Guest Blog by Rob Justus
Hey there beautiful reader!
This is author, illustrator, nice guy, Rob Justus. The lovely people at 24 Carrot Writing have asked if I could contribute a couple points on how to begin your journey into the world of creating graphic novels.
Now I know, I know, who the heck is this guy? I don’t even have a graphic novel published!....But I will.
Right now, I’m the author/illustrator of the amazing KID COACH picture book, but come Fall 2021 my first graphic novel series, DEATH AND SPARKLES, will be flying off bookshelves!
So how did I get here? How did I go from picture books to middle grade graphic novels?
Well, I was told by a few people that middle-grade graphic novels are a booming segment of the book market, and that my humor and storytelling might be a could match. That’s when I saw dollar signs dancing in my eyes! Muh-ha-ha!
Everyone thinks that writing a picture book is easy. It is really freakin’ hard!!! You’re generally constrained to 32 cohesive pages, where every single word is scrutinized over and over. With graphic novels, there’s a little more room for my ideas to run around. And run around I did!
It starts with character
When I start a story, it starts with a character that I’ve sketched. These characters tend to have something that stands out from all the other things I’ve sketch. They have a life to them.
For DEATH AND SPARKLES, it started with me drawing random skulls. Those skulls evolved into this:
It was a fun, simple, easy to draw character, but if I was going to make Death the central part of an ongoing narrative he probably needed a little more visual emotional depth...which translates to: Dude should at least have a mouth.
From there, and really just goofing around with some friends, we gave this serious looking character a buddy. Something that was the exact opposite of the grim reaper. A pudgy little unicorn!
Originally, I planned on aiming these characters at younger kids, and having the graphic novel set up as a simple sitcom with each chapter being a funny situation. I pitched this to my agent and she politely told me it was a steaming pile of poo-poo caca.
Then she gave me the most important piece of advice I’ve gotten in this crazy journey I’ve taken to become a real author...
WORLD BUILDING changed everything. My agent told me to write lists of personality traits for each character. How they react to certain situations. How they feel. Sometimes I just wrote lists of random questions: How does Death feel about swimming? Why would Sparkles want to be friends with Death? How does Death feel about death? How can I include cupcakes? Would Death have a pet?
Once I had an idea of who Death and Sparkles are as characters, I began to define the world they live in. Where does Death live? How does he travel around? Does Sparkles do anything for himself? Who’s in his entourage? Are unicorns descendants of dragons? From there I could start to populate this world with other secondary characters and antagonists.
Because I spent so much time defining and building this world it became SO easy to write. I knew how the characters would react to different situations, how they’d deal with conflict and how Death and Sparkles would grow to become best buds. I even know how their friendship is going to evolve over the next six books! That said, my agent was worried I’d struggle writing something longer than 32 pages, with our goal to have a nice arc over hopefully 120 pages. All the work beforehand let me run wild! Just a mere 275 pages later we had a fully sketched out dummy ready for submission. DEATH AND SPARKLES is easily one of my proudest achievements as a writer and illustrator.
I’m a firm believer in just doing your thing. As long as you’ve got a pencil and paper you’re good to start creating anything you want, but I will plug one little thing that helped me immensely. A little program called Scrivener. It’s a writing program that let me keep all my notes in one place, while having a great outlining/cork board/cue card thingy. Go check it out. Best $20 I ever spent.
I grew up reading and wanting to draw comics when I was a kid, but “chose” the safer options in life and got a comfy job as a consultant. When I decided to leave all that behind and switch to a creative career, it felt like things were coming full circle. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I can’t wait to show the world I built for DEATH AND SPARKLES in Fall 2021, but in the meantime feel free to check out my picture book KID COACH.
I’m author, illustrator, nice guy Rob Justus, and hopefully you found this ramblin’ insightful. Shine on, people!
To learn more about Rob please visit his website at https://robjustus.com/ or find him on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/robjustus/. Rob is a member of The Soaring '20s High Flying Picture Book Debuts. Find all The Soaring '20s authors and illustrators at https://www.soaring20spb.com/.
