Graphic Novelists Reflect on School Visits

Comics artist Jillian Tamaki, writer Mariko Tamaki, and author and illustrator George O'Connor share their thoughts on "taking about stories and stuff" and "how to host a successful author visit."
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki from This One Summer (First Second, 2014)

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki from
This One Summer (First Second, 2014)

Comics have come a long way from Little Lulu and Richie Rich, the Lone Ranger and the “All American Men of War” series. Young readers have carried comics forward, and it’s been these readers—and many librarians—who have fueled the growth of graphic novels over the last decade. Teachers, who once told kids to put those comic books away, now welcome graphic novels into their classrooms, valuing what they offer to students at all ages.

When you’re thinking about inviting an author to your library or school, consider graphic novel creators. Set them up with an easel and a marker, and they are sure to captivate kids with visual storytelling. Graphic novelists see stories in panels—discreet moments that roll into each other to reveal setting, plot, characters, and themes—a great model for student writers. And for young people who enjoy drawing and painting, graphic artists are perfect inspiration. Listening to them talk about their work and seeing how they create it make writing and illustrating less intimidating. Kids pick up on the excitement, the enjoyment, and the satisfaction that come with all kinds of storytelling. Graphic novels are also less grade-specific: you can mix kids of different ages into one audience for a program.

In this article, three graphic novelists show and tell about the best kind of author/illustrator visits they’ve experienced, pointing out some of the pitfalls to avoid. Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki are cousins and cocreators of the 2015 Caldecott Honor and Printz Honor book This One Summer and George O’Connor is a New York Times best-selling author of the “Olympians” series, among other titles. His original comic here is positive proof of his assertion: “Most graphic novelists are mad entertaining!”

Talking about Stories and Stuff

By Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Since 2008, when we published Skim, our first book together, Jillian and I have done a combination of more than 50 classroom visits (working together and solo). Actually, it’s probably more. Maybe 100.

We’ve figured out a few things. Like timing. It can work against you. Generally, kids and visiting writers/artists are sleepy at 8:30 a.m.; it’s also tricky being the last class of the day; or the class right before an exam—a time when even comics can seem less than important.

But there are a few things that do appear to help make classroom and library visits easier. Most of them involve what goes into preparing students ahead of time.

It is not essential that the kids in question have read a visiting writer’s books, although that is definitely a bonus. This connection could be something as simple as, “Hey, we’re talking about The Great Gatsby in class, our guest(s) also write about the divide between different social classes in America. Maybe we could talk to them about how their experience or understanding of class in society inspired their work?”

It could also be something like, “Hey, we’re reading Romeo and Juliet, these two women wrote a book where a kid talks about hating Romeo and Juliet. What’s up with that?”

Right? Intrigue!

Basically, anything is more helpful than the obvious, “Hey kids! You read books, these people make books. Let’s give them a hand.”

Drawing broader context for an artist/writer’s work, beyond their individual books, opens up the possibilities of what the author or artist in question can talk about with your students.

An author or artist might be visiting to promote a book, but ideally the value of what they bring to your classroom or library is beyond just extensive knowledge of that one book. Writers spend their days thinking about stories: what makes stories compelling, or sad, or moving. We think about stuff like class, race, and gender, all the time. We love to talk about that stuff. Someone who’s written a book will probably also have a lot to say about books in general, about what stories inspired them as kids, what stories inspire them today.

It’s likely that a writer/artist could be prompted to talk to your class about all kinds of things, from “how to make a comic” to “what’s up with the way people write about girls” to “what makes a mystery a good mystery,” and so on.

Some of the best classroom visits we’ve done have been at places where, for whatever reason, whatever we’ve had set up to do a lecture (e.g., a projector) hasn’t worked, which has led us to discover the best part of any library/classroom visit: just hanging out and talking about telling stories. It’s a whole lot more fun than a 50-minute lecture, especially at 8:30 a.m., which is way earlier than some of us are usually up.


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