It’s raining Raina

CoverIt seems apt to be writing about American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel Ghosts (released September 2016) after a night or two of ‘dark and stormy’ wild weather across the country. I lay in bed snuggled up with my children to keep warm, making up spooky stories to tell them as the wind lashed the trees. It was the kind of weather that gets one imagining something eerie in the air… like ghosts, perhaps.

Ghosts is a little bit different from Raina’s previous, award-winning, autobiographical graphic novels Smile (2010) and Sisters (2014). For fans expecting another story from her real life, she points out this is her first true fiction story “not at all based on real stuff.”

However it does similarly revolve around two sisters:

Eleven-year-old Catrina and her family are moving to the small coastal town of Bahía de la Luna because her younger sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends, but she tries not to complain because she knows Maya will benefit from the clean, cool air that blows in from the sea. As the girls settle in, they learn there’s something a little spooky about their new town…

Have a peek at an excerpt of Ghosts set in the missions of foggy northern California and during the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).

As a fan of graphic novels, especially autobiographical comics, it was exciting to meet Raina and hear her speak at the recent International Board for Books and Young People Congress (IBBY), held in Auckland in August 2016.

CoverRaina’s illustrated stories of her life growing up appeal to 7, 17 and 37 year-olds alike. I thought it was curious that my copy of Raina’s book Smile had gone missing from my bedside table one night and when I went to check on my young son, supposedly asleep in bed, I found he had taken it and was totally absorbed and asking for more – I suspect it was the smiley face on the cover that attracted him. He quickly became a big fan of Raina’s despite the content of her books being from a female perspective and about sisterhood and female friendships. This is a great reminder not to gender stereotype readers’ interests.

Moreover, graphic novels are a great hook for reluctant readers. I like to think of Raina’s comics as ‘gateway graphic novels’ and wanted to meet Raina partly just to thank her for really igniting my son’s reading. I also blame Raina for my son wanting a pet fish (her fish poo scene had him in hysterics) as well as his first iPod for his birthday (just like her character in Sisters, although in her case it was a cassette player, being the 1980s). Happy Birthday son – you’re also getting Ghosts for your birthday too!

American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier
American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier at IBBY Congress 2016, Auckland. Flickr 2016-08-19-Raina-Telgmeier-speaking

Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My life as a Comic and Comics are my life

The title of Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My Life as a Comic and Comics are My Life highlights how interchangeable these two aspects are for her. Indira Neville, from the National Library of New Zealand in Auckland – and a cartoonist in her own right – introduced Raina by acknowledging her impact on making a greater space for women in comics. Raina then talked about her influences on her comic-making as a child.

Early influences

Raina shared her early influences and inspirations as a child growing up in the 1980s in America (like me) such as the Care Bears, the Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake and Scooby Doo cartoons. Perhaps a reminder not to write off children’s seemingly vacuous television viewing. She was talking about my childhood too! She also highly rates the comic series Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson and Bone by Jeff Smith as both being important in her becoming a cartoonist.

Raina was also a huge fan of realistic fiction such as that of Judy Blume and of Beverly Cleary and her stories of sisters Beezus and Ramona. Raina was interested in what kids her age were doing and was enamoured with For Better and for Worse by Lynn Johnston – in this comic strip the characters grew up every year alongside her and her family in real life so they felt like friends or neighbours to Raina and for her, lives blurred between reality and comics – much like her own work does.

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Growing Up

CoverA seminal comic she received was from her father, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, which ends with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She said she cried for two days after the ending and was fascinated with how “comics can make you feel a huge emotional response” – this resonated with her from a young age. She credits Barefoot Gen with waking her up to the power of storytelling.

“Comics can make you feel a huge emotional response.”

Another spark was a 1st grade teacher who set a year long assignment of diary writing where the teacher would write back and forth to the students in diaries they were keeping. Raina helped illustrate her school annuals and yearbooks and she kept an illustrated journal all through school and college, drawing her day in a visual diary. She still keeps a weekly comic diary. She says “all my influences get chucked into a blender and what comes out is my own original work.”