You can order a copy of KID COACH here.
~Hosted by Amanda Smith
Welcome to the final installment of 24 Carrot Writing's Graphic Novel Virtual Panel Discussion. Over the last two weeks (Part 1 and Part 2), our talented panelists have shared insights about the strengths of graphic novels and their process as creatives.
Join our panel as we jump into the last two meaty questions:
Middle school students seem particularly drawn to graphic novels, and often graphic novels are set in middle school. What does that communicate about the market for upper middle grade/ lower young adult readers? Are graphic novels purposefully aimed towards the middle school reader, or is there something in the graphic novel format that perfectly mashes with the middle schooler’s brain?
Breena Bard: Middle schoolers are taking their first steps toward independence, developing their own beliefs and opinions in a way that they hadn’t before. They are exposed to a diversity of ideas and people, and as they begin to open their minds, they are perfectly primed to receive a radical new method of storytelling. Kids are free of the biases that keep many adults away from comics, and they aren’t pressured to maintain a high-brow reading list. And as long as adults react to graphic novels by wringing their hands or turning their noses up, graphic novels will also have a certain rebellious spirit that might attract middle school readers as well. Plus, comics are just super fun!
Terri Libenson: I’m not sure, really. My characters are all 13 and in seventh grade, yet most of my readers are younger, often in third through sixth grade. Many kids read “up”; that is, they tend to read about characters older than them. I’m not as knowledgeable about what 7th-9th graders are reading, but I personally think there is an opportunity for graphic novels geared for that age bracket.
Tom Angleberger: Middle school is such a weird time when kids sometimes feel like they should be giving up the type of books they loved in elementary school and reading big thick books. The growing acceptance of graphic novels creates a loophole here. A kid who read Smile in third grade can read Guts in seventh grade. (Of course, as far as I’m concerned, kids should keep reading great kids’ books with pride FOREVER!)
Terry Ebbeling: Middle-school students are high energy and don’t often have a lot of “sit” in them. They are also visual learners. Graphic novels appeal to this age because of the pictures which break up the prose and allow students to “see” the story. While middle-school students enjoy graphic novels, there are also a number of authors who gear their graphic novels towards upper elementary students and even high schoolers. Honestly, I like them, too!
What would you like to say to those well-meaning adults who act as gatekeepers regarding graphic novels? To those who see graphic novels as inferior reading?
Kayla Miller: Comics ask readers to use different skills than prose books. To really read a graphic novel, you have to read not only the text, but also to observe environments, body language, and facial expressions. It can be a really engaging and emotional experience. When reading prose, you have to imagine the visuals based on the descriptions given to you and fill in details about the world around the characters, but when you’re reading comics you have to fill in the characters’ inner worlds and use context clues from the art to decipher what they’re thinking and feeling. I don’t think the skills developed reading comics are any less important or useful than those that students gain while reading prose novels. I also get comments all the time from parents that their reluctant readers become eager readers when it comes to graphic novels. If you believe that fostering a love of reading in younger generations is important, you’re only getting in your own way when you disregard graphic novels.
Breena Bard: They should try reading some :) Really though, the fact that graphic novels are told with pictures should not disqualify them, and in fact makes them more accessible and engages students’ brains in a really unique way. Perhaps there is fear because graphic novels are a relatively new medium, but so were computers and tablets, and most schools utilize those to great success. Take time to read some of the new middle grade graphic novel classics (ask a middle schooler and they will surely have a list for you!) and keep an open mind to the possibilities these stories and this exciting format have to offer. They really are quite wonderful!
Terri Libenson: It couldn’t be further from the truth (and if it helps, I avidly read comics as a kid, and now I read such a wide range of books, from non-fiction to fiction, including – yes – graphic novels for adults!). As I mentioned, graphic novels can be quite layered as well as visually stunning and rich in story. And then some are just plain fun, and that’s okay. Graphic novels vary just like prose books. And they are, indeed, BOOKS.
