Raina Telgemeier is the author and illustrator of the graphic novels Smile, Drama, and Sisters, all #1 New York Times bestsellers. She also adapted and illustrated four graphic novel versions of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-sitters Club series, and has contributed short stories to many anthologies. Raina’s accolades include two Eisner Awards, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, a Stonewall Honor, and many Best Of and Notable lists. Her newest graphic novel is Ghosts. Raina lives and works in San Francisco, CA.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you say your name?
You can listen to me say my name here.
When did you start reading comics? Did you always want to make them?
I started reading the funnies in my local newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, when I was nine. My favorites were Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse. I started making my own comic strips around the same time, and realized I liked putting pictures and words together to tell stories.
How’d you get a job drawing Baby-sitters Club comics for Scholastic? Was it your idea?
Kind of. I met the editors at Scholastic when they were starting up the Graphix imprint, and they were looking for new artists to do projects. I brought a few original ideas to them, but nothing that was really “ready to go.” So they asked what I read when I was young, and when I said I’d been a BSC fan, their eyes lit up and they said, “THAT might make a good graphic novel! Want to do some sketches?” And that was that.
What about SMILE – did you really knock your two front teeth out? Is this a true story? What inspired you to write this book?
It’s all true. I was in sixth grade when I fell and knocked out my teeth, and I have been dealing with the consequences ever since. I had braces, a lot of surgery, and a lot of awkward smiles as a result. The comic SMILE was born out of a need to get the whole experience down on paper, since I spent so much time telling people about it.
How about the other stuff? The earthquake, the incident with your skirt in high school…is it all true?
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Earthquakes happen pretty frequently in San Francisco, and I happened to live there during the last big one, in October of 1989. As for my friends doing mean things to me…let’s just say, I’m not friends with those people anymore. One incident involving my skirt was enough!
Is SISTERS a true story?
Yep. I really do have a sister. My family really did take a road trip from San Francisco to Colorado Springs when I was 14. And Amara really did have a pet snake named Mango that got loose in the car.
Do you and Amara get along now?
Much better than we used to! But we also live in different states, and I only see her every so often. When I do, I’m always kind of shocked by how similar we are in so many ways!
I need to know what happened with your parents. The ending of SISTERS was so open-ended!
Okay, the thing is, my parents did eventually get divorced…but not for another six years after the story takes place! They tried really hard to make it work, and honestly, there’s no “story” to their breakup, so I didn’t want to include an epilogue in SISTERS that took the reader into the future, or explain their grown-up issues. I found out my parents’ marriage was struggling when I was 14, and was confused and disoriented for the next six years of my life. I wanted to capture that confusion and uncertainty from the point of view of my teen self, without a narrator explaining everything. Perhaps it doesn’t make for the best ‘ending’ to a story…but real life doesn’t always create neat endings. (My parents are still good friends, by the way! They’re both great people, and everyone is much happier now.)
Is DRAMA a true story?
DRAMA is not a true story! I did participate in my school theater programs in middle school and high school, and I channeled some of my experiences into Drama, but the story itself is fiction. Some of the characters in the story areinspired by real people in my life–for example, two of my best friends are gay twin brothers (really!), and our real-life friendship has some things in common with Callie, Jesse, and Justin’s friendship! But I was never on stage crew, and I am terrible at building things. They always come out crooked.
What inspired your new book GHOSTS?
Many, many things inspired GHOSTS. I missed the landscapes of my northern California childhood (and I’ve since moved back!). I’ve lost a few people I loved in the last few years. I’m really interested in holidays (like Halloween and Día de los Muertos) that celebrate spirits in different ways. I like exploring old abandoned places and mysterious towns. I love skeletons. I love stories with magical realism in them. I wanted to write about sisters who were different from me and my own sister. So many things.
Is Maya based on someone real?
Yes and no. I had a young cousin who passed away a few years ago from cancer, and she was also a very bright, optimistic, and loving kid. But Maya is her own unique character. She’s got bits and pieces of kids I’ve babysat for and kids I’ve met at school visits and my friends’ kids, but she is still her own unique self. I’d like to be her friend.
How about Cat?
