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How Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels teach kids it's OK to have 'big feelings'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier has been described as like the Beatles for teenagers, and public appearances, their young fans have been known to stand on chairs jump up and down and wait in long lines for her autograph. She's so popular because young people, especially middle schoolers, find her books so relatable.

She writes about feelings and emotions they may not want to or even know how to talk about with adults, adolescent anxiety, loneliness, embarrassment. I recently sat down with Telgemeier to talk about her work and her legion of fans who know her by a single name, Reina. That's also the name of her books main character.

Raina Telgemeier: The young Raina in the books is me. There are three books with the character Raina in them, they're all memoirs, they're all short stories about things that have happened to me in my life. And so I'm not editing out, you know, my feelings. I'm not editing out stuff that happened to me. I'm just leaving it all in there for good or for bad. So if it happens to Raina it in the book, it has happened to me in real life.

John Yang: I wrote about how you started drawing. You're a small girl, and you it sounds almost like self-prescribed therapy, you would draw your nightmares.

Raina Telgemeier: I would. Yeah, my mother tells the story that she made this blanket for me when I was a child. And she took all of my drawings. And she did a transfer process where she would put the drawings onto a big quilt. And so the quilt maybe had 12 images on it. And then she had it made and she got it back in the mail. And she gave it to me as this beautiful gift.

And I saw the blanket and I started to cry. Because every drawing that she had chosen, that to her look like fantastical images were things that I was scared of that I had just been a child sort of trying to process on paper. So she had to put the blanket away for a while, but I haven't now. And now I'm able to look at it. And I don't remember those nightmares. I don't remember those monsters.

John Yang: But you still draw things that you're afraid of. For instance, in guts, Raina has talks about her sort of anxiety about throwing up about vomiting. And we have a drawing for that, is that still what you're doing?

Raina Telgemeier: I do still have a lot of these same fears from my childhood. I've obviously done a lot of work, and life experiences and adult has carried me this far. But I'm still able to remember pretty distinctly what it felt like to be a child who was afraid of things and to be able to step back inside of those fears. And in doing so, I mean, still to this day, I will feel my way through an experience in order to draw it. So I do have to go through those same emotions as the creator now.

John Yang: And then sisters, you talk about nothing. So I've been sort of sort of more mundane, just the day to day friction of siblings.

Raina Telgemeier: Yes.

John Yang: Talk about that, what do you have siblings?

Raina Telgemeier: I do. I'm the oldest of three. I've got a sister who is about five years younger than me and a brother who's eight years younger. So not that my parents expected me to be the perfect sibling and the perfect, you know, role model for my brother and sister. But I actually wanted to play with them. I was excited to have new, you know, family members and new and new friends to play with and that they were their own individual people too. And they didn't always care about the stuff I did.

So I was like, what do you mean, you don't want to play this board game with me? Come on. But my sister and I both love to draw. So that was one of the things we have had in common from an early age, it might have given us a little bit of a competitive edge when we were younger. But at the end of the day, I think it's something we both love doing together the language we share.

John Yang: We talked about the reaction of your fans, public appearances, does that surprise you?

Raina Telgemeier: I've been doing this long enough now that it has kind of come with me. And a lot of these kids have sort of grown up with my books. But then younger ones keep discovering them. So there's never a shortage. I always have nine year olds that I can talk to about how they're feeling these big feelings. And they can relate so much to Raina and some of the other characters that I've written about.

So it doesn't surprise me now but it surprises me that it hasn't changed. And if anything, it's gotten bigger in the last 10 years.

John Yang: Readers of yours do talk about they feel that oh my god, there's someone else like me. Is that what your main mission? Is that what you want young people to take from your books?

Raina Telgemeier: I don't think it's what I think about when I'm writing. I'm just trying to write for my own inner nine-year old and to kind of reassure her that she's going to get through a stressful experience or an anxiety attack or whatever I'm focused on in the moment. So I think in talking to my young self, I ended up talking to these kids as well.

John Yang: What do your fans tell you when you meet them?

Raina Telgemeier: They say things like thank you I'm so glad you wrote this book I'm so glad that I had this book to comfort me during a tough experience or a lot of kids told me that they didn't care about reading. They weren't interested in books. They had never read a book that they loved until they read, smile, or guts or drama. And then now they're a reader. Now they love to read. And if I can be even just a piece of that puzzle for one kid, then I have done my job.

John Yang: Let's talk about the format. It's a graphic novel. What drew you to that format?

Raina Telgemeier: I've loved comics since I was about nine. Before that, I loved pictures and animation and breeding. And so it was just kind of like all of my favorite things came together in one format that I could do on my own, I didn't have to hire somebody else to do art or a voice or produce a film, I could just sit down with my pencil and paper and make a story that had all of the things I loved in it.

And so I started making my own comics at about nine or 10. And then I just never stopped. I did it every day after school just as a way to kind of process my day and my friends and what I had been feeling. So I didn't realize, but I was practicing every day for the job I would eventually have. So it's not that I started at some point, it's just that it's who I've always been.

John Yang: Have you ever thought about writing for adults that who may have been like Raina?

Raina Telgemeier: Maybe I have thought about it, but it's never come to pass yet. That's not to say that I won't I usually take at least a decade of process, a major experience, people have asked, will you write about COVID and the experience that all of us just live through? And I think if I do it might be another 10 years from now, before I'm ready, and can see what I learned during that time.

John Yang: You mentioned COVID, you mentioned there's so much going on with young people now school shootings, worries about the climate change, things like that. Do you feel in a way that what you write about is particularly apt for our times?

Raina Telgemeier: I think it worked out that way. But I think there have always been kids who are sensitive and always, you know, their anxiety has probably been around as long as human beings have, it's nice to be able to put a spotlight on what's going on the inside because we're talking about these big events and these things that kids are going through but not necessarily how they're feeling about it.

So you know, showing them that it's okay to talk about it showing them it's okay to express your feelings on the outside. That's part of what I think I would like to give to the world if I if I may.

John Yang: Raina Telgemeier. Thank you very much.

Raina Telgemeier: Thank you John.

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