Tom Angleberger: I think people are hung up on word-count. They assume 100,000 words is better than 1,000. Or 100. Or zero, in the case of wordless graphic novels. Well, that’s just dumb. Do they also assume that a novel by Joe Smedlap is better than a sonnet by Shakespeare?
I think we should judge books on how many brain cells they light up. Trust me, Dog Man lights up a lot more brain cells than Tom Sawyer Abroad. (I was forced to read Tom Sawyer Abroad in 7th grade and am still mad.)
Terry Ebbeling : I would tell those reading “gatekeepers” of graphic novels that there are different strokes for different folks in all areas of life, including reading. If students enjoy graphic novels, they are READING! Yay! I do not recommend a steady diet of any one genre, including graphic novels. But, if this genre gets kids into books, then let’s allow and encourage graphic novels.
Thank you to Terri, Breena, Kayla, Tom, and Terry for a fabulous discussion. I know I am paying closer attention to details in the settings and characters, as well as other context clues when I read graphic novels. I am also inspired to think visually and cinematically about the scenes I write, and I cannot wait to get my hands on our panel's new releases in May (if I can pry them from my own middle schooler's hands!)
Terri Libenson is the cartoonist of the internationally syndicated daily comic strip, The Pajama Diaries, and the author of the best-selling illustrated middle grade novels, Invisible Emmie, Positively Izzy, and Just Jaime. She was also an award-winning humorous writer for American Greetings for 22 years.
The Pajama Diaries launched with King Features in 2006 and currently runs in hundreds of newspapers throughout the country and abroad. Pajama Diaries has been nominated four times for the Reuben Award for “Best Newspaper Comic Strip” by the National Cartoonists Society and won in 2016.
Terri lives with her family in Cleveland, OH. Her newest novel, Becoming Brianna will be available in May 2020. To learn more about Terri, visit http://terrilibenson.com/
Breena Bard writes and illustrates comics, drawing inspiration from her childhood in Wisconsin, and the stacks of graphic novels on her bedside table. Her graphic novel debut, Trespassers, is set to release May 5, 2020. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two kids, and cranky but lovable cat. Visit http://www.breenabard.com/about-1 to learn more.
Tom Angleberger is the author of the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling Star Wars Origami Yoda series. He is also the author-illustrator of Fake Mustache and Horton Halfpott, both Edgar Award nominees, and the Qwikpick Papers series, as well as many other books for kids. But he always wanted to draw comics and he’s finally gotten the chance to draw with Geronimo Stilton and the Sewer Rat Stink! (Available May 5, 2020) He’s married to acclaimed graphic novelist Cece Bell, who wrote and illustrated El Deafo. To learn more visit https://origamiyoda.com/the-books/
Kayla Miller is the author and illustrator of the best-selling Click series of graphic novels. The third book in the series, Act, is coming out in May 2020 and a fourth book is currently in the works. To learn more about Kayla, visit https://www.kayla-miller.com/
Terry Ebbeling has been teaching grades 7 and 8 ELA for the past eighteen years. She enjoys delving into reading and writing with her students and finds young-adult literature far more riveting than adult literature!
This week's reading list:
CLICK and CAMP by Kayla Miller
INVISIBLE EMMIE, POSITIVELY IZZY and JUST JAIME by Terri Libenson
SMILE, SISTERS, and GUTS by Raina Telgemeier
DOG MAN by Dav Pilkey
~Hosted by Amanda Smith
Welcome back to 24 Carrot Writing's Graphic Novel Month. Last week our panel discussed the unique strengths of graphic novels for readers, but also, for them as creatives. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.
Lets join our panel of Graphic Novel authors for Part 2.
Often those opposed to graphic novels think about these books as shallow or “comic” books, yet today’s graphic novels deal with difficult subject matter such as addiction, racism, startling historical events, and peer pressure. Why are graphic novels such an effective medium for telling these kinds of stories?
Terri Libenson: I think a big part of it is because many kids love comics and/or illustrated stories; therefore, difficult subject matter won’t have to be forced on them -- they will automatically want to read about it in graphic novel form.