Cat is a little more like me. A little skeptical, a little protective, a little nervous and anxious. But she also cares about Maya more than anything. Just like a lot of other big sisters I know.
Why did you choose to write about Cystic Fibrosis?
Cystic Fibrosis is an incurable disease that affects breathing. Maya can’t breathe very well, and ghosts don’t breathe at all, so she finds she can relate to them. Cat’s lungs work normally, but she suffers from anxiety, which means that she often needs to be reminded to stop and breathe deeply. The theme of breathing weaves its way all through the story.
What made you want to write about a culture different than your own?
San Francisco is full of so many cultures, and I was lucky to grow up in the midst of all of them. I have a lot of Latin American friends and family, and it was really interesting talking to them and learning that many of them don’t speak much Spanish. I was very curious why that was, and everyone has such interesting stories to share. Generations and cultures fascinate me. GHOSTS is a fictional story full of fictional characters, but it was definitely inspired and guided by stories told to me by people I care about.
What’s your connection with Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead?
Part of why I wrote GHOSTS in the first place is because I was looking for a way to deal with some of the losses in my own life. I attended San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos procession and Festival of Altars while I was working on GHOSTS, and everything I saw and experienced made its way into the book in one way or another. It’s a very respectful, reverent, and beautiful experience, and everyone brings their own story and history to it. Traditionally, it was celebrated in Mexico, and while there are many common themes and motifs, every town and region has their own take on it. I researched multiple traditions and sources, and the town of Bahía de la Luna celebrates it in its own unique and special way. If your town celebrates Día de los Muertos, I encourage you to learn more about it!
Can you recommend some further reading material about Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead?
I like this article by Christine Delsol, La Catrina: Mexico’s Grand Dame of Death (SF Gate, 2011).
FUNNY BONES is a fantastic picture book about José Guadelupe Posada, the artist who created the famous calaveras images, including La Catrina.
ROSITA Y CONCHITA is a picture book presented in both English and Spanish about two twin sisters, one of whom is no longer alive.
THE SKELETON AT THE FEAST is a great book about Day of the Dead, with tons of information, history, interviews, and photographs!
Can you recommend some further reading about Cystic Fibrosis?
The Bell Curve by Atul Gawande (The New Yorker, 2004)
Doorway to a Cure For Cystic Fibrosis by Bijal P. Trivedi (Discover Magazine, 2013)
Living Life from a Hospital Room by Claire Wineland (CNN, 2014)
Can you send me a free book?
Believe it or not, authors don’t usually have extra copies of their books lying around! Books cost me money, too, and other people buying my books is how I make my living. Ask your school or public library to order my books if they don’t already have them in stock.
Okay, I want to buy your book! Can you sign it?
If you’d like to order a signed copy of my books through the mail, my local independent bookstore Green Apple Books would be happy to ship them to you! Or, you can try to catch me at a public appearance. Check the right-hand column on my home page for a list of upcoming events.
You should make a Smile movie! Are they making a Smile movie? What about a Drama movie?
Ha ha, I have absolutely no control over that. If a film or television studio wants to purchase the rights to make Smile or Drama into a TV show or a movie, they are welcome to do so, but that means entering a crazy Hollywood process that I would have very little to do with. If there is ever news on this front, you can bet I’ll announce it here on my site!
Can I see some pictures of you when you were a kid?
I’ve got a few photos posted over here.
How about a picture of your desk?
Sure! Here’s a tour of my workspace.
Can you give me some advice on a personal issue?
No, I’m really not in a position to do that. If you’re being bullied by kids at school, or you’re worried about a friend’s behavior, or something is really bothering you…it’s best to talk to an adult you know and trust.
I’m getting braces soon. Can you tell me what it’s like?
I tried to convey what braces were like, for me, as accurately as possible in Smile. This is how I remember it. Chances are, your experience won’t be so bad, unless you also knocked out your two front teeth and need to get your whole mouth reconstructed!
I’d like to be an author/cartoonist/illustrator. Can you give me any advice?
Sure! Here is my advice for budding cartoonists.
Would you be willing to read my story/comic/essay/novel?
I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’ve only got so many hours in a day, and I devote most of them to working on my own books and projects. You can join a writers’ community online, or at your school or library, though!
