We’ll never know how many young American girls growing up in the 80s wanted to grow up to be alternative cartoonists, but it seems pretty safe to suggest that most of them would have given up Pogo Balls, Pocket Rockers, and Growing Pains for a whole week to score the kind of gig that Raina Telgemeier landed with Scholastic three years ago. The Queens-based artist is currently working on the fourth installment of her graphic adaptation of Ann Martin’s classic series, The Baby-sitter’s Club.
We spoke about those adaptations and her own “dental drama” Smile, between the sound of smoothies being blended, ten feet away.
Is it hard to work with someone else’s characters?
I had never done it before this. In this case, it’s not hard for me, because I they were so familiar to me as a kid. When I read the books over, it was kind of like reading my own journal in a way. ‘I remember this happening, and then she said that, that was awesome.’ It was almost like my own memories. I drew the characters the way that I had seen them, in my mind. It was a feeling of mine, and it turns out that it was a feeling of my editors, that Ann Martin’s way of writing had crept into my brain at some point along the way, and her voice and my voice are really very similar. It was so natural to take her words and start making them into pictures. The first book I did was word for word, beat for beat—it was all there, and it was way too long for the schedule that they want me to keep and the page count that they wanted to stick to. The first book ended up being almost 200 pages.
How long is a standard Baby-sitter’s book?
They average about 150 pages.
So it was longer than one of the actual books.
Oh yeah, because even though you’re cutting out a lot of exposition, something that only takes a paragraph to suggest, you have to take four pages to tell. It’s challenging sometimes, but since it’s such a familiar series, it comes pretty naturally. Since I’ve started doing the series, people have said, “hey, you should adapt Nancy Drew stories, you should adapt Little House on the Prairie!” What am I, the adaptation queen? I don’t think it would be as easy with other peoples’ work. I would like to try to adapt something else at some point, but it would really have to be the right thing.
Before jumping into something like that again, would you like to get back to your own stories for a bit?
I guess so. I’ve been working on Smile simultaneously, and I feel bad that I have to put it on a bit of a hiatus, but the production demands of the Baby-sitter’s Club are too much. I’ve got several other stories kicking around that I’d like to do, but some of them are about me a bit older, and I don’t know if they would work as an all-ages book. Most of the stuff I do is all-ages, but at some point I’d like to do some older stuff.
So your own stories are almost exclusively autobiographical?
Yeah, it’s all about me [laughs]. It’s just the way that I write. I’ve never been a fantasy writer, and most of the books I enjoyed as a kid were very slice-of-life. I consider the Ramona Quimby books to be pretty lifelike. There’s not about unicorns, or something. I think I was just inspired by real-life stories, and I’ve not tried to sit down and make one up yet, so the ones that are fictional, I’ve basically changed the character’s name from Raina to something else. It’s a bit of a protection thing there. I don’t need the world to know all of my business.
By admitting something like that, people are going to get suspicious of everything they read by you.
That’s okay! Adrian Tomine admitted the same thing. Sometimes you just do a gender swap.
Is there a logical conclusion to Smile?
Yep. See? [Smiles wide]. I have teeth now, so…The story will end when I’m 15-years-old, even though my story didn’t really end when I was 15—it actually ended a couple of months ago. But I feel like the story that I’m telling can end then and be totally satisfying without my opening up any more cans of worms. It’s going to be a story about my childhood.
How many more short books will you get out of it?
I’m definitely at least halfway through it, and I just updated the 91st page today. I can see going to about 150 pages overall.
So you’re heading toward a full graphic novel.
Yeah, I don’t really want to publish it in chunks. I’d rather publish it as one book, because I think the whole story is really one ark, even though there are short arks within it. People ask me all of the time why I don’t serialize it. It’s like, “go on the Web, if you want to read it. When it’s done, it’ll be in print.”
For a while you were doing the mini comics.
Yeah, but those are not really related to Smile. Takeouts are really unrelated to anything else. “I had a moment I had to get out of my head—here’s ten pages.”
Back to the Baby-sitter’s Club for a moment—where are the character designs coming from? Did the covers of the old books inspire those at all?
They were mostly from the general descriptions of the characters, which have changed a little bit, over time. The characters’ descriptions were updated. One character got a little sportier, one got a little more sophisticated, one got a little crazier, so I just took the archetypes, and then just draw them the way I though Ann [Martin] would like them. I only had to go through two rounds of character sketches before Ann approved. It’s really the way I draw my friends and myself. They’re based on people I know, both visually and personality-wise, and then adding what was in the books.
I assume that you’ve met her by now.
Yeah. We met right before the first book was published, and we just did a signing at the New York Comic Con together, and it was like, “hi, you’re my idol!” But she gets that a lot from girls my age.
What did you talk about with her? The books?
Yeah. And it’s weird, because I’m kind of in her head. I’ll be like, “you know that time that Kristy did that thing? Well, the way I felt about that it…” but really, she’s the authority on everything, and she’s there to tell me if I’ve done something wrong. Like if I’ve made a visual move that’s way out of character.
Yeah. Claudia, who’s the punky Japanese girl with long hair, when I first did character sketches, I gave her short hair, because all of the girls had long hair—what’s the big deal? Cut one’s hair and make her kind of punk, but she said, “no. You can’t cut Claudia’s hair.” So Claudia has long hair now.
It sounds like she still has a lot invested in these characters.
She says she doesn’t, but when you spend 10, 20 years… There are 130 books in the first series, and then there are 45 ‘Super Specials,’ and then there are a ton of “Mysteries,” and books about the little sisters—there are something like 300 books in all.
So she finally got sick of them?
I think they ran out of things to do with them, because they don’t age. They had done everything. They had been to Europe, they had been to Disney World, they had had fires, they had all run for class president, old members had left, and new members joined up. You can really only get so many episodes of a TV show out before everyone just has to move on.
How long do you see yourself working on these books?
Right now I have a contract for four. I’m not really sure beyond that…