Examples of graphic novels dealing with heavier subjects
Many graphic novels have an autobiographical aspect. Why, do you think, does this format lend itself well to autobiographical storytelling?
Terri Libenson: Well, all kinds of books have an autobiographical element. But I think good artists have a gift for retelling their memories in a visual way that connects immediately with readers. It can also be fun to “see” the setting and clothing of a different era rather than just read about them.
Breena Bard: I’ve never thought about this before! I wonder if it’s because, just like our imaginations, our memories tend to exist in our minds largely as images. If a writer is able to put those remembered images on page as pictures, they can retain some of the vivid detail that might be lost if translated into words. There are some emotions and feelings that can be conveyed better by pictures, and when a picture won’t do, graphic novelists also have written words in their toolbox. It’s the best of both worlds, and for telling something so nuanced and complex as a personal story, I can see why writers would be drawn to a format that’s so flexible and accommodating.
Raina Telgemeier's series of graphic novel memoirs.
Graphic novel characters are often established fairly quickly and with few words (often one or two speech bubbles.) Please share with our readers some of your character development strategies. What happens behind the scenes, before the reader sees the character on the page for the first time?
Breena Bard: For me, characters emerge when I am playing in my sketchbook. The harder I try to “design” a character, the more wooden and forced they feel. But when I let my mind and my pen wander, I am often surprised by the different characters that emerge. I try to spend a lot of time on this earlier side of character development, doodling a new character in every possible facial expression, pose and setting. And if I’m lucky enough to have two characters come to life, I can play with putting them into a variety of vignettes, or mini-scenes. Sometimes these scenes make it into my eventual script, and when they do, they are some of my favorite scenes.
Kayla Miller: I think you can say a lot about a character's personality through their appearance and their actions. Every day we make choices about how to present ourselves to the world and comic artists make those decisions for their characters. Clothing, posture, facial expressions, and way of speaking do a lot of the work, but another great tool is drawing a character’s room (or other spaces they decorate and store things in, like a desk or locker). One panel of a character in their living space could be worth paragraphs of description about their personality and interests.
Terri Libenson: Well, I have an advantage, as my books are hybrids: part illustrated novel and part graphic novel. The illustrated novel portion contains much more text, so I can set up a character’s story in detailed prose. The GN portion is much more of a challenge, character-wise. One technique: I frequently have characters introduce themselves. And I think dialogue or inner monologue quickly establishes their personalities.
Behind the scenes, I try and get to know these characters well so that they seem convincing on paper. They usually have aspects of my personality and memories. Some are also inspired by people I’ve known – although they tend to develop differently as I write.
Tom Angleberger: For me it was the matter of redrawing a famous character, Geronimo Stilton, in my own style. And, since he narrates his novels, I had to pick and choose which words of his to use in my panels. But, I’ve been a Geronimo fan for so long that all of that came very naturally.
Thanks to our fabulous panel! Join us next week for the last of the panel discussion posts. We will be talking about the middle schooler's brain (ooohhh!) and gatekeepers!
A reading list for this week:
CLICK and CAMP by Kayla Miller
INVISIBLE EMMIE, POSITIVELY IZZY and JUST JAIME by Terri Libenson
NEW KID by Jerry Craft
HEY KIDDO by Jarrett Krosoczka
THE FAITHFUL SPY by John Hendrix
SMILE, SISTERS, and GUTS by Raina Telgemeier
AWKWARD, BRAVE & CRUSH by Svetlana Chmakove (great notes on characterization and setting in back matter)
~ hosted by Amanda Smith
For too long the literary value of graphic novels has been questioned. There are parents who tell their kids to pick "real books," while some teachers confiscate graphic novels when their students dare to bring them to class. However, just a week ago, history was made when Jerry Craft's graphic novel, New Kid was awarded the Newbery Medal. The John Newbery Medal is awarded for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Yes, a graphic novel won a prestigious literature award!