When will X-Men: Misfits 2 be out?
Sadly, it won’t. The publisher decided not to release the second volume. Quite a few other titles they were in the process of publishing got canceled, too. I’m sad about it! Volume 2 was going to pay a lot of story points off. And Rogue and Jubilee were going to join the cast…Maybe someday it will be published, but since I don’t own the characters or the story, there’s not much I can do about it.
What do you use to make your comics?
I sketch out all my pages on plain 8.5 x 11 paper, and then create a full-sized version of those sketches on Bristol board, using a Col-erase light blue colored pencil. Over that, I pencil each panel pretty tightly with an F graphite pencil. Finally, I ink over the penciled drawings with Dr. Martin’s waterproof India ink and a no. 2 Windsor & Newton sable brush, and erase the pencil lines with a Staedtler Mars plastic eraser. My finished pages are scanned into a computer, and panel borders, lettering, and colors are all added digitally. I wrote all about the tools I use in this essay–contains lots of pictures and examples!
Are you still making mini-comics? Where can I buy them?
I still occasionally draw short story comics, but I don’t really have the time to make mini-comics anymore. My old mini-comic series, Take-Out, will hopefully be collected into a book someday! Most of the short comics I make now are posted right here on my website, and are free to read.
Will you be drawing more Baby-sitters Club comics?
I will not be drawing more BSC Graphix. BUT!! There are new Baby-sitters Club graphic novels on the way! They’ll be illustrated by my friend Gale Galligan, who…believe it or not…used to be my production assistant! She helped me out in the studio when I was working on DRAMA, and now she’s taking the torch on BSC Graphix! BSC Graphix #5, Dawn and the Impossible Three, will be out in 2017.
I’ve read all of your books! Can you recommend some other graphic novels?
Here’s a list of graphic novels I recommend. There are tons of great books out there!
Are you interested in collaborating on graphic novels in the future?
I’m pretty solidly busy until at least 2022, but maybe someday. Serious queries should go through my agent, Judy Hansen.
Will you come speak at my school/library/conference/convention/company picnic?
Maybe! Please see my Contact page for more information.
What year were you born?
Where do you get your inspiration/ideas?
Most of the stories I write are inspired by my own life. Here’s a blog post I wrote about inspiration, andhere’s another one about using my own life as a template for stories. And one more about the things that inspired my drawing style.
How do you make a graphic novel?
Here’s one of my most popular essays: How A Graphic Novel is Born (and Raised). (This may also answer the question, ‘Why does it take so LONG to make a graphic novel?!’)
What genre are your books?
Please note that graphic novels are a format and a medium, but not a genre. There are many genres WITHIN graphic novels! Smile is considered autobiography and memoir, and sometimes non-fiction. Drama and the BSC graphic novels are considered realistic fiction and slice of life.
Do you have any pets?
When I was growing up my family had goldfish, hamsters, a chameleon, a parakeet, a cockatiel, a snake (yuck!) and eventually a cat. I don’t have any pets right now.
Do you have any siblings?
If you read my books SMILE or SISTERS, they will give you a clue!
Do you have any kids?
Do you have any hobbies?
My hobby was always drawing, but now that I draw professionally for a living, I like to spend my spare time cooking, reading food blogs and books, and watching documentaries. My favorite guilty pleasure TV show is Top Chef, partly because I enjoy watching talented, hardworking, creative people rise to the top, and partly because it gives me inspiration in the kitchen! I also like to swim, jog, read, hike, listen to music and podcasts, and travel!
What is your favorite color?
What is your favorite book?
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.
Who is your favorite author?
I don’t have one favorite author. Some authors I love include Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Margaret Atwood. My favorite cartoonists include Bill Watterson, Lynn Johnston, Bill Amend, Greg Evans, Lynda Barry, Keiji Nakazawa, Kiyohiko Azuma, and Jeff Smith. Look them up!
What is your favorite movie?
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
What is your favorite food?
I could eat a burrito from La Taqueria in San Francisco every day of my life! And their agua frescas…oh man…
You didn’t answer my questions here! Where can I find out more?
Check out my media page! There are links to online interviews, videos, and podcasts I’ve been on.