Making It

Raised in San Francisco, Raina went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, “having been enamoured with the city due to shows like Sesame Street”, and there she studied illustration and comic-making. She made mini-comics “back in the pre-internet days” and distributed about 7,000 copies of her her mini-comic ‘Take-out’ (7 issues, 12-pages black and white). She sold them for a whopping $1 a piece and would be thrilled when she received a cheque for $2.50 for selling a few comics. Her advice at the conference on how to get good at drawing comics? “Trace and copy is a great way to learn how to make shapes.” Simple as that.

CoverRaina frequented comic conventions to promote her work and was approached at one by Scholastic Book Group, who were kicking off Graphix – an imprint of Scholastic. Raina had only done short comics up to that point so wasn’t sure what to do for a larger book so they asked her what she really liked reading herself as a kid. Answer: The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, which just happened to be in Scholastic stable of books and wow, two weeks later she had a book contract to illustrate the beloved series. She lifts the dialogue straight from the books and each of the four books took a year to make. Initially in black and white they have been reprinted in colour and since then have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list (colour sells!) She says she can see herself across several characters in The Baby-Sitter’s Club but Kristy is her favourite and of course the character in her comics she can relate to the most is herself… She went on to write and illustrate several graphic novels about her experiences growing up, also published by Scholastic.

Smile

CoverWarning: Contains graphic content (of a dental nature)
Smile (2010) depicts the aftermath of an incident that led to Raina having her teeth reconstructed between the ages of 11-15, after falling over and damaging her permanent front teeth. This was a very self-conscious time of life and her graphic novel lays bare these awkward years and the accompanying bullying as well. There is something innocent and wholesome about Raina’s stories and she comes across as cheerful but there were certainly no smiles when she presented a photo in her talk of her gruesome dental files from this time period. Set in the time covering the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, Raina says in Smile: “I survived a major earthquake. I guess in the grand scheme of things losing a couple of teeth isn’t the end of the world.”

Sisters

CoverSisters (2014) was based on one panel in Smile about a family road trip and delves into the relationship with her younger sister Amara and wider family dynamics many readers will relate to.

Raina can’t wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren’t quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she’s also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn’t improve much over the years, but when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn’t seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all…
Present-day narrative and perfectly placed flashbacks tell the story of her relationship with her sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.

What’s the drama with Drama?

CoverAfter the dramas in Smile came the real Drama (2012). Set in middle school years, partly Raina’s intent with Drama was to honour the technical people who do the work behind the scenes in school drama and stage productions (as opposed to the select few who make it on stage). Drama is a homage to these friendships and the camaraderie that occurs between them. In the story are twin boys who are gay, just like her best friends were at school. On the controversy of having young gay students depicted in Drama, she says she is pleased Scholastic backed her and notes her based-on-a-true story graphic novel is actually indicative of the real world compared to fantasy-driven comics which get less questioned. Moreover she says:

“I hear from kids thanking me for validating their existence.”

This I think is the essence of what makes her work so popular among readers young and old alike – they can find themselves in her stories: in the sibling spats, in the humiliating experiences, negotiating friendships and in the minutiae of school and home life.

What other comics and books does Raina recommend for readers who love her graphic novels?

She gave special mention in her presentation to:
El Deafo (2014) by Cece Bell Raina rates it as: “The best middle grade memoir about hearing loss you will ever read.” Okay, it may be the only one.
Roller Girl (2015) by Victoria Jamieson. A graphic novel adventure about a girl who discovers roller derby right as she and her best friend are growing apart.
Sunny Side Up (2015) by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. From the brother-and-sister creators of Babymouse, Sunny Side Up follows the lives of kids whose older brother’s delinquent behaviour has thrown their family into chaos.

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“Christchurch is where it all started for me” – an interview with Roger Shepherd – WORD Christchurch

Kim interviews Roger Shepherd ahead of his sold-out session In Love With These Times: A Flying Nun Celebration, on tomorrow (Saturday 27 August) at Blue Smoke.

Roger Shepherd. Image supplied.
Roger Shepherd. Image supplied.

CoverRoger, In love with these times is your personal experience, and it is about your role in the New Zealand music industry. There is a real sense of ‘being there’ in a certain time and place. A lot has been written about the music, so I’d like to focus more on place and – since you’re also an avid reader, on your love of books and libraries.

You write that during your upbringing “Reading became central” to your life. Tell us about some books you recommend.