Join 24 Carrot Writing this entire month, as we CELEBRATE the strength and beauty of graphic novels and their place on our bookshelves! We've got a distinguished panel and weekly Graphic Novel blogs ready to go. Welcome to Graphic Novel Month at 24 Carrot Writing.
MEET OUR PANEL:
Terry Ebbeling is a seventh and eighth grade English Language Arts teacher and reading advocate extraordinaire.
Why did you decide to tell your stories in graphic novel format as opposed to prose novels?
Kayla Miller: The art side of things is actually what I committed to first. I’ve always liked both writing and art, but I was more focused on art and chose to go to college to study illustration. I wrote and illustrated comics while I was in school, but I still thought I’d end up illustrating other people’s words and ideas once I graduated. I considered writing a hobby, and art my profession for such a long time that it was sort of a revelation when I realized that people actually liked my stories as much as my drawings. I think comics are just my natural format.
Breena Bard: My stories generally unfold in my imagination as movies, and almost before I have any words or even a plot, I can see my characters moving around and interacting in the world. Since I’m not a filmmaker, but I am able to draw, it seems most natural to tell my stories with pictures. And there is a lot you can do with a graphic novel to tell a story as cinematically as possible!
Terri Libenson: I studied illustration in college and have drawn cartoons for most of my life. Before I started creating graphic novels, I was a syndicated newspaper cartoonist. I’ve always loved writing, too, so the combination of art and writing suits me very well.
Tom Angleberger : I’ve written quite a few prose novels now and will write more. But I’ve almost always had a desire to have more than just text in them, whether it’s origami instructions or a nice map. If a funny picture is funnier than a text block, why not draw it? And, the same goes for any emotional response you’re trying to get from a reader.
What do you see as the unique strengths of graphic novels?
Breena Bard: There is an immediacy to comics and graphic novels that make them very accessible to readers of all ages. I don’t think it’s just the inclusion of artwork, which makes them “faster” or “easier” to read (aka, fewer words). There is something very unique going on in the way the words and images interact, perhaps because they engage very different parts of our brain, that brings a reader right into the story and keeps them there. It’s not uncommon for someone to remark that they finished a graphic novel in just one or two sittings (and as a mom of two with precious little spare time for reading, I consider that a huge strength!)
Terri Libenson: Graphic novels are perfect for the reluctant reader or for those who are simply drawn to visual storytelling. And they can be so literary and layered – something most kids know but many adults are just starting to learn.
Tom Angleberger: After writing so many books for kids, I’ve become almost obsessed with removing any barriers or stumbling blocks that are going to stop a kid from finishing a story. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks is description. Some readers may be able to read a page of text and “see” a vivid landscape, but some of us never make it through that page. We put the book down after a couple sentences and are never compelled to pick it up again. Meanwhile, the graphic novel reader is gaping in wonder at beautiful artwork. (Well, not in my book, but in some books! Nathan Hale’s One Trick Pony for example.)
Terry Ebbeling: While I was a skeptic at first, thinking graphic novels were inferior to “regular” books, I have come to appreciate them for middle-school readers. Students these days are visual readers, so the graphics help them comprehend and stay interested- especially reluctant readers. And I have been amazed by how detailed the graphics are! My students recently read White Bird by R.J. Palacio for Pizza and Paperbacks, and I read through that graphic novel twice. The first time I concentrated on the plot line and glanced at the pictures. But, during my second reading, I really appreciated the fine points in the pictures that told a story in themselves. And, when discussing the book with my students, they found even more depth in the pictures that gave them a greater understanding of the darkness of WWII. While graphic novels may not be for every reader, I find the combination of text and pictures to aid in comprehension and enjoyment for some of my readers.
Join us again next week as our panel discusses character development and difficult subjects. And while you wait, pick up a few graphic novels and discover for yourself the intricate combination of storytelling through words and pictures.
This week's reading list:
Click and Camp by Keila Miller
Invisible Emmie, Positively Izzy, and Just Jaime by Terri Libenson
One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale
White Bird by R.J. Palacio
New Kid by Jerry Craft
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