Jo Knowles is the author of seven books for young adults. She teaches in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University and lives in Vermont. Tillie Walden is a cartoonist and illustrator from Austin, Texas. Her graphic memoir, Spinning, is a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
We asked Jo and Tillie to tell us more about the workshop, their writing lives, and the world of YA and graphic novels.
Literary North: How did the idea for this workshop come about? How did the two of you meet? Had you worked together before you led your first Cartoon Studies workshop last summer?
Tillie Walden: Jo and I met, and this feels so funny in retrospect, because I was struggling with my book Spinning. I asked James Sturm, the co-director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, to point me towards a writer who could help me with the plot of my memoir. And he suggested Jo! Jo and I met a few times and she completely saved me. With the work we did I got going and went off and made my book.
As far as how the workshop itself came to be, I believe it was an idea thought up at the school that was then brought to me and Jo. I was of course ecstatic about the idea! And last summer was the first time we worked together, and it felt so natural. Jo and I make a great team, if I do say so myself.
Jo Knowles: When I met Tillie to help with her memoir, I was immediately struck by the heart and beauty in her work. What a joy to work with such a talented new artist. When James asked if I'd like to co-teach a workshop with Tillie, I was thrilled! As soon as we started brainstorming how we'd set up the class, I could tell we were going to have a blast because we worked so easily together, even just in the planning stages.
LN: Can you tell us a bit about how the workshop works? Do participants come in with a story they want to work on, or do they generate ideas as part of the workshop process?
TW: It's a week-long workshop and it covers a lot of topics. When you think about creating young adult graphic novels, there's a lot of pieces that go into it. There's writing, there's drawing, there's plotting, there's marketing, etc. So the students who come end up working on all of these aspects. A few came with a specific idea for a story and the class assignments worked with that, but others came simply wanting to learn about making comics. The class size is small enough, though, that it still works well even when the students come from different backgrounds or motivations.
JK: Yes, I think it works both for students who have no idea what they want to do, and for students who have a specific project in mind. We try to shape the exercises in such a way that they can be adapted to whatever the artist is inspired to work on in the moment. We tend to focus more on a specific craft elements, such as character, dialogue, or setting, so it really doesn't matter what stage in the process the artist is at, or whether a beginner or more advanced. In fact, the more variety, the better.
LN: You both come from slightly different literary backgrounds, one as a writer of fiction and the other as a cartoonist. How do your backgrounds complement each other when teaching this workshop?
TW: I think our different backgrounds really made the workshop work. It’s great to have a balance between the writing and drawing aspect of comics, and teaching alongside each other gives the students a really great perspective. Often comics classes tend to be skewed in either direction—more to the drawing side, or more to the writing. I love that when Jo and I teach together we can offer a class that really gives you insight into both.
JK: What Tillie said! I think our strengths complemented each other quite well, especially during feedback time. Tillie offers really helpful suggestions on approaching art and panel set up, and I help more with plot, world building, character development, and things like that. I don't really have the technical vocabulary for comics (yet), but I can critique how effectively the art tells a story, and it works out in a really interesting way.
LN: Some people don't take graphic novels or comics seriously, but some of the most moving books we've read are graphic novels, including books like Maus and Fun Home. What's special about the graphic novel format in terms of how it can address difficult themes?
TW: I think graphic novels can address difficult themes precisely because they are visual. They really create quite a sense of empathy. Readers can really identify with the story because it's playing out right in front of them. People who don't take comics seriously are very much behind the curve.
JK: And they are missing out on some of the most gorgeous stories (not just visually) of our time. We need to stop thinking about word-count and grade levels when we recommend books to students and think more about well-told, powerful stories, whatever the format. I don't know why so many adults seem to stop valuing art in literature when their kids stop reading picture books.
LN: What are your favorite graphic novels?
TW: I love This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and I also love Stitches by David Small. Those are two of my favorites! Oh, also Buddha by Osamu Tezuka. So so good.
JK: Tillie took my favorites! But I'll add El Deafo by Cece Bell, and anything by Gene Luen-Yang. Of course, I also love Tillie's Spinning!
LN: Are you working on any new writing projects now?
TW: I'm working on a book that I can't talk about yet, BUT, I have a new book coming out this fall. It's the print edition of my LGBT space-themed webcomic, On a Sunbeam.
JK: I have a new middle grade novel coming out next year with Candlewick Press called Where the Heart Is, which I'm very excited about. I'm currently playing around with a picture book idea (a first for me!) as well as a younger middle grade novel that features the young sister of the main character in Where The Heart Is. Both projects feel super new, so I don't have too much to say about them yet.
LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the last month?
TW: I recently reread Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit, which I loved as a kid, and it just captivated me all over again. It's such a beautiful work, and completely memorable.
JK: A friend of mine sent me a Valentine with the poem "Song of the Builders," by Mary Oliver tucked inside. I put it on our refrigerator and have been reading it practically every day. But now I want to go get my very worn, very well-read copy of Tuck Everlasting and read that. Thanks for the reminder, Tillie!