball and keeps getting interrupted, or the interactions between Lori and her school friends. Since I assume you are not lurking around your kids with a video camera, how do you capture or create these important moments?

I’ve been cartooning and stay-at-home-parenting for about nine years now, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time out on the playgrounds. I was also the leader of my daughter’s girl scout troop up until the pandemic, so I had many opportunities to see how kids that age relate to each other. I feel there’s so much that comes down to children that age just not knowing yet how to interpret things they say to one-another, not totally knowing how to extend each other the benefit of the doubt. There’s a lot of misunderstanding happening. They’re learning how to socially interact. 

It’s kind of funny what you say about lurking with a video camera. I don’t, but my house is actually right across the street from the school my kids go to, and my office used to be at the front, so I could see them in the field at recess. There were times when my daughter was going through a tough times with her friends, where I did see her out by herself at recess. It was too heartbreaking! There’s nothing abnormal about that happening to a kid and them having to go through it, but no parent should be able to see it happening from their window. We had to rearrange the rooms so that my office was in the back where I could remain blissfully ignorant.

Page from Mike Dawson's The Fifth Quarter showing players on the court in the top two panels and parents shouting encouragement in the lower panel.

Also I’m intrigued by the subplot about Lori’s mom running for the town council. You don’t see many people get involved in local politics in children’s graphic novels. What inspired that? 

Local politics has been something I’ve become more interested and active in over the past few years, and I’ve had a number of friends who stepped up to run for office. One very good friend in particular, a mother of four, ran for council, and I got to be somewhat involved with helping her campaign. It’s hard work, knocking on as many doors as possible, trying to connect with everyone in town. I admire anyone willing to put themselves out there and try like that. 

Campaign politics became something I was very interested in, and it felt like a great contrast in the story, to have Lori’s mother pursuing her own goals at her different stage of life. Lori is trying to accomplish something, and her mother is trying to accomplish something, and whether or not they achieve what they set out to, and how they get there, and how it impacts the relationship between the two, and how they deal with success or failure, is a lot of what the story’s about.

Do you play basketball? What sort of research did you do to create the basketball sequences?

Haha, not at all. I wish I was more inclined to those kinds of sports, because I think I would have been able to help my daughter more if I was. But, because she was so driven and determined, she was very open to after-school classes and taking part in different programs. There was a great facility about a half-hour from us, called Hoop Group, where we both spent a lot of time. Her on the court, and me on the bleachers, taking it all in. It was really great for both of us.

A page from Mike Dawson's The Fifth Quarter, showing parents commenting on the game while children play on the court.

I really appreciate your use of panels to show relationships and time, like when Lori is playing and she is surrounded by small panels of people yelling at her or coming at her. Other times you fill an entire page with a single image of Lori having an emotion. And you also repeat layouts from time to time, as when Lori is in the car with her parents. How do you design your layouts? Do you think this sort of pacing is helpful when you’re creating a book for young readers?

One of my advantages as a cartoonist is that I’ve simply been at it for a long time. I feel very comfortable “writing” in comics form, meaning that I don’t write a script, like in a word document, I take it directly to the page. In my case, the “page” has become digital, which has made experimenting and rewriting and editing much easier. 

I work directly onto a large Wacom Cintiq, drawing my comics right into Photoshop. It’s my belief that this approach, which is very different from how I used to make comics, has strengthened my writing, and made my long-form work more coherent and consistent. Fifteen years ago, when I was making my first graphic novel, Freddie & Me, I was drawing pages with a sable brush onto large pieces of illustration board, a laborious approach, where I was only able to complete one to two pages a week. There is a lot about that book that’s honest and raw, but the nature of my approach made me very unwilling to change a thing once it was done. I think the end result was very honest and very real, but also much more uneven than I’d be happy with these days.

My approach to The Fifth Quarter allowed me to be more open to creating a pass, re-reading it, and then revising it, to better tell the story with layouts and pacing. I like repeating visual motifs, like Lori in the car with her parents, to show the range of experiences we can have in our lives. I think with the game action it made sense to frequently depict the fast pace using a cascade of panels, to show a lot happening in a short amount of time, showing all the chaos and the speed of it. One thing I’m proud of, as a person who hasn’t played a lot of sport, but has now watched a lot, is that the action sequences seem to make good sense to the reader and move the story forward without becoming confusing. 

What is your approach to drawing faces and facial expressions? It seems very economical – you know what the characters are feeling and yet some don’t even have mouths. 

I think as I’ve progressed as an artist and writer, I’ve been consistently looking for ways to refine my process, and get closer to a place where I’m telling the story in a way that’s still aesthetically pleasing but in a more economical way. I think it’s a little bit of a cartooning theory kind of thing. When I started out, after art school, I felt like the labor added to the quality. I hadn’t yet internalized that cartooning isn’t necessarily about spending days cross-hatching, it’s a language of symbols used to tell a story. And it can be done in clean efficient ways. 

This is tricky, because I can think of many incredible comics which are obviously labor intensive, so it’s not a “this is better, that’s worse” kind of a thing. I think it’s just where my own practice has taken me. 

I feel some of my strength as a cartoonist is in my writing, my interest in characters, how they relate to each other. I think a consistent through-line in all of my work is attempting to see people as complex, flawed, and three-dimensional. There aren’t a lot of villains in The Fifth Quarter, in fact there are many times when Lori is the one in the wrong. This is what I’m interested in exploring in my comics, and I think I’ve better streamlined my visual approach to effectively achieve those ends. 

Here’s a more general question: What do you like about writing and drawing middle-grade graphic novels? What are the challenges?

I *love* writing middle-grade fiction. It’s my hope that I can continue doing this for a long time to come. I don’t think I had to change anything about my approach in terms of exploring characters, themes, or situations that were of interest to me, the only thing I had to think about a little differently was who the readers are that I am trying to express my ideas to, and how can I express it to them in a way that they find relatable and engaging.

Parenting has its challenges, but one of my favorite things in life are those times when I can get into good substantive conversations with my kids, talking about difficult issues or concepts, and finding ways to make those things make sense to them. That’s how I’ve thought about writing comics for a younger audience. There are big ideas in The Fifth Quarter, characters feeling inadequate, alienated, dealing with failure, all stuff I would be interested in writing and thinking about in any of my comics. I have the same exciting feeling of discovery and exploration making these comics that I experience with any writing. 

And finally, what will happen next for Lori? I understand there will be a volume 2!

In Book two Lori is in sixth grade, she’s continued to get better as a basketball player, and grown closer with her group of friends. Elyse, who was just starting out in book one, is now on the travel team with Lori, and they play in the fifth quarter together. They’re having a lot of fun, and Elyse has gotten much, much better, almost too much better. At the same time, a new rec basketball league starts up in town, and Lori’s mom Rachel decides to coach, creating an unfortunate situation where Lori’s not on the same team with the rest of her friends. We learn much more about Rachel’s own experiences growing up as an athlete, and the ways in which she was different from Lori, but also the ways the two of them are very much the same. 

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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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