David Stubbs: Future Days (Faber & Faber, 2014). This is a great exploration of what was an insular but fragmented (it happened all over Germany rather than in one locale) musical phenomena. I love the music and this book helped me make sense of where it came from (German youth rebelling against their Nazi tainted parents and teachers) and how it happened and it sent me back to listen to all of the music again. Can, Neu, Harmoniam Amol Duul, et al.

Geoff Chapple: Terrain (Random House, 2015). This is really a fantastic read for anyone curious about why our country looks the way it does. Landforms are the fascinating dynamic basic structures that shape our lives in New Zealand and learning to read them is immensely rewarding.

Rob Chapman: Psychedelia and Other Colours (Faber & Faber, 2015). This is my current music read and it’s very informative and delightfully opinionated. The ex Glaxo Babies singer – and now music writing academic – describes the very different development of psychedelic music in the USA and the UK and isn’t afraid to shoot down some longstanding myths and reputations. It’s a straight shooting and unglamorous look at one of the key musical strands that defines the 1960s. I found the section on The Beatles particularly rewarding.

Geoff Park: Ngā Uruora The Groves of Life – Ecology & History in New Zealand Landscape (VUP, 1995). This book is built around a handful of sites where the once common giant Kahikatea once stood or still stands just hanging on. Somehow I manage to read a fair bit of nature writing and this book is one of the most remarkable I have ever read. And perhaps the saddest.

Richard King: How Soon Is Now. This is about the development of the independent record labels in the UK and the USA that catered to the exploding number of bands that formed during and after the punk and helped connect them to the new audience that appeared alongside them. An erudite entertaining read about the rise and almost inevitable fall of of labels such as Postcard, Rough Trade, Blast First and Mute. Flying Nun isn’t discussed but fits right in there with what was happening internationally at the time.

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You grew up in Aranui and went to Shirley Boys High and you write in your book about your fond memories of going to New Brighton Library every Saturday with your family. What place have libraries played in your life?

I love books and reading and tend to look for them in a number of different places. Bookshops selling new books obviously have the latest releases but second hand book shops have otherwise unavailable gems and oddments and I will travel considerable distances to attend book fairs.

Libraries have a different selection again and remarkable ones at that. I love to browse. As a kid we went to the old New Brighton library on Shaw Ave on a Saturday while my mother did her weekly shopping. It didn’t have a big selection but did have a rotating range of books that came out from the central library in town. I got started reading pretty tame Willard Price boys adventures (one of the key characters dies in one of them by getting his foot stuck in a giant clam, or did he fall into a volcano?) before moving on to John Wyndham and Fred Hoyle and other English science fiction writers. A road that took me all the way to J.G. Ballard who I greatly admire for the quality and originality of his ideas.

My taste in fiction is rather broad, Nabokov (skip the overly literary Lolita and check out one of the greatest books ever written, Pale Fire or the funniest, Pnin) and there are a number of New Zealand writers that I have followed including Maurice Gee, Emily Perkins and Damien Wilkins. I mix up my fiction reading with plenty of non-fiction. I read a good amount of travel writing (including Colin Thubron, Richard O’Hanlon (Trawler is especially good), Nick Dyer, but the best is Norman Lewis amongst a mass of other stuff including books about music, psychology, food, nature, history, geology and art.

I remember finding the Thames and Hudson William S. Rubin’s Dada & Surrealism art book one Saturday at the New Brighton library and that really opened up my mind to what existed beyond my closeted Aranui existence. My father must have been horrified. He certainly was when I started listening to punk rock a couple of years later.

With such a vastly changed landscape post-quake it is great to have the memories – an archive if you will – of the people and places in Christchurch that you document in your book (music venues, your various Flying Nun offices) to orientate readers in the city. You used to work at the Record Factory and near Shand’s Emporium too. You write of your memories of working in ‘the Square’, a centre city so vastly altered now, and you share your memories of music venues and music stores in Christchurch. How do you feel seeing sites in Christchurch where you used to work and play? Post-quake where do you find yourself drawn to with so much changed? Where do you ‘find’ yourself when you come to Christchurch now? Is that even possible now?

Record Factory was on Colombo St. The first Flying Nun office was on Hereford Street next to Shands. I’ve been lost in central Christchurch the last couple of times I have visited. I don’t think people outside Christchurch understand the devastation unless they see it for themselves. Surely the word “munted” must has been coined to describe what has happened in Christchurch. The physical central city I grew up exploring and then working and living in seems to have completely gone.

Fortunately the people remain and I have huge admiration for those who have done so with the clear intention of rebuilding the city. Where do I go when I am in town visiting my mother? I’ve always loved the Museum, Botanical Gardens and Art Gallery and make time to check out them out, to see what is new but mainly to be reassured by what is the same. I find those reconnections amongst the mass dislocations rather vital.

You talk about what drove you as a fan was the feeling that a lot of the music would have been lost if it wasn’t recorded. It seems hard to imagine Flying Nun was such a fruitful endeavour without cellphones and the internet, with the biggest excitement being the fax machine. What aspects of this ‘old school’ way do you think made Flying Nun a success in a way that wouldn’t happen in today’s high tech, globally connected world and ‘record me!’ culture? Any special piece of advice for budding music industry entrepreneurs today?

Despite all the technological advances I think what was always hard has become even harder to achieve. A new label needs to be working with bands that are new, exciting and unique. There has to be some momentum and some early sales to get the cashflow moving and confidence up.

This is something that normally grows out of the development of a scene. A scene is a localised outburst of communal creativity normally bourne out of geographic and socio economic isolation. Bands starting up and supporting each other and swapping ideas and making and playing new kinds of music which is what happened in both Christchurch and Dunedin in the early 1980s.

The internet connects people and makes everything totally absolutely available but works against that insular hothouse effect by accelerating the ongoing homogenised fragmentation of music. It’s harder to create music that is different enough to grab an audience’s attention let alone pay for it so a band or artist can start building a career.

Can you recommend any music or artists released out of Flying Nun today or out of Christchurch in general who have taken your interest?

Christchurch is where it all started for me. The Gordons who somehow later became Bailter Space. The Pin Group were special. The Bats are a fine example of musical evolution. From being very quietly country influenced to becoming very subtley krautrock flecked. A brilliant band that endure despite the non evolutionary force that is fashion. I really rate T54. I can’t wait to see Zen Mantra in a couple of weeks time at The Others Way in Auckland. And as always I am a huge fan of The Terminals and very much looking forward to eventually checking out their recently developing “side project” Dark Matter.

Flying Nun Records: The Clean, Ying1 (FN002), The Pin Group. FN 001CL-Ephemera-Music-Rock-1980s-Poster0017
Flying Nun Records: The Clean, Ying1 (FN002), The Pin Group. FN 001 CCL-Ephemera-Music-Rock-1980s-Poster0017

You mention in your book you like to cook and are an avid cookbook collector. Share with us some of your favourite cookbooks.

I like to cook and I have a big collection of cookbooks although there seem to be so many published these days.

CoverSarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s Honey and Co (Saltyard Books, 2014). My wife came back from London with this book and its Israeli middle eastern cooking is very much in the style of the excellent Ottolenghi books. I see a connection here to what first enthused me about cooking in the mid 1980s, Claudia Roden’s television series Middle Eastern Cooking.

Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers The River Cafe Cook Book (Edbury Press,1995): I love the first two River Cafe cookbooks. Simple modern Italian recipes that place the emphasis on using quality ingredients.

Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller’s Manifold Destiny (Villard Books, 1989). I have never cooked anything out of this book but love the idea that I could wrap up dinner in foil and cook it on my car engine as I belt along the motorway listening to The Clean’s ‘Point That Thing’.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s The Prawn Cocktail Years (Macmillan, 1997). These two excellent food writers get together to give the best quality recipes for former British comfort food favourites such as Chicken Kiev, Spaghetti Bolognese, Shepherds Pie, Lasagne al Forno and our Sunday brunch favourite, Kedgeree. Yum.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I have a number of loose amateur enthusiasms and geology, cartography and stamp collecting are among them. I’m very keen on volcanos and have good sized collections of postcards and souvenir teaspoons featuring them. Yes, I am strangely attracted to cardboard but I no longer collect it. Otherwise, it’s books that consume most of my spare time, seeking them out and then reading